Puerto Rico, The Old World In The New - My Family Travels

Here's a Caribbean getaway that you won't need a passport for. Explore history while discovering great hotels and attractions in friendly and intriguing Puerto Rico.

“Rich Port” is an appropriate translation of the name of a lush, exotic, but cosmopolitan island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.  Our all too brief visit to Puerto Rico opened our eyes to its beautiful beaches as well as its history, culture and unique geological treasures.

Discovered in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, the island was originally inhabited by the Taíno Indians and named San Juan Bautista, in honor of St. John the Baptist.  Under the governance of Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico became Spain’s most strategic military outpost in the region.  In order to fortify it from attacks by the English and Dutch, several massive forts, which are still standing today, were built in the early 1500s to protect the port of San Juan. 

As part of the Spanish Empire, Puerto Rico flourished throughout the 1800s, but after the Spanish-American War it became a territory of the United States. In 1917, residents were granted U.S. citizenship by the United States Congress.

Yes, there are over 250 beautiful, white sand beaches, and many opportunities to sail, surf, scuba dive and snorkel, but once you begin to crisp in the sun, or if you’re looking for a taste of Europe in the New World, a fascinating history lesson, unique natural sights and beautiful art, Puerto Rico is a gem waiting to be explored.

The Old World in the New

Stroll down cobblestone streets among small yellow, pink and blue buildings dating from the 18th century, and you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to Spain.  El Viejo San Juan, a seven-square-block area overlooking San Juan Bay is the original colonial city which is walled off by La Muralla, constructed in the 17th century of 20 foot thick sandstone walls. 

Other sites of interest in this historic area include La Fortaleza, the governor’s mansion with extensive gardens. Built in 1533, it has been the continuing seat of government for over three centuries. The Plaza del Quinto Centenario, at the highest point in the city, overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Teatro Tapía, built about 1824, is one of the oldest theatres in the New World and presents music, dance and dramatic performances to residents and visitors.

No visit to El Viejo San Juan is complete without a tour of Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, a fortress built on a promontory 140 feet above the sea.  This United Nations’ World Heritage Site was constructed between 1540 and 1787 to protect the city from sea-borne invaders from England and Holland.  Ranger-guided, hour-long tours include a maze of tunnels and dungeons and a museum on the history and life within the fortress.

Fuerte San Cristóbal, partner to El Morro, protected the city from attacks on land.  Cannons fired from the top of San Cristóbal in 1898 were the first of the Spanish-American War.  Guided or self-guided tours of barracks and dungeons are available, and with unobstructed views of the open sea from the cannon emplacements, you can easily imagine what it was like to be a guardsman.

On the quaint streets of Old San Juan you will also find various monuments, shaded greenspace, and interesting shops.  Outdoor cafes and air-conditioned restaurants serve international fare as well as Puerto Rican specialties:  mofongo (green plaintains stuffed with meat or shrimp), arroz con pollo, and sweet fruit drinks.

Exploring Museums & Kids Fare

Puerto Rico is home to several extensive collections of paintings dating from the Spanish Colonial era to contemporary works on canvas, as well as sculpture, folk art and photography collections.  Plan to visit the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (787/977-6277), which also offers an interactive family gallery, a theatre, garden and restaurant.  Other museums of interest include the Museo de Arte e Historia de San Juan (787/724-1875) housed in a Spanish colonial building and presenting history, local art, and performances in its courtyard and the Museo de las Americas (787/724-5052) featuring the work of artists from North, South and Central America.

If you travel southwest to the city of Ponce, the Museo de Arte de Ponce (787/848-0505) housed in a building designed by Edward Durell Stone (who is also responsible for the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC), features Old Masters as well as work by contemporary Puerto Rican artists.

Especially for children, the Museo del Niño (787/722-3791), or Children’s Museum, in Old San Juan is fully interactive, with art activities, puppet shows and special events and the Luis A. Ferré Science Park in Bayamón (787/740-6868), 20 minutes south of San Juan, houses seven separate museums and a zoo. 

Exploring Nature

Located about 1½ hours west of San Juan is the third largest underground cave river system in the world, at the Camuy Underground Cave Park (787/898-3100).  You will board a tram which takes you down a spiral road deep into an ancient vegetation-filled sinkhole.  A tour guide will lead you onto a footpath into the cave system where you will see amazing stalactites, stalagmites and the Camuy River making its way through the complex of tunnels, as it has done for 45 million years.  The facility also provides a cafeteria, picnic area, camping area and gift shop.  A fun attraction for children over 14-years and adults in good physical condition is The Wild Adventure, a tour where you learn to rappel into the Cathedral Cave and see cave art created by the Taíno Indians.  Prior reservations are required for this activity.

Heading east from San Juan, it will take you about 45 minutes to reach El Yunque Rain Forest, a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.  This 28,000-acre complex is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System.  Over 240 species of trees and plants, including 23 native species unique to Puerto Rico grow and flourish here.  Be sure to bring your raincoat to protect you from the 100 billion gallons of annual rainfall! 

In addition to the variety of trees and plants, including dwarf vegetation and miniature flowers, the forest is inhabited by rare wildlife and birds including the Puerto Rican Parrot.  Be sure to listen carefully for the song of the coquí, a tiny tree frog native to the island, so loyal that legend has it that it will not sing anywhere else.

Dozens of hiking trails range from gentle enough for families with young children to challenging enough for experienced hikers.    

Details, Details

We were delighted to learn that the Embassy Suites all-suite hotel concept, which our family of three has enjoyed in many U.S. locations, has been introduced to the island with two excellent family properties.  Choose the Embassy Suites Hotel Dorado del Mar Beach and Golf Resort’s beachfront location, or the Embassy Suites San Juan Hotel and Casino, less than two blocks from Isla Verde Beach, near Old San Juan, and five minutes from the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (800/EMBASSY).

Why stay together in one room and feel cramped?  Both hotels feature spacious, very comfortable two-room suites consisting of a separate bedroom with a king-sized or two double beds, a living room with a sofabed, dining table, mini-fridge, microwave and coffeemaker.  And, a television in each room makes for peaceful down-times.

Pick either location to enjoy a lagoon-style pool, fitness center and evening entertainment.  A complimentary, cooked-to-order breakfast is served each morning at both locations, as is a daily evening Manager’s Reception with tasty drinks.

Additionally, for those with adult children (or a babysitter) who want to try their luck, the San Juan property features an on-site casino, open from noon to 4am. 

And for those with younger children who want to play golf, at Dorado del Mar, there is a weekend Kids Club from 9am to 9pm for children 3 to 13-years-old and a nearby 18-hole championship golf course. 

For us, discovering Puerto Rico was an unexpected treat.  We hope you treat yourself.

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