It is said that to call something a tradition it has to be repeated at least twice. By that definition, it seems that it is now our tradition to start the new year with a trip to Puerto Rico!
We first visited Puerto Rico last year, about 6-months after Hurricane Maria (you can read about it here). Many parts of the island were still in recovery and closed to tourists at that time, but walking around San Juan, we couldn’t believe how normal things looked. We loved every bit of it, especially the colorful and cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan. This time around however, it was time to venture out.
We flew on Frontier Airlines, which offers a non-stop, just over a 3-hour flight from RDU to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. We had never flown a budget airline before with kids, and were a little worried to be honest. But everything went so smoothly. Also, considering how far Puerto Rico is on the map, it is amazing how cheap it was to get there on Frontier! We checked-in a bag and had no luggage with us on the plane sans my purse and a small backpack. In hindsight, we didn’t really need to check-in a bag, and would have done just fine packing two or three backpacks and putting them under the front seat (but again, we were worried about them being too big not having been on Frontier before; now we know). We also checked in two booster seats (for free) for the older two.
Once in Puerto Rico, we rented a car through National’s Emerald Club along with a car-seat for Ajay. I am not sure if one can survive without a rental car if staying outside of the city center! Yes, if all you plan to do is get to your hotel/rental and walk to the beach. Definitely not, if you plan to explore the rainforest and nearby towns (or you would pay a lot in Uber/Taxi).
WHERE WE STAYED
Located in the northeast part of the island, the town of Luquillo is about 35 miles east of San Juan, and nicely nestled between the El Yunque National Forest and the beautiful Atlantic Ocean, making it a perfect choice for our short trip.
We booked our ocean front condo through Airbnb. It was much more affordable and spacious than the Condado Vanderbilt hotel where we stayed last time (more on this later). It had beach toys, chairs, towels, indoor toys for kids, a beautiful ocean facing balcony with a hammock, and a free and secure parking spot.
Our beach was beautiful and quiet. In the evenings and on weekends we saw local families who came out for a picnic or just to relax. It felt really homey and gave us a true sense of what it means to be a local. The beach right across from our condo was perfect for jumping waves, while a 3-minute walk away, was another calmer option where the water was shallow and warm, making it perfect for kids to hang out without their floaties!
WHAT WE DID
Our trip was a short one (3 nights, 3 days) and we basically divided it between spending time at the beach in Luquillo, and hiking in the rainforest. El Yunque National Forest was definitely my favorite part of this trip. There are still a couple of trails that are closed to tourist, but most of the forest is open and easily accessible via car; you can drive all the way up to the top (here is a quick map to give you an idea). The hikes along the way are very nicely marked. We really loved the Angelito Trail which was easy for the kids to hike. We didn’t’ see as many birds as we had hoped but there was no shortage of lizards and snails. We did get rained on a couple of times (it is a rainforest after all), but they were all quick showers and we dried off in no time! We didn’t notice any mosquitoes or other biting bugs either! The entrance to the national forest is free (there is a small fee if you visit the Visitor Center, however). There is also a block or two of quaint eateries and shops right before you enter the forest! It would be a great place to grab a bite or pack a picnic to enjoy while hiking.
In addition to spending time at the beach and in the rainforest, we also drove through towns like Carolina and Fajardo just to see how things looked. And we spend a few hours in Old San Juan and Santurce to revisit some of the places we really liked from our last trip, including this amazing beach-front playground called Parque Del Indio.
WHERE WE ATE
The first thing we did after landing was a grocery run to the local supermarket, of which there are many that are open 24-hours. We stocked up on breakfast cereal, milk, fruits, and snacks. Our other meals were had at one of the many stalls/kiosks right off the roads. In fact, the first thing one notices when driving towards Luquillo from the airport is that the entire highway is just basically lined with tiny shacks offering all kinds of yummy treats. Two of our favorites were Wepa
OVERALL THOUGHTS AND TIPS
- Puerto Rico outside of the bustling metropolis of San Juan is very different. It is more rural and quiet. It is not as shiny or clean-cut like the perfectly manicured homes and buildings in San Juan. You truly feel like you are on an island ruled by nature, rather than human architecture. Things are built to fit into the landscape rather than the other way around. There were still many homes showing the remnants of the hurricane damage.
- Be careful when driving on the many highways. There are several
tolls(our rental car came with AutoExpreso tag but the link tells you how to purchase it on your own too) and the area is heavily patrolled by cops. Don’t speed. Also, be prepared to stop-and-go a lot, thanks to the many traffic lights! The smallest distances can take a long time because of it. Many road signs in Spanish only so make sure you look up directions beforehand if this is an issue.
- Food is not fancy outside of San Juan. But it is certainly delicious and more authentic. Don’t be afraid of the kiosks and stalls.
- Pack a swimsuit and towel when planning your day at the rainforest. There are so many streams and rivers that are perfect for swimming even for kids. Especially at the Angelito Trail where we could have spent all day!
- On renting our Airbnb vs. a hotel in San Juan – For all the extra perks and the awesome location right across from the beach of our Airbnb, I thoroughly missed the hubbub of being in the city. I suppose it has more to do with my personality rather than quality. When traveling alone as a family, I now realize that it is more fun to stay in a bustling area rather than a small quiet town. We love to walk around and explore. Staying in Luquillo made that difficult. We couldn’t pop-in-and-out of Old San Juan either because of the long drive. I definitely missed the fanciness of our last hotel which was so beautiful. In hindsight, I would prefer to stay in San Juan the next time I visit.
- No matter where you are staying during your trip, make sure you don’t leave without seeing Old San Juan, Santurce, and the rainforest.
- I always walk away with a long list of things that we didn’t get to do. I wish we had made it to The Museum of Contemporary Art in Santurce which was closed during our last visit. We also didn’t get a chance to do the bio bay boat tours mainly because our kids are young. If we were truly adamant about it, there are a couple of companies who do the tour using electric boats rather than kayaks, but when I didn’t receive an email response from them on whether or not they would allow Ajay on board, we just chucked the idea for this time. We also didn’t take a catamaran to Culebra and have added it to our wish-list for next time.
I am very thankful that such a beautiful Caribbean destination exists just 3-hours away via plan from us, and even better that it doesn’t require a passport. If you haven’t been to Puerto Rico at all, definitely stay in San Juan and make that your HQ to explore rest of the island. And if you love doing lots of research before visiting a destination, DiscoverPuertoRico.com is one of the best websites that I found.
And lastly, some more pictures :)
I would love to hear about your travels to Puerto Rico, or any other destination that has been your family tradition! Thank you for reading along and sharing into our travel experiences! Until next time … Happy Travels! :)