Family Adventures in Puerto Rico Without a Passport

I never expected to be writing about adventures in Puerto Rico with my teen.

Once upon a time, the biggest hardship that I faced traveling with my kids was figuring out how to fit the stuffed animals and formula into our luggage allowance. I was rudely awakened when they hit their teen years, and the pre-trip questions started. Would there be Internet at our destination? How long would it take to get there?  Could they bring a friend? And the dreaded ‘do I have to go with you’? 

Rapelling down through a waterfall in the jungles of Puerto Rico.
Rapelling down through a waterfall in the jungles of Puerto Rico.

So, when my college freshman son Alec expressed interest in a mother/son holiday, I was shocked, honored and frightened, all at once. Could one active, thrill-seeking teenaged boy and his culture-loving, food-crazed mother find enough common ground to enjoy a vacation together without driving each other crazy?  If you choose your destination with care the answer is overwhelmingly – Yes.

Location is everything when traveling with Teens

We hit the jackpot when we chose Puerto Rico. This island nation provided us with just the right balance of activities and adventures for Alec, and cultural and culinary explorations for me.  It feels as exotic as a trip to another country, yet as a U.S. territory, we didn’t even need passports to enter.  Nearly everyone speaks English, but we were glad to have the opportunity to practice our rusty Spanish.

Historic Old San Juan is our first Adventure in Puerto Rico!

Quiet part of Old Town in San Juan, Puerto Rico
Our hotel was in a quiet part of Old San Juan, in a neighborhood that was fun to walk around.

Old San Juan was our first stop.  The entire seven square blocks have been declared a National Historic site. Founded in 1521, its mix of architectural styles trends heavily to Colonial and Spanish revivals. As you walk the streets, even the most distracted kid will notice the unusual blue-hued cobblestone, a distinctive mix of iron and stone.

But don’t get the idea that this city is just a history lesson. Its youthful energy is immediately apparent. A thriving food, art and nightlife scene dominate this town. We visited the fort, San Felipe del Morro, which has stood guard over the entrance to San Juan Bay for over 400 years.  It was fun to explore its labyrinth of tunnels and passageways before heading outdoors to join hundreds of local families on El Morro’s esplanade for some world-class kite flying. The views of the bay were stunning, the breezes cooling.  We strolled the Paseo de la Princesa along with throngs of local families.  Alec was thrilled that he could bring his laptop and join local teens in checking their Facebook pages, as it is one of the many Wi-Fi hotspots in town.

San Juan Boutique Hotel is a Funky Artist’s Retreat

Rooftop lounge of the Hotel Casablanca in Old San Juan
Rooftop lounge of the Hotel Casablanca in Old San Juan

We had booked a room at a boutique hotel, Da House, in Old San Juan. It was entirely run by artists, from the front desk receptionist to the cleaning people. Initially, Alec was stunned to find out that none of the 27 rooms have television, but this encouraged him to hang out in the common spaces, chatting with fellow travelers. Each morning, we had breakfast down the street at its sister property, the quirky Casablanca. Sadly, Da House did not survive the pandemic but Hotel Casablanca is still super popular. It boasts a Moroccan-style lobby with pop-art paintings decorating the walls. The Old Town location is great for families with kids who enjoy walking.

San Juan, for foodies, a Culinary Heaven

It seemed impossible to find a meal that wasn’t delicious in Old San Juan, so I was in foodie heaven.  Alec is more of the ‘eat to live’ than the ‘live to eat’ type, but he was a good sport to join me on my many culinary indulgences. SoFo (South of Fortalezza) is the gastronomic heart of Old San Juan, and is packed with dining delights. 

Our favorite meal was eaten at El Jibarito on Sol Street.  It serves classics of the Puerto Rican kitchen, and is where locals chow down on mofongo (mashed plantains) and tres leches, a rich and sweet cake made with three types of milk.

We found good pizza in Plaza de Armas at Antonella’s, where the Neopolitan owner makes a classic slice that pleased my son’s teenaged palate.

Mom – Teen Ecotourism Adventure in Puerto Rico

Author Alison Tibaldi on a zipline.
Author Alison Tibaldi on a zipline.

My adrenaline-seeking son selected our first adventure, a day trip to the Rio Camuy cave system, chosen by National Geographic as one of the “World’s Greatest Trips” in its Journeys Of a Lifetime publication, with very good reason. The tour outfitter, Aventuras Tierra Adentro, picked us up in town for our caving adventure.

As we boarded the comfortable van, I had no idea what we were in store for.  I should have been suspect when we were outfitted with a lamped helmet, life jacket and harness, but I remained blissfully naive. I had zip lined before, so I didn’t think twice about what awaited. A light should have gone off when I was told that you have to be at least 15 to participate, and young people up to age 21 need to be with a parent or guardian. But, I remained calm, and Alec was clearly excited. 

In the Bat Cave

Our caving experience started with a moderate hike through the forest to reach several relatively tame zip-lines, before we were expected to rappel down to the cave’s mouth.  It seemed as if the rappel was hundreds of feet straight down.  Alec was clearly exhilarated, but I was terrified.

The most anxiety-provoking moment for me was when we body rafted down a dark stream.

Our guides told us to stay to the left, for if the current pulled us to the right, we would be carried down a waterfall.

Bats flew overhead and scorpions lurked around corners. 

