If you’ve taken Puerto Rico off your vacation list because of concerns about the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, you can rest assured that San Juan is back in the tourism business. PR’s airports are at full capacity with more than 100 flights touching down daily, according to Conde Nast Traveler. We recently spent a few days in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan (it’s also the oldest city on US territory), and found a mix of everything you’d look for in a family vacay spot: beautiful beaches, one-of-a-kind cultural and historic attractions and plenty of outdoor adventures to be had.
What Makes San Juan Special
This capital city was once an impenetrable Caribbean port town surrounded by stunning old-world fortresses. Now, San Juan boasts beach, city and rainforest landscapes, side by side with what remains of the old seaside forts. Luxury shores, primo shopping, outdoor adventures and quaint cobblestone roads are all just minutes apart. There’s also a vibrant culinary and cocktail scene (it’s where the piña colada originated), plus plenty of outdoor adventures for thrill seekers and environmentalists alike. US citizens don’t even need a passport to fly there.
If you’re worried about Puerto Rico’s recovery after Hurricane Maria, the San Juan metropolitan area is 100 percent electricity powered now (it’s 99 percent island wide), and water and telecommunications services have also been completely restored, according to Caribe Hilton. Tourism also helps the economy bounce back after a tragedy like Hurricane Maria. Here’s what to consider doing while you’re there.
Go Snorkeling (Or Try SNUBA!)
The marine life of San Juan’s waters is one of the best reasons to visit. See starfish, octopi, reef fish and seahorses on a snorkel or SNUBA tour. Hit the private hotel beach on Caribe Island’s Escambron Beach with Aqua Adventures for a one-hour tour of the on-site rock reef. If you’ve always wanted to try SNUBA diving, you can opt for that instead at the same location. SNUBA is a cross between snorkeling and scuba diving, so instead of staying at the water’s surface and breathing through a standard snorkel tube, you venture underwater with a floating air supply. If you want to try full-on scuba diving (that’s with a real-deal air tank), reserve with Scuba Dogs Puerto Rico, which has a class for beginners that puts them face to face with tropical fish, turtles and famous coral ruins.
Soar Along the ToroVerde Zip Line
Kids as young as 7 can get a bird’s-eye view of the Orocovis mountain range on eight zip lines. ToroVerde is also home to The Monster, the biggest zip line in the Americas. It’ll take you on a 2 ½ kilometer cable at a peak speed of 152.8 km./hr. Also available to daredevils is the similar Toro Roller, a 60-foot-high zip roller featuring obstacles, climbing towers and ropes courses. If the kids have a need for speed, try The Beast, which will take you flying at speeds of up to 100 km./hr. (you’ll be on your stomach with your arms out like an eagle!). Campo Rico Ziplining Adventures offers zip lining to flyers as young as age 7 on the 2,300-acre Hacienda Campo Rico estate featuring cave rappelling and canopy bridges. Best part? The line will fly you straight to a hilltop mojito bar. If you’re all about sightseeing, book with Puerto Rico Cruise Excursions (ages 8 and up), which runs zip tours over the famous El Yunque Rainforest.
Venture into El Yunque
Zip lines aren’t the only way to explore the El Yunque National Forest, a 29,000-acre tropical rainforest with astounding biodiversity and natural sites. It gets about 120 inches of rainfall a year, and boasts swimming (hello, natural pools!), hiking trails, birdwatching and camping opportunities. Learn about the flora and fauna—especially PR’s iconic tiny frog, the coquí—while you set out on an adventure beneath the canopy with El Yunque Tours. Award-winning guides can take you on the three-hour Wild & Scenic Rainforest Nature Walk to River Adventure down Angelito Trail, all the way to Las Damas natural pool where you’ll get to cool off with a swim. If the kids can brave the dark, try the El Yunque Rainforest Night Walk. You’ll enter the forest an hour before sunset and head to the Mameyes River while bats, owls and other nocturnal creatures start coming out.
Explore Viejo San Juan
Old San Juan is chock-full of charming cobblestone roads, 500-year-old forts, brightly colored houses, local restaurants and bars and tons of historic sites. History and culture buffs should stop by La Fortaleza, the official home of the Puerto Rican governor; Castillo San Cristobal, a stunning former fort and San Juan National Historic Site on the ocean that’s open for public tours, and the breathtaking seaside Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, which is next door to El Morro fort and has tons of gorgeous graves and statues. Museums include the Casa Blanca Museum, which was the former home of conquistador Juan Ponce de Leon, Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan, a haven for local art, old photos and modern exhibitions, and Museo del Mar, where the kids can learn the history of marine navigation while seeing ship models, treasure, coins and more up close.
