KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
LANGUAGE: Spanish is the most prevalant language spoken. English is widely known as well.
CURRENCY: US Dollar (Puerto Rico is a territory of the US). Credit cards are widely accepted, and we did not feel like cash was needed except for tipping.
WHEN TO GO: Any time! Puerto Rico is warm year round. There is a chance for afternoon thunder storms especially during the summer months (June through August/September). Dont forget about hurricane season from June until October.
HURRICANE RECOVERY: In September 2017, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico causing devastating damage to the island. Nervous that the island would not be up and running for our visit in June 2019, I was hesitant to make any travel arrangements. But our fears were immediately put to rest after landing in San Juan. In Old Town San Juan, it was hard to tell a storm had even hit the island. Several trails are still closed at El Yunque Rainforest but majority of the park is up and running. The Wynhdam Rio Mar reopened in January 2019 once storm renovations were completed. In our opinion, Puerto Rico is ready for visitors!
RESTAURANTS: Old Town San Juan restaurants for lunch: La Madre, Chocobar Cortes, La Verguenza (excellent views of the ocean and La Perala)
Old Town San Juan restaurants for dinner: Greengos Caribbean Cantina, Barrachina (where the Pina Colada was first created), Tetuan Old San Juan.
ACCOMODATIONS: Hotel Casa Blanca in Old Town San Juan, Villa Stella airbnb within the Wyndham Rio Mar property, Wyndham Grand Rio Mar
WHAT WE DID
Trying to keep our expectations low and our patience high, we set off to Puerto Rico with our toddler in tow. Friends of ours and their toddlers also joined us for an awesome adventure (we’re going on a mission, going on a mission.) We spent two nights in Old San Juan at Hotel Casa Blanca and four nights at Villa Stella on the Wyndham Rio Mar property.
Old San Juan exceeded expectations! Every street was more beautiful and colorful than the last. Blue cobblestone streets and brightly colored buildings make exploring Old San Juan an experience all of its own. But the paint colors and colonial buildings have a history deeper than just being easy on the eyes. It was all part of a revitalization movement to save the historical architecture from demolition and modernization.
Richardo Algeria, a renowned anthropologist and archeologist, persuaded the government to preserve the historical architecture through remodeling and revitalization. Now these beautiful streets are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other cities including Havana, Cuba, Cartagena, Colombia and Lima, Peru have followed San Juan’s revitalizing lead.
We had two full days in Old San Juan which we thought was the perfect amount of time to explore the city. A few of our favorite spots included Umbrella Street, Senor Paleta, Barrachina, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal.
San Juan is hot especially in the middle of the day so our first stop was to get a frozen treat for the toddler at Senor Paleta. A popular spot (aka there could be long lines), Senor Palata has artisanal popsicles ranging from fresh fruit to coconut or cheesecake and pumpkin spice. Senor Paleta was followed by a stop at Barrachina, the birthplace of the Pina Colada, for a frozen treat for the adults. We were then ready to explore the colorful streets. First stop, Umbrella Street located at the end of Calle de la Fortaleza, and just a block up from Barrachina. We ended the day with take out from Greengos Caribbean Cantina located right next door to our hotel. Their wall murals are amazing and worth a stop in just to check them out!
On our second full day, we decided to explore the forts located on either end of Old San Juan. Castillo de San Cristobal was located the closest to our hotel so we headed there first. I would highly recommend visiting these side streets (Calle de la Luna and Calle del Sol headed towards Calle Norzagaray intersection) if you are looking for less crowded places to snap a few photos of the beautiful buildings. Traffic was limited for both cars and pedestrians.
We took of few photos of Castillo de San Cristobal but did not stay long as we did not want to pay the entrance fee with a temperamental toddler. We walked down beautiful Calle Norzagaray along the ocean towards Castillo San Felipe del Morro San Juan.
We were pleased to find a large grassy field in front of the fort where our toddler (who was quickly turning sour) could run around and burn some energy. Purchasing a kite from a local stand, we spent over an hour flying it (and chasing the string when it was dropped) around the open field. Until at last, the kite was lost to the winds and we went off in search of lunch.
Located between the two forts on either end of San Juan overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, we pasted La Vergenza earlier in the day and returned for lunch. The upstairs patio boosted beautiful views of the water as well as La Perla community. The historical shanty town was once known as a dangerous neighborhood for drugs and crime but has recently become a popular tourist spot due in part to being the backdrop for the music video of the popular hit song Despacito.
