A family of four discovers an isla bonita without even having to leave the country.
By Sarah Wilson
After scrambling over slick river rocks and around deep pools, we looked up toward a massive mud embankment. The kids didn’t hesitate, towing themselves out of the sticky mud and then scampering up the steep incline through the vegetation, using ropes and exposed roots as a ladder. Dad and I took a moment to assess, then scrambled after them, pulling ourselves hand-over-hand up the hill. Finally, near the top, we found a shady stand of bamboo and gripped the old stalks to muscle ourselves all the way up.
After checking out our mud-soaked clothes, we determined that all our gear was intact, and ventured on along the trail to Las Tinajas Falls.
We descended a final river bank of huge tree roots, and suddenly the trail opened up to a series of perfectly clear, deep pools, or charcos. And it was a party in the jungle! Cliffs towered over the pools, casting them into gentle shade. People leapt from the rope swing and the 15-foot cliffs into chilly water. Others snacked on fresh fruits set out on banana leaves and relaxed on sun-warmed boulders.
We jumped in to explore the pool and rinse off the mud from our trek. Swimming up a miniature canyon to see the waterfall, we felt the current swirl around us. The kids hit the rope swing and jumped from the cliffs, landing in a seemingly bottomless pool. We pulled out the snorkel gear and explored underwater, catching a glimpse of fish, but not the bottom of the pool. After a good cooldown, we ate our picnic and chatted with the other folks enjoying the water, then gathered our gear to trek to the upper section of Las Tinajas.
The trail up was filled with boulders to scale, vines to swing on, and roots to hop. After 10 minutes of climbing, we clambered through a muddy cavern and popped out right next to a natural water slide. We took turns trying out the 15-foot slide on the shoulder of a volcanic cliff. The water-smoothed chute was a thrill, rocketing us out into the water below!
From the waterslide, we belly-slid downstream over smooth rocks, feeling just like otters. The current gently pushed us around a boulder, then we snaked our way through a narrow chamber and into a tiny hidden pool.
Las Tinajas Falls was like our trip to Puerto Rico: Adventure all the way!
We have been excited to travel for a few years after spending six months in South America with our kids. Covid put the brakes on the bigger trips, and Puerto Rico felt like a safer alternative. We wanted a travel adventure outside of the Continental U.S. that would take about two to three weeks during our kids’ winter break. We wanted to give ourselves enough time to feel like we were traveling, not just vacationing, and Puerto Rico proved to be the perfect destination.
- Travelers: 2 adults, 2 kids (ages 10 and 13)
- Date: 16 days in December 2021 and January 2022
- Itinerary: 6 nights in Isla Verde (San Juan), 3 nights in Ceiba (rainforest view), 5 nights in Isabela (northwest), 2 nights back in Ocean Park (San Juan)
- Budget: About $5,000, including food, fun, car rental, and lodging (not airfare)
The Good Stuff
We arrived on December 21 and spent six nights in the city. Our Airbnb, in a little gated neighborhood filled with lush vegetation and quick little iguanas, was located in the Isla Verde area. Just feet from a tiny beach, the apartment was a perfect place from which to explore, or to relax and forget you were in the city.
From Isla Verde, we opted to use public transportation. We were told the bus was cheap, just 75 cents, but also unpredictable. This information was accurate, and we often waited 30 or more minutes. One day the bus never came at all! If you want predictability or plan to go out on the town at night, we recommend taking an Uber.
Forts and plazas Old San Juan feature four centuries of architectural development, starting in 1519. We spent a couple afternoons walking the narrow streets, eating empanadillas, and looking for gifts. In one of the expansive plazas, we cooled down with ice cream and piraguas (shaved ice) from street vendors. After visiting both forts, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, and Castillo de San Cristóbal, we were struck by the amount of labor and centuries worth of time required to create such grandiose structures. In El Morro, you can see the oldest part of the fort, built in 1539. Visiting these sites gave us a chance to explore and discuss Taíno culture and the history of colonization with the kids. If you plan to visit the forts, buy a two-day entry pass at the gate for $10 per adult. Kids enter free!