We were covered in mud and soaking wet by the time we exited the cave.  I was scraped, banged, bruised, and covered in mud, but happy to be alive. 

The best part of the cave (besides exiting it and finally seeing light) was the incredible formations that were inside. Stalagmites and stalactites were everywhere, like a geology class come to life. To end our journey, we made our way back up employing a system known as Via Ferrata, developed during World War I to access high places utilizing a system of vertical pathways equipped with cables, metal rebars and ladders.  My vertigo was in full force, but I somehow managed to claw my way back to the van with my mind and body partially intact.  It was by far the most hardcore adventure that I had ever imagined and I could not believe that I was able to complete it. 

As a person whose main activity is yoga and Pilates, it felt strangely exhilarating to have pushed myself beyond my normal boundaries.

A Muddy Adventure in Puerto Rico

Hacienda Campo Rico is an adventure center for visitors who want to explore Puerto Rico beyond San Juan city.
Hacienda Campo Rico is an adventure center for visitors who want to explore Puerto Rico beyond San Juan city.

Our next adventure was at Hacienda Campo Rico, a secluded natural spot only a few minutes’ cab ride from San Juan. This private estate is situated in a verdant valley of mangroves and lagoons and our hosts arranged this special outing, not normally available to the public.

From their family-friendly activities and agro-tourism options, we chose to get down and dirty in an amphibious vehicle, driven by expert driver, Joel.  We discovered the diverse flora and fauna of the island, as we drove through the lush terrain. We were covered in mud at the end of our ride, but it was worth it. 

Our Puerto Rico Adventure Moves on to Ponce

I didn’t want to visit Puerto Rico without exploring the southern part of the island and its main city, Ponce, home to one of the world’s finest, under-the radar art museums. The Museo De Arte De Ponce permanent collection offers visitors a rich panorama of Western art from the Renaissance to the 19th century.  It has recently collaborated with the Museo de Arte Puerto Rico and is loaning some its work to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Gallery in London.  

Its most famous work is Flaming June, painted by Lord Frederic Leighton in 1895. This portrait of a young sleeping girl has all the seduction of the Mona Lisa. The museum is full of interactive exhibits in Spanish and English, making it a good bet for families. They house a popular summer camp for children, so the environment is truly kid-friendly. 

We spent the night at the comfortable Ponce Plaza, located next to Ponce’s beautiful Spanish-style main square, Plaza las Delicias. Kids will love to look at the Plaza’s colorful fire-fighting museum, Parque de Bombas, complete with antique fire engines. We took a guided trolley tour of Ponce and learned a bit about its indigenous Taino culture and history. 

On our way back to San Juan, we stopped at Hacienda Buena Vista, a restored 19th-century coffee plantation. We learned the mechanics of the coffee making process during our English-language tour. Each October, visitors were able to help harvest coffee beans but we are not sure this activity will take place once the plantation reopens.

After the Bioluminsecent Bay, the Beach is the Main Event

A hiking adventure in the rain forest of Puerto Rico.
A hiking adventure in the rain forest of Puerto Rico.

The most breathtaking part of our trip was our evening boat ride and night swim in the Bioluminescent Bay in Vieques. This unforgettable ecological phenomenon is best experienced on a moonless night. The water’s microorganisms sparkle and glitter when even slightly disturbed, so that waving your hand in the water creates a visual effect that is magical, as if fairy dust has been sprinkled all around you.

We booked a package with East Island Excursions that included a round-trip boat ride from Fajardo to Vieques, dinner and the excursion to the Bioluminescent Bay. That experience was relaxed and easy. Families who are already in Vieques should contact Waivie Bio-Bay Tours and book a kayak adventure with them.

The last part of our trip was reserved for beach and pure relaxation. We spent our last day at the El Conquistador Resort. The landscaped grounds are alive with tropical vegetation and whimsical sounds of the coqui, the tiny frogs who will serenade you with their song. Even getting to your room is fun, as it requires a ride on a funicular. El Conquistador caters to families, with its own water park, multiple pools, and a private island paradise, Palomino, accessible via ferry in only minutes.

Alec was impressed that one of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films had been shot here. Water sports galore, including jet skiing, kayaking and snorkeling are on the menu, as is relaxing under a palm tree with a good novel.

The Art of Compromise on Parent – Teen Vacation

Planning this trip together required me to participate in some of the activities that my son wanted to do, as you can see…
Alec says it best in his video “Teen Cribs Puerto Rico Adventure

 On family vacations past, I had called all the shots with the kids coming along for the ride. 

Although I would have never done the cave adventure without Alec, in the end it was incredibly bonding and exciting to experience it together. I think this gave Alec added tolerance when I wanted to spend a few extra minutes at the Ponce Art Museum, or strolling Old San Juan. 

Feeling Fierce and Planning Chapter Two

In spite of our action-packed holiday in Puerto Rico, we both left feeling that we had left many stones unturned on this beautiful island. We both want to visit the many waterfalls in the El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System.

Alec would like to visit Toro Verde Nature Park to attempt La Bestia, one of the world’s longest zip lines, where you soar through the air across 4,745 feet of terrain. I would like to return to Ponce and visit its famed history museum, Museo de la Historia de Ponce, which traces Ponce’s development from the Taino Indians to the present. 

We would both like to explore Rincon and attempt to surf its famous waves, not to mention camping on the unspoiled island of Culebra.

It felt great to both have so many reasons to want to return to this island paradise together.

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