Traveling to foreign countries is much tougher with kids in tow. But it's possible to get that exotic travel experience without taking the typical beach or all-inclusive resort trip. In Puerto Rico, it feels like you've left the States: Spanish is the primary language, gas is sold in liters, and architecture resembles Mexico much more than Maryland. The island, though, has been a U.S. territory since 1898, and along with highway postings in Spanish, you'll see familiar road construction signs for the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and all the chain stores you get at home. Plus, there's no need for a passport or currency exchange.
Here are the top sights you won't want to miss when traveling with the family to Puerto Rico.
El Morro. Even kids who aren't history buffs will have fun at the Spanish fort, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, in Old San Juan. Built over 250 years, until 1787, the six-level fortification has cannons, a dry moat, incredible water views, and lots to climb on. Our kids ducked through child-size tunnels, hoisted themselves onto high rock walls, ran up and down steep ramps, and explored a narrow three-story staircase that once provided quick passage for soldiers. Don't forget a family picture in one of the tiny guard towers overlooking the water. From here you might also spot colorful flying parrots, and iguanas on the walls and lawn below. Join the locals and get a kite to fly on the fort's wide lawn. The gift shop sells inexpensive kites with a Spanish Empire design, a jagged red X. You can also buy kites from a street vendor across the street, at the Plaza de San Jose, on Calle de Cristo.
Bioluminescent bays. Puerto Rico is blessed to have three of the world's dozen or so bioluminescent bays. These waters hold dinoflagellates, one-celled organisms with several taillike flagella (so small there are almost 800,000 per gallon of water) that glow when disturbed. When visiting the bay at night, you'll have the chance to move a paddle (or your arm) through the water, watching the area light up like an x-ray. We took the kids on a nighttime kayak tour, which included 45 minutes of easy paddling each way to get to the bay. The kids loved dipping their hands in and learning that these organisms live only five days, asexually dividing by mitosis after three. Many tour companies offer trips — go green and choose one that doesn't use a gas-powered boat. The three sites in Puerto Rico are Laguna Grande in Fajardo (the northeast corner), La Parguera (in the southwest), and Puerto Mosquito on nearby Vieques island. Puerto Mosquito and Laguna Grande have the strongest concentrations, so they're the brightest.
Nature reserves. Laguna Grande is part of a nature reserve, Las Cabezas de San Juan. Call ahead to book a popular, two-hour English group tour of the Fajardo reserve. The tour includes a short tram ride, and you'll see seven ecological systems, including coral reefs, dry forests, mangroves, beaches, and lagoons. The park also has the island's oldest lighthouse, a restored 19th-century building. They also host several night tours a week, a good option for families with kids too young to kayak, because they just walk to the lagoon.
Roadside food.One of the highlights of our visit was tasting local foods. The coco frio (coconut water) stand was a favorite. For $2 a coconut, we got a show, with the fruit-stand owner slamming his machete into the unripe green coconut to carve a flat base, then chopping off the top of the coconut to reveal the trap door to the sweet water. Stick a straw in, then sip. After we finished, he chopped the coconut in half, showing us how we could peel out the smooth, creamy layer of flesh inside. For $3 more, we got the sweetest-tasting pineapple ever, and a lesson in artistic fruit carving.
A trip to the kiosks (or kioskos) was next, at Luquillo Beach. While there were more than 50 kiosks to choose from, they all seemed to serve the same thing: fried plantains, fried plantains with ground beef, fried plantain and beef pastry, fried cornmeal with cheese inside, fried mashed potato balls stuffed with meat, and other similar dishes. A few had ceviche as well as rice and beans, and the cold beers were a welcome addition.
Zip-lining.These adventure lines are popping up all over Puerto Rico, strapping visitors into harnesses for a thrilling ride through the lush forest canopy. Tour companies have different rules on the minimum height, weight, or age of the participant (age 5 is the youngest allowed).
Rio Camuy Cave Park.This Puerto Rico cave system is the world's third largest. During the tour, you'll see a huge, high-ceilinged main cavern, a bat cave, huge sinkholes, a river running between caves, some stalactites and stalagmites, and lots of vegetation inside. The tour is an easy 30 to 45 minutes inside, and you can spend additional time outdoors. If your heart is set on going, get there early, as the park limits the number of daily visitors.
After you visit the cave, make sure to stop at Heladeria de Lares in the Lares town square about 20 minutes away. The store created more than 1,000 flavors of ice creams including codfish, plantain, almond cake, sweet rice, rice and beans, shrimp, beer, guava, corn, avocado, and traditional flavors as well.
Arecibo Observatory.Kids love seeing the largest radio telescope in the world, a dish spanning 20 acres and sitting in a karst sinkhole 1,300 feet across. You might have seen it in the James Bond movie GoldenEye. It's a beautiful, if windy, drive to the observatory, and there are some steep steps to climb from the parking area. Be mindful of that if traveling with very young children. The observatory is something you can do in the same day as Rio Camuy, if you get to the caves early enough.
El Yunque National Forest.This rain forest is the only one in the U.S. Forest Service. It's popular with locals and visitors alike, so expect crowds on the roads and trails, and in the small parking lots. We hiked the popular La Mina waterfall trail, about 30 minutes each way. The base has a cold natural swimming pool under the pounding waterfall. Wear a swimsuit under your clothes if you plan to go in — there's no good place to change. The trail has many scenic covered huts with picnic tables, so pack a lunch or snacks and enjoy some down time with a view on the way there or back.
Islands. If you have the time and energy, take a boat trip to nearby Culebra or Vieques Islands. Ferries, which leave several times daily from Fajardo, are ridiculously cheap at $4 round-trip per adult, $2 per child. Getting tickets to Culebra, with its gorgeous Flamenco Beach, can be trying. The ferry system operates on Island Time, which means you can sometimes get tickets a day in advance, but sometimes they sell out or don't sell them a day ahead. Another option is showing up at 6 a.m. for same-day tickets, or just go to Vieques instead (it also has great beaches). The ferry ride is 60 to 75 minutes, and taxi vans await at the port to whisk you off to the beach of your choice, with fine, white sand and turquoise waters.
Rum tastings.OK, this one is really for the adults. But as we told the kids, we do things for you, and you do things for us. There are two rum-tasting options in San Juan. The best known is the Bacardi Rum Visitor Center tour. This is not a factory tour, but includes a tram tour, videos, interactive exhibits, drink-making demonstrations, and most important, two free tastings (and soda/juice for the kids). Go with low expectations (or on a rainy day) for the best experience. Food is available for purchase as well.
The other rum tasting option is the Don Q tasting room across from Pier 1 in Old San Juan. They officially offer one sample per person, but they sometimes stretch it to two. Don't miss the coco-flavored rum on the rocks. Both rum shops will pack up the bottles for your suitcase in boxes or bubble wrap. You'll pay a few dollars more for the rum at the tasting rooms than at the Puerto Rican grocery store or airport. If you want to carry it on board (instead of checking it), buy at the airport's duty-free shops, though they may not carry all the varieties. It pays to check the airport selection when you first arrive.