Santurce street art Santurce is the arts district. Part of the revival of this once forgotten neighborhood occurs during the Santurce es Ley Festival in November or December each year. During the festival, the street art is painted over and both local and international artists create new works. Walk the streets at your leisure, but start along Calle Cerra between Avenida Manuel Fernández Juncos and Avenida Las Palmas.
Yum The city is full of all types of little restaurants and sometimes the best ones are the ones you find yourself. Here are just three recommendations:
Ceviche By Totti can be found within walking distance from Santurce. This food truck serves up top-notch ceviche, empanadillas, tostones (fried plantains), and more. Stop at the neighboring convenience store for beverages and snack in the parking lot, under a giant mango tree with the locals. Or take your food to go.
An upscale bakery and deli, Kasalta is known for its visit from Barack Obama as well as the food. The line system can be a bit confusing, but the food is well worth the wait. Stop by in the morning for a coffee and pastry on your way to the Ocean Park beach, or in the afternoon for a sandwich and a beer. It’s all good.
Located in the Isla Verde area, we came across Pa’Pical on our way to find groceries on our first evening. A little grungy at first glance, this place was definitely a family favorite. Good music, friendly staff, and outdoor seating made for a perfect first dinner on the island. You can get a bucket of cold Medalla beers or a bottle of local IPA to go with the best fish or beef and plantain tacos you’ll find anywhere.
After a week in the city, we rented a car through Turo, a car-sharing app recommended by our Airbnb host. We took our time heading east, stopping to check out different towns and beaches along the way. We bought groceries in Ceiba before heading up the mountain. Our mountain-view apartment was a quiet and relaxing change from San Juan. Each night, tiny coqui frogs sang us to sleep. Though we never glimpsed them, they continued to be a source of entertainment as we competed to do it.
Las Tinajas Ceiba is the base for experiencing Las Tinajas. When turning off of PR 971 onto the Las Tinajas and Charco Frío road, you will find two parking options. We stopped at the lower parking lot and paid our $5 entrance fee. We later realized that this lot is for Charco Frío, a sweet series of pools, perfect for families with young kids. From there, you can take the adventurous path to Las Tinajas, wading through the river and climbing up the mud embankment. In doing so, you bypass the upper $10 parking, which is run by the area landowner. We chatted with him on our way back down, after missing our turn. He was super-friendly and let us walk through his gate. If we were to go back to Las Tinajas, we would plan to park in his lot, which has a much-needed bathroom and outdoor shower to rinse off the mud.
El Yunque Travel east from the city along the coast and soon you will see the entrance to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service system. El Yunque was hit hard by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 and the forest is still recovering. Still, some trails are open and foliage is returning, so it’s a good place to learn about the hurricanes’s impact. We chose to hike to the Mt. Briton observation tower, a 45-minute uphill hike through lush vegetation, bromeliads, and bird song. We took our time and had fun identifying plant and insect species along the way. From the top of the tower, you get a 360-degree view of El Yunque, and all the way to the ocean in the north. While in the rainforest, we also checked out Baño Grande and Baño de Oro. These natural swimming pools were built in the 1930s as part of the New Deal, and remained in use until the 1960s. We finished off our day in El Yunque with a picnic in one of the shelters there, which was fully equipped with both a grill and a stone fireplace. There was no need for a fire on the warm day we visited, but it was a good place to look for lizards and the elusive coquis!
Pro tip: You need to buy a recreation pass ahead of time to enter the park. Buy well in advance, but if you miss your opportunity, a small number of passes are available just a day ahead. Both types can be found here.
Eats Looking for the catch-of-the-day? Visit El Malecón de Naguabo. There are numerous open-air restaurants along the promenade, all serving fresh-caught seafood. We arrived around 5:30 p.m., giving ourselves time to walk around before finding a place to eat. (We thought!) Before we realized it, most restaurants had closed and it was barely 6:00 p.m.! With few options, we chose to eat at Terra Vento. We ordered mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish of mashed and fried plantain filled with seafood. The food was out of this world, and we highly recommend a stop here. Make sure to stop by earlier in the afternoon if you can for more options!
Finding fresh fruits and vegetables proved more difficult than we expected in San Juan. But as we headed out of the city, roadside stands dotted the roadsides. We stopped at a large and popular stand, Frutera Flores in Luquillo. Alongside the avocados, mangoes, and pineapples, a variety of empanadillas and pasteles and juices and smoothies were available. A great stop to outfit a picnic on the way to the waterfall or rainforest!
