Sunday, February 06, 2011

Our Puerto Rico Family Vacation

After spending 3 midwinter family beach vacations in the admittedly ideal Akumal, Mexico, we switched things up a bit this year, heading instead to Puerto Rico with both children and my in-laws, who are in their 60s. On their recommendation, we spent 2 nights at the quirky, charming Gallery Inn in Old San Juan (a 300 year old collection of interconnected buildings and courtyards teeming with the proprietor's clay sculptures, tropical plants and pet parrots) before renting cars and driving 45 minutes east to Luquillo.

The colorful Old San Juan's not the most kid-centric vacation destination, but the girls enjoyed exploring the 17th and 18th century Spanish fortresses, especially the secret passageways and the dungeon.

We managed to arrive at the Museo del Nino (Children's Museum) right when they ceased selling admissions (1 1/2 hours before closing - unfortunately a common theme throughout our trip, with several museums, parks, restaurants and other destinations mysteriously closed, shuttered or in some shocking state of post-apocalyptic neglect), but the girls had a wonderful time playing in the Raices Fountain, gorging themselves on Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Fudge Brownie ice cream (in a still-warm homemade waffle cone) and talking to the personable and personality-rich parrots at the Gallery Inn. Z was a trouper, climbing up and down San Juan's steep, narrow brick-lined streets, but I gave in and bought A a cheap umbrella stroller on our first day on the island.

Lock me up, I throw tantrums!

By day 3, the girls were ready for some beach time and so was I. But as we pulled up behind our beachfront condo near the town square, we were a little taken aback. Fully half of the residences on the street were abandoned and/or in an increasingly familiar advanced state of disrepair. The streets--and the surfing beach directly in front of the building--were practically empty.
View from our bedroom window
Josh and I were reminded of the coastal towns in Albania, what with the sparkling sea and beautiful weather contrasted against crumbling cement buildings and immobile, rusted-out cars.

Our 4th floor condo unit, however, was just lovely. It had everything a family of 6 could wish for in a vacation rental, save a dishwasher: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths, full kitchen, ocean front balcony, washer/dryer, tons of beach toys, satellite TV (from which we followed news of the blizzard hitting Chicago, thankful for our comfy Caribbean vantage) and free wifi from the bar next door. Or somewhere; we never did figure out the source of the signal.

But while initial impressions of Luquillo weren't that great, we quickly warmed to the sleepy, decidedly not touristy community. For starters, we were only 15 minutes' drive from El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Park System. It is beautiful and very well managed, and Z cheerfully hiked up and down the mountain to see its many waterfalls, lizards and birds.
Making mad faces, like the moss-colored rock

Also, only about 15 minutes' walk from our unit was a beach popular with both locals and the handful of visitors staying in condos. The surf was a little heavy, but you couldn't really beat a wide, soft sand beach that stretched on and on and never had more than 20 people on it.

A little further west--about 5 minutes' drive--was the well-regarded "blue-flag" Luquillo Beach, aka "the Puerto Rican Riviera," which offered lockers, bathrooms and showers (for $1 a day), concessions and lifeguards. The crystal-clear surf was calm and perfect for swimming, but like everything else in PR, the beach was not quite as pristine (or popular) as promised. I had to keep the kids from adding cigarette butts to their sand and water stew and stepping on broken glass on the way to the bathrooms.
Luquillo beach
The water, however, was beautiful and we could even see small schools of fish swimming near us. Z claims she saw a crab and refused to enter the water after that.

At the far end of Luquillo Beach was another tourist (and local) draw in its own right: the kiosks. Imagine a 5 block long strip of open-air fast food stands, bars and restaurants that face the beach at the back and the highway to the front. Fully half are shuttered at any one time (some permanently, or at least repurposed as trash bins), and they range from the omnipresent Puerto Rican fried street food (mofongo, empanadas, etc.) to upscale (and fairly pricey) dishes from Italy, Peru, Spain and elsewhere. In fact, Josh and I had two of the best burgers of our life at El Jefe Burger Shack. Mine was stuffed with Spanish chorizo and served with a side of hand-cut fries and a ginger-lemon mojito. Best of all, the restaurant offered up buckets of Sharpies and encouraged customers to graffiti the walls. That kept the kids happily occupied while we waited for our food. (Service in Puerto Rico is very laid back.)
Lemonade at El Jefe

Luquillo is also very close to Fajardo, where kayak outfitters gather at dusk to take tourists out on one of PR's three bioluminescent bays. Because our kids were too small to kayak (and the grandparents not too keen either), we took an electric motor boat out through the mangrove swamp into the bay. It doesn't look like much until the sun goes down and the sky fills with a million stars. At that point you can dip a long stick into the water and agitate the tiny single-celled organisms that live there. They glow in response, which sounds weird and looks positively magical. I was transported, in spite of the decidedly unmagical 3 year old child on my lap, who first needed to poop (the boat captain gamely offered me a roll of paper towels and a disposable poncho) and then complained of having an ear ache, being tired and wanting a snack.

In fact, a lot of our family vacation was marred by our children. A in particular was thrown off by the two hour time change. She stayed up past her bedtime most days and stubbornly refused to nap. She also had a cold when we landed that never lightened up, so she blew through tissues all day and coughed most of the night. While A was refusing to sleep or be separated from me for more than 30 seconds, Z was turning her nose up at restaurant food (spending most of each meal in the bathroom) and surviving on a steady diet of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (one of which she eventually threw up all over our apartment's welcome mat). A put a nice capper on our last morning in San Juan, which we spent at the city's conspicuously modern and well-maintained art museum, by slipping off an outdoor sculpture, splitting her lip and slicing her gum above her already damaged, dying front tooth. Bloodied and bruised, she looks like she got in a street fight, though she did behave suspiciously well on the five-hour flight home.

The girls have also reached a developmental milestone of sorts: they've mastered the art of provoking one another and never seem to tire of competing with each other - and pointlessly, too. In fact, if I have to hear the "'I won!' 'It's not a race!'" exchange one more time, I may swear off traveling with small children permanently.

See all our photos here.