Puerto Rico Playground THE ISLAND OFFERS family fun around every turn

One great thing about Puerto Rico is it provides visitors a plethora of pleasure without having to be on the go all the time.

By Darien Rivers

Perfect weather and relaxing resorts mean sun-seekers can simply kick back poolside, put their feet up and watch the world go by at that particular Puerto Rican pace. Sounds good, right? Sure it does. And nobody would judge.

But that kicked-back tack won’t work for all travelers, especially among families aiming to juggle the varied interests that stretch across multiple generations. Which brings up another great thing about Puerto Rico – there is fun for all ages around virtually every turn of the island’s 100 mile by 35 mile expanse. Fun that doesn’t demand that parents go one way, kids another and grandparents, who knows where, before maybe meeting up for a meal. Fun that doesn’t mean enduring Uncle Bob’s boring idea of a good time or letting the little ways dictate every waking moment of that well-deserved vacation.

No. Simply put, Puerto Rico is a playground. A playground that serves up a feast of family fun from sea to shining sea – or in this case from the Atlantic Ocean in the north to the Caribbean Sea to the south and all points in between.

Adventures, exploration, and education are all within easy reach across a wide-range of family friendly attractions. The options are as diverse as the people that make up a traveling party but share a common denominator – all offer a myriad of opportunities to make memories that will be spark smiles and laughs among loved ones for years to come.

From swimming along rainbow reefs to soaring above a tropical forest, from stepping back in time or gazing into the unknown, the sky is the limit when it comes to family fun in Puerto Rico.

El Yunque National Forest is a sure crowd-pleaser. Its 28,000 acres of lush emerald land on the flanks of the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains soar over a long stretch of largely undeveloped coastal fringe in Puerto Rico’s northeastern corner, reaching up to nearly 3,500 feet above sea level at the often cloud-shrouded peak of El Toro. Averaging nearly 200 inches of rain per year, the forest is famed for its stunning waterfalls, many within short hikes from established parking lots. The trails wind past unique flora and fauna and keep your eyes open for Taino petroglyphs. Taking a plunge, weather permitting, at the base of one of the cooling cascades is a must.

A short drive away is Las Cabezas Nature Reserve, a 316-acre preserve at the island’s northeastern tip that is accessible through guided tours by the Puerto Rico Conservation Trust. The result is a pristine peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean that is home to seven different ecosystems and countless birds, crabs and other wildlife. Interpretive boardwalk trails wind through thriving mangrove marshes. Towering over the undeveloped headline is El Faro de San Juan, a painstakingly restored Spanish-colonial lighthouse built in 1882 (Puerto Rico’s oldest) that now houses a small museum and an observation deck that offers absolutely stunning views along long stretches of the rugged Atlantic coast.

Families can find a lifetime of experiences that pique everyone’s interest under and above the island’s 700 miles of coastline, along its more than 300 beaches and in and around its vibrant lagoons, mangrove mazes, and mountain lakes.

Puerto Rico’s varied coastline makes it a true paradise for water sports enthusiasts. Snorkeling, surfing, stand-up paddle boarding, and sailing are just a sample of the aqua activities.

Chart a course for one of the postcard-perfect islets and cays just offshore from the main island. A catamaran tour into the Cordillera Nature Reserve off Fajardo is a great way to get to out of the way cays for snorkeling around vibrant reefs and a kaleidoscope of marine life in crystal clear waters. The sting of uninhabited gems include the famed Palominos and Icacos islands, but smaller cays including Palomonitos, Diablo, Lobos, and Ratones are well worth a look.

Experienced and professional tour operators take care of gear, food, drinks and everything else a family may need for a hassle-free fun in the sun. Well-established operators will get you to those perfect spits of white sand in style and get back home safely without a hitch.

Tour operators are also well-prepared for voyages into one of Puerto Rico’s glowing bioluminescent bays, where the stars of the show are microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates that light up when disturbed. Puerto Rico boasts three of the globe’s brightest biobays (Fajardo’s Laguna Grande, Mosquito Bay in Vieques and La Parguera in Lajas), making a guided visit a rare treat indeed.

Kayaking during the day is a great way for families to really get in touch with the natural splendors that characterize Puerto Rico’s coasts and waterways. Rentals and daytrips are easily within reach around the island with some of the best bets including the Condado Lagoon, Piñones, Cabo Rojo, and Culebra.

Step up the family fun with a group surf lesson. Sticking close to San Juan? There is a surf school situated right in the sand at Pine Grove Beach in Isla Verde, where gentle waves serve as an ideal classroom for beginners. Puerto Rico’s wave-rich northwest corner is packed with surf instructors.

The fast-growing sport of stand-up paddleboarding (SUP) is also a great platform for family fun. It is easy to learn and is accessible for all ages. The best place to get your feet wet is the calm and crystal-clear waters of the Condado Lagoon, an azure oasis in the heart of the San Juan tourism district. Another option is a guided glide through the mangrove-ringed Piñones Estuary, a calorie-burning excursion that is best followed by a stop at one of the legendary fried-food shacks that dot the area. Those straying further afield can find SUP rentals and lessons around the island.