After our time in the rainforest, we headed to the beaches of the northwest coast. Known for great surfing, there are also plenty of places for family swimming and snorkeling.
Crashboat Beach Probably our favorite swimming beach of the trip, Crashboat Beach offers calm, sparkling Caribbean waters and an iconic decommissioned Air Force pier. We spent two days here, jumping off the pier and snorkeling along the giant concrete pillars. We were surrounded by schools of striped sergeant majors, and snapped pictures of parrotfish, angelfish, and blue-striped grunts. After playing in the sand and the water, we sipped piña coladas in the shade of a palm tree. If you aren’t there early enough to snag a tree, beach shades are available for rent. You can also rent a hydrofoil board, take a ride on a banana boat, or take scuba lessons.
Tres Palmas and Playa Escalera When looking for other beaches to explore, we came across Playa Escalera and Reserva Marina Tres Palmas. This small, rocky beach is a marine reserve for a coral reef. Very popular for snorkeling, it is close and easy to access from Rincón. The current was a little stronger and the waves a little larger here, but once past the break, it was easy to snorkel the reef, even for young children. We spent time swimming among schools of blue tangs and discovered a sharptail eel among the coral. Just remember to wear reef-safe sunscreen!
Jet fuel Sandra Farms grows Fair Trade, ecologically friendly coffee in the mountains of west-central Puerto Rico. The single-lane drive up the winding mountain roads was … thrilling … with beautiful panoramic views. Once there, Carmelo guided us through the process, from growing Adjuntas coffee to harvesting methods, drying, processing, and finally roasting.
Along the way, we learned about the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on the farm and area. He also told stories, showed us a dozen or more fruit species, and let us try passionfruit juice right from the fruit! We finished the tour on a veranda overlooking the mountains and valley, with coffee and chocolate samples made from the farm’s own cocoa plants. This was one of our family’s favorite experiences during the trip, and we highly recommend calling or emailing Sandra for an appointment!
More grub Between Isabela and Rincón, sit many roadside stands selling everything from fruits to pizza, fresh fish to barbeque. These spots tended to open between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. and close up by mid-afternoon. We planned to get food on the way home a number of times, only to find the stands closed up by 4:00 p.m.! The lesson was, if you see something you want, stop!
Along Highway 115 between Rincón and Aguada, there are a variety of roadside asado and lechonera restaurants. Pull over, hop in line, and expect a delicious and authentic meal! We noticed Rancho Carbón Express starting up their grills on our way to the beach and decided to check it out on our way out of town. We hit the stand during a late lunch rush, and we weren’t disappointed. We got a whole chicken, huge servings of rice with pink beans, and roasted potatoes — all for $23.
Good to Know
Rent a car Public transportation is unreliable in the city, and nearly nonexistant outside it. Many roads are very narrow. When driving in the mountains, signs recommend honking before big curves.
Business hours Stores and other facilities often close earlier than we expected, including restaurants.
Street smarts Puerto Rico, even San Juan, is a safe place as long as you bring some common sense.
Covid cautions Covid rules are in constant flux as new variants emerge and case numbers rise or fall. Currently, you have to show proof of vaccination to enter the territory. This is done online.
As of December 27, 2021, all passengers arriving on both domestic and international flights are required to show a negative COVID-19 test. Unvaccinated travelers must quarantine for 7 days after arriving, regardless of whether they have a negative test result. All establishments serving food or drinks must require proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
Everyone wears masks indoors, in taxis, buses, shops, and restaurants. Most people wear masks on city streets.
Seasons Any time of year is great in Puerto Rico! The weather was beautiful every day. 75 degrees at night, 85 degrees (Farenheit) during the day. Depending on where you are, there may be a little morning rain or afternoon wind.
Sarah Wilson – January 2022
A northern Minnesota teacher with a passion for the outdoors, Sarah Wilson enjoys finding micro-adventures near home while living the busy life with two kids. You can find her hiking, biking, climbing trees, and making maple syrup with her family in the north woods, and occasionally sipping piña coladas on Latin American beaches.
© ROAM Family Travel 2022 – All rights reserved
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