Take the kids for a hike and dip in the waterfalls at El Yunque. (Photo: Alamy)
For many parents, Puerto Rico is the ideal destination for a family vacation: It’s easy to visit because it doesn’t require the prep work of passports or currency exchange that other international getaways require, and English is spoken widely. At the same time, Puerto Rican culture is distinct enough from U.S. mainland culture to feel exciting, “exotic” and educational.
But beyond these obvious reasons to consider the Isla del Encanto (Enchanted Island) for a vacation, there’s this one, which may be just as compelling: Measuring just 100-by-35 miles, Puerto Rico is easily navigable, and its diverse geography and landscapes — like the only tropical rainforest in North America, the dry forest of Guánica, karst limestone landscapes, the third-largest underground cave system in the world, and of course, the beaches — provide enough experiences for exploration that a family could busy itself for weeks.
Too bad vacation usually doesn’t last that long!
Here’s how to make the most of your family vacation by visiting the top-10 kid-friendly attractions around the island.
1. El Yunque
Probably Puerto Rico’s best-known attraction, El Yunque is North America’s only tropical rain forest. This fact alone makes it worth a visit, but with waterfalls in which you can take a refreshing dip and historical programs that make this point of interest as educational as it is exciting (namely the Depression-era work of the Civilian Conservation Corps), El Yunque absolutely tops the family travel checklist.
2. Phosphorescent Bay Excursion in Fajardo
More accessible than the bioluminescent bays of Vieques and La Parguera, an evening excursion to the bio bay of Fajardo is an unforgettable experience. Families will kayak with a guide through a mangrove channel that yields to a bay that appears to be streaked with stars or glitter, thanks to phytoplankton that have phosphorescent properties. Try to visit during the new moon, when no light —artificial or natural — interferes with your ability to see the glittery phenomenon.
3. Earth’s Longest Zip Line: “The Monster”
If your family is full of adventurous types, stop by what’s billed as Earth’s longest zip line, a 28-football-field-long course that has visitors soaring through the tree line of the island’s Toro Negro forest. With the longest line nearly a half-mile in length, adrenaline seekers aren’t likely to be disappointed.
4. Dry Forest
Puerto Rico’s rainforest gets the most play (and visits), but due south you’ll find a much less-known (and less-visited) attraction: the dry forest of Guánica. This forest receives only 30 inches of rain per year on average (compared to 200+ inches in El Yunque), so it’s easy to understand how cactuses and other dry-weather plants flourish here. Trails tend to be well-maintained, but don’t forget to bring plenty of water: It gets hot here.
Puerto Rico is blessed with an abundance of beaches, from the wave-washed sands of the Atlantic on the north side of the island to the smooth-as-glass seas of the Caribbean on the south side. Whether you’re looking for swells to surf (head to Rincón!) or calm seas where your kids can bob or snorkel (San Juan’s own El Escambrón is one super option), Puerto Rico really does have water for every type of traveler.
Puerto Rico’s geographic diversity is incredible, especially when you consider that it’s such a small island. Just west of the capital you’ll happen upon some interesting karst limestone formations, and in “them thar hills,” you’ll find plenty to capture your family’s interest for a half day or longer, including the world’s third-largest underground cave system, the Cavernas del Río Camuy.
7. Street Art
Have teens who are too cool for, well, everything? Surprise them with your knowledge of San Juan street art by taking them to the neighborhood of Santurce. Host of the annual street art festival, Santurce Es Ley, this edgy barrio is a year-round home to all sorts of stirring street art. Artists from all over the island — and the world — converge upon Santurce to paint epic murals, which you can see when you cruise through in your rental car or on foot.
8. The Most Famous Ice Cream Shop on the Island
Puerto Rico has a seemingly endless array of sweet treats, from tropical-flavored ices called piraguas to homemade eggnog called coquito, enjoyed during December and January holidays. But no matter the time of year, Puerto Ricans make a beeline for Ponce’s main square to line up at King’s Cream for inexpensive — and delicious — ice cream. From peanut and papaya to pineapple and passion fruit, the flavors here reflect the true taste of this Caribbean island. Once you’ve ordered your cup or cone, head to the plaza just across the street and enjoy the ambience of this traditional city square.
9. Dance Lessons in Ponce
Music and dance are inescapable parts of Puerto Rican culture, and many visitors find themselves wanting to pick up some steps. People of all ages can visit Julie Mayoral’s studio in Ponce, the “Pearl of the South” and Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, for introductory lessons in salsa and other Puerto Rican dance moves.
10. Hacienda Buena Vista
The former coffee plantation, a part of the Puerto Rican Conservation Trust, offers tours of the property as well as demonstrations of activities such as chocolate-making and citizen science workshops. You’ll want to make reservations in advance, as the Conservation Trust sites do not accommodate same-day visit requests.