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We just yesterday got back from a family vacation in Puerto Rico. My wife and I travelled with our two boys, age 7 and 9. This was the first time we had taken an extended vacation trip with the boys other than visits to relatives. It worked out pretty well! Here is what we liked about Puerto Rico as a family vacation location:
To start with, it's just like the United States. No passports, same money, most signs in English. (And yes, before you get too worried about the death of geographical knowledge in America today, I do realize that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, wholly owned by the US. But it's not a state. Where else in the US do they have their own entries in the Olympics and Miss Universe pageant?) This is a big advantage when travelling on relatively short notice to take advantage of low fares. We also had the benefit of direct flights to/from Washington. And, more importantly for the boys than for us, it's not too extreme of a culture shock. We ate at Subway several times, also McDonalds and Pizza Hut. It makes it a little easier for everybody when the kids are not learning to eat something they don't like at every meal.
Equally important, it's not just like the United States. Spanish is the principal language. Our boys are in a Spanish language immersion program, so it was a plus to go to a location where Spanish was spoken. The culture is different in a number of subtle ways, from the vegetation to the local menus to the way people interact. It's always good to see new things.
The climate was outstanding. Every day was in the 80's. It was quite humid, which was not particularly a problem except that you had to remember that nothing would dry on its own. We had one rainy day during the week. Most days there were some clouds to provide a break from too much sun.
As a vacation location, Puerto Rico is pretty fully equipped. We stayed at the Hyatt Cerromar hotel (see forthcoming review), located about half an hour from the airport. It was easy to get a rental car and to get around the island. There are no major impediments to vacation success: no washed-out roads, corrupt policemen, swarms of insects, people recounting presidential ballots, etc. Mastercard was accepted everyplace.
Puerto Rico is an island, and while large as Caribbean islands go, it doesn't have the range of opportunities that one can find in a large location such as Florida, Hawaii, Mexico or even Costa Rica. You have to get by with what's there in terms of diversions. We did enjoy several (see below), but on the whole I'd say the tourism industry is still catching up to modern standards in terms of attractions, tours, amenities, etc. One consolation is the prices, which are quite reasonable for all tourist entrance fees. No $40 Disney daily rates here.
Like many parts of the world, you do need to be on guard re: criminal activity. There are places you don't want to go to anytime, and more places that you don't want to go to at night. We had no major incidents, but even the relatively innocuous stoplight window-washers were a cause for elevated blood pressure.
The drivers in Puerto Rico are, shall we say, creative. They don't have the same ideas re: traffic laws as the US proper. It can be a little disconcerting when a truck is coming towards you in the middle of a two lane road, or when cars run stop signs to cut you off in intersections when you have no stop sign. Ay caramba! The numerous police cars who drive around with their lights on are no help. Caveat Driver.
Things we enjoyed
We like the natural adventures, in particular the Rio Camuy caves and the El Yunque rainforest. These are at more or less opposite ends of the island, but that just means they're about an hour away from the hotel where we were staying.
Rio Camuy is a nice, large cave system with a variety of interesting formations. Despite warnings from guidebooks, we were not pelted by bat droppings, since the bats were asleep. There is a guided tour that takes about an hour. It was quite educational to see how the caves and rivers interact with the limestone of the island, the rains and even hurricanes. The tour costs $10, $7 for kids. For very adventurous (including kids over $12), there is a new cave called the Cathedral cave which offers tours on weekends. Some ropework is involved. This costs $30.
The El Yunque rainforest is like the biggest botanical garden you've ever seen, with every plant from your local nursery's houseplant section represented in abundance. We took another guided walk here for a very reasonable cost of $5, $3 for kids. We say a number of birds, small animals and plants that were educational for the boys and even the parents. The main visitor center was closed for some unknown reason, so we did not spend as long in this area as we might have.
Other than these natural attractions, we also took in some man-made ones. The boys' favorite ones were the forts in old San Juan. These are large, well maintained castle-like structures full of cannons, tunnels, and even suits of armor and swords. For kids who spend hours playing Age of Empires, they enjoyed seeing what the fortifications looked like in real life.
Tips for travelers with kids
1. Pace yourself. We alternated sightseeing days with stay-around-the-hotel days. We found the sightseeing days tired us out.
2. Understand attention spans. Elementary school kids are not going to do well at an art museum or fancy restaurant.
3. Buy yourself some flexibility. Get a car, so you can set your own schedule. Keep food on hand so that you are not dealing with kids that are both tired and hungry. Make sure the kids bring along some books, toys and even homework.
4. Enjoy your time together. We had the option of putting the kids into a day-care activity program, but found the boys were quite reluctant to consider this. Rather than push it, we decided to do everything as a family. I think it was the right way to go for us.