As for local eats and drinks, you can book the Old San Juan Food Tour for the fam with Flavors of San Juan. You’ll get to sample ten authentic bites and drinks from local watering holes and restos while taking in stories and history from a bilingual guide. You’ll see the second oldest church in the Americas, sample fresh seafood ceviche, sip on local coffee and even make your own mofongo, a Puerto Rican staple made from mashed plantains. If you’re looking for an authentic local joint to grab dinner at, visit El Jibarito. Start off with an old-school alcapurria (a beef turnover made from plantains and fried) or pastelillos de pollo (Puerto Rican-style empanadas), then follow up with real-deal bistec encebollado (cube steak and onions), fricase de cabrito con papas (goat stew with potatoes) or the gorgeous chillo frito entero (whole fried red snapper). Be sure to try the mayoketchup!
Go Behind the Scenes at Bacardi
Did you know Puerto Rico is home to the official Bacardi distillery? Coined the Cathedral of Rum, Casa Bacardi offers tours, classes and tastings at its location in Cataño, a town just a short drive from San Juan. If you have the kids in tow, opt for the Historical Tour. You’ll get to sip a welcome cocktail at the waterfront Bat Bar Pavilion, then learn all about how the rum is made and the company’s history. If the little ones are back at the hotel kids club, go for the Rum Tasting Tour, where a pro will tell you everything about Bacardi’s rum production from barrel to bottle (and you’ll get to taste six of them!). Want to get behind the bar yourself? Get tickets to the Mixology Class, where you’ll learn to make three classic rum cocktails (mojitos, anyone?), or Bottle Your Own Bacardi with the help of a specialist who will tell you all about the Special Reserve before you wax and seal your keepsake.
Take an Unforgettable Night Kayak Tour
If you’re looking for Instaworthy views that’ll take your breath away, you’ll want to book a Night Kayak. All ages (kids need someone age 16 or older in the two-person kayak with them) and skill levels can hit the serene waters of Condado Lagoon on the Night Kayak Tour, giving you a front row seat to the San Juan city skyline. You’ll get a basic lesson on how to kayak, and your guides will suit the kids up in neon face paint and glow sticks before you ride. If everyone in your crew is 14 or older and you have experience with SUP (that’s stand-up paddleboarding!), go for the Night SUP Tour of the lagoon instead. The kayaks and SUPs have clear bottoms and LED lights, so you’ll be able to see what’s lurking in the lagoon, like a starfish, lobster, fish or stingray.
Where to Stay
Caribe Hilton was once the “it” resort of the 20th century after it opened in 1949 as the first Hilton-operated hotel outside the continental US. A major part of its legacy is that it was the birthplace of the piña colada, invented by hotel bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero in 1954 and named PR’s national drink in 1978. The hotel sits on a 17 acres of tropical beachfront peninsula and is celebrating its 70th anniversary with a new look thanks to big renovations made post-Hurricane Maria.
Caribe Hilton has island-inspired decor and stunning views of both the ocean and historic forts, plus a secluded beach, six swimming pools (one with a swim-up bar), a spa and tennis and fitness centers. There’s also a tropical garden and a bird sanctuary your little naturalists will love (they can even feed the fish). There are also eight culinary spots on site serving up everything from American to Italian to Puerto Rican fusion.
Kids have access to a children’s fountain pool, the game room and an outdoor playground. Daily activities on site include fish feedings at the koi pond, morning yoga, sand castle building, bingo, Latin dance lessons, basic Spanish lessons and crafts. Older kids can manage many of these on their own with a resort representative, but parents should stay nearby for younger ones. There’s also a game room and kid’s lounge in the works, plus a babysitting service available if you want to squeeze in a date night (advanced reservations required, a concierge can take care of this). Guests 18 and younger also stay for free if they sleep in their parent’s room with existing bedding. It’s just minutes from both Luis Muñoz International Airport and Viejo San Juan.
What to Know Before You Go
Direct flights from NJ are typically just under four hours long. The weather averages in the 80s all year long, and the skies are almost always clear. You might have to duck and cover during a rainstorm, but they’re typically super brief. Since Puerto Rico is a Free Commonwealth of the United States, your US dollars are good everywhere. Spanish and English are both official languages of PR, but Spanish is more dominantly spoken. Nevertheless, you’re bound to find plenty of locals who speak English.