Other wonderful restaurant options for lunch: La Madre and Chocobar Cortes. Chocobar is a bean-to-bar chocolate manufactoring company that finds creative and delicious ways to add chocolate to their menu.
After snapping a few more photos in this picturesque town, we traveled down the coast to check into Villa Stella on the property of the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar. Knowing there were several places we wanted to visit near the Wynhdam, we opted to rent a car from Priceless Car Rental. DO NOT RENT A CAR FROM PRICELESS CAR RENTAL! What should have been a quick and easy process, dragged on for almost 2 hours. Although advertised as being located at the airport, it is not actually on the airport grounds but across the street requiring a shuttle. We spent half an hour circling the airport before we could get someone on the phone to give us directions. Then there was the issue of the car seat in the sense the rental company didn’t have one for us! Quick to blame Expedia for the mix up, we waited for an hour while the staff tried to locate a car seat. Finally, we were offered a booster seat, not what we requested but better than nothing. If you do decide to rent a car, inspect your bill. There were several fees that were not disclosed at the time of the reservation: navigation fee, toll fee, car seat rental fee and the list goes on.
Finally we were on the way to our airbnb, Villa Stella, which is a great option for family or group travel. The two story condo boosts 4 bedrooms (one is simply a twin bed) and 3 bathrooms giving each family their our space during our stay. Two bedrooms had futons which made perfect beds for the toddlers. The upstairs is an open concept with a large living room, kitchen and balcony overlooking the golf course and rainforest. Carlos, the owner, was very helpful and responsive to any questions or requests we had.
The Wyndham is a large and hilly property. We highly recommend renting a golf cart for your stay in the villas. Fortunately, Villa Stella offers a 6 seater golf cart rental during your stay.
We spent our first full day relaxing by the pools at the Wyndham. The toddlers loved the waterslide and the parents enjoyed the swimup bar at Margaritaville.
On our second full day, we headed to Luquillo Beach for a day in the sand. (The Wyndham property is located on the ocean but the water was rough and we were not comfortable with the kids swimming there.) Located only 10 minutes away, Luquillo is an amazing and clean public beach. We rented an umbrella from a local vendor and jumped right in the water which was clear, calm and shallow, perfect for the girls. We even found several sand dollars while lounging in the water!
When hunger struck, we were steps away from the infamous food kiosks at Luquillo. With over 60 stalls, it’s a smorgasbord of food options each with their own theme. We opted for A Fuego stall #50 with a fire house theme. We may have been persuaded by the large fire truck and built in play area for the girls. The adults were able to eat an entire meal in peace! Be sure to try the local dish mofongo, mashed plantains topped with conch, shrimp or fish.
On our last full day, we set off on a hiking and waterfall adventure to El Yunque rainforest (an activity I was excited about but also nervous given we had 3 toddlers in tow.) After doing some research on trail options, our group decided on the Juan Diego trail, a short and easy trail with three waterfall options.
Right off the beginning of the trail head, there is a path to the first, although small, waterfall with a pool for the girls to swim. We stopped here to test the waters and see if the girls would even get in the water. And we were pleasantly surprised that they loved it! Giggling, climbing in and out, and swimming right up to the falls, my fears around the rainforest adventure slowly started to disappear. Now onto the bigger falls!
We followed the stone stairway to the second waterfall and continued on the unmarked, rather steep path to the third and largest waterfall. Stepping over roots and shimmying around other visitors, we made our way to the top for a beautiful view of the 40-foot waterfall. You can swim (walk) right up under the waterfall for great pictures! The rocks on the bottom of the pools are rough on the feet. Wear water shoes for comfort. The way down the trail was trickier than the way up. There were times when the adults formed a line to pass the girls down the trail. But we all made it down safely with no toddler meltdowns!
*El Yunque Rainforest suffered extensive damge during Hurricane Maria. There are still several trails that have not reopened. As you are coming into the park, park rangers were handing out updated trail maps showing the closures.
We wrapped up our last evening by the pool soaking in the last few hours of vacation. On a return trip, we would love to visit the Bioluminescent Bay and Flamenco Beach. The ferry and travel involved to get to Culebra Island and Flamenco Beach, as well as the night time kayaking tours to visit the Bioluminescent Bay, were not the most toddler friendly activities. Just gives us an excuse to return to Puerto Rico!