Puerto Rico’s growing roster of Eco parks cover a lot of ground in terms of activities to please all members of the family. Adventure-seekers will not regret steering to Tropical Trail Rides in Isabela, located on the most northwestern tip of the island for two-hour guided horseback rides along the amazing scenery of rugged rock, sandy secluded beaches and lush green Almond tree-lined terrain. At the end of the beach, dismount your horse to explore, go for a refreshing swim or make a quick trek up the hill for panoramic views of the beautiful blue water, crashing waves, and cliffside caves. After the short break, saddle up again and continue the trek along the beach.

Fishing is another avenue for families angling for fun time together. Luckily, Puerto Rico has long lured anglers with its fabled deep-sea fishing in offshore waters teeming with blue marlin, sailfish, wahoo, mahi-mahi and tuna. Charter boats and seasoned crews are well prepared for quick runs to “Marlin Alley,” where prize billfish patrol depths of more than 1,000 feet just minutes from the island’s north coast. Cabo Rojo, Fajardo and other destinations around the island also boast the boats and crews to get you on the big “blue water” fish fast.

Closer to shore, Puerto Rico is home to world-class tarpon fishing, with prizes weighing 100 pounds or more not uncommon in the San Jose Lagoon that rings the western edge of Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport. The island’s mangrove-lined labyrinthine waterways are also flush with other quarry including snook, jack crevalle, permit, and barracuda. Lesser known is the prime freshwater fishing in the island’s reservoirs.

Water parks are a wonderful way for families to spend a day splashing under the sun. The south coast town of Salinas makes for a good day trip and its complex of aquatic attractions offer something for all ages. There are aquatic areas great for little ones with sprinklers, sprayers and dump buckets and teens and adults will both have a blast based around a large wave pool but also includes slides and a sprinkler area for young kids.

Aguadilla, a town that anchors the island’s northwestern watersports wonderland, boasts two waterparks. Las Cascadas is Puerto Rico’s largest and includes a wave pool, a passive river and a variety of thrilling slides ranging from steep drops to serpentine turns. There is also a little kid’s area with slides, pools and other attractions. The Skateboard & Splash Park on the former Ramey Air Base in Aguadilla has a splash and spray water park and silky smooth bowls for skateboards. The town is also home to the Caribbean’s only permanent ice-skating rink. How cool is that?

The Coqui Water Park at Las Casitas Village at El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo is an exhilarating seaside playground where guests can twist and turn down a tube slide dropping off into a plunge pool.

Puerto Rico punches well above its weight as a world-class golfing destination and can swing toe-to-toe with any other destination around the globe.

The U.S. territory packs a wide array of 18-hole gems in its 100 mile by 35 mile expanse. Courses along the lush north coast may remind players of a round on the Big Island of Hawaii while duffers on the south coast may feel like they’ve been transported to Palm Springs or South Africa. But they’re not. They’re in Puerto Rico.

Golf demands concentration, but players won’t be able to resist letting their eyes wander a bit from those enticing fairways. From soaring seaside cliffs to the turquoise carpet of the Caribbean Sea, from the churning Atlantic coast to mist-shrouded tropical rainforests, Puerto Rico’s golf courses flow out of some of the most stunning terrain to be found.

But do try to keep your eye on the ball. It’s the challenging golf courses, after all, that demand your full attention.

A sampling of the island’s stellar clubs and courses include Coco Beach Golf Club, River and Ocean courses at the Wyndham Grande Rio Mar Beach Resort & Spa, and Bahia Beach—all three in Rio Grande; the courses at El Conquistador Resort in Fajardo, Dorado Beach and Dorado del Mar, Caguas Real, Royal Isabela, Palmas del Mar in Humacao, Coamo Springs and Costa Caribe in Ponce are sure to make any golfer get into the swing of things.

A good place to start is the island’s unspoiled northeastern corridor, where a string of gleaming resorts boast championship-level courses that wind along coconut palm-lined coastal fringe. Think of them as fairways where out of bounds is the soaring El Yunque National Forest or the sparkling blue depths of the Atlantic Ocean. They sit less than an hour from Puerto Rico’s international airport on the silky smooth and traffic-free Route 66 expressway.

Hacienda Campo Rico also offers trail rides over more than 2,000 acres of countryside within minutes of the San Juan tourism hubs. Their stable of healthy, well cared-for horse can accommodate beginner, intermediate and advanced riders. Individual and side-be-side all-terrain vehicles are also available, so motoring around the verdant grounds is accessible for the whole family. The pond-studded property also offers zip lines and an agro-tourism element that opens a window on Puerto Rico’s rich agricultural past and still-important farming industry. Plantain and banana crops share space with eggplant, okra, cucumber, pumpkins, star fruit, passion fruit, oranges, grapefruit, pigeon peas, and cassava. Tropical flowers and herbs are also produced from seeds in the onsite nursery.

Toro Verde is sure to top any adventure-seeking family’s list of must-do thrills. Located in the isolated mountain town of Orocovis, this world-class park is simply packed with breathtaking adventures that have all ages covered. The Beast is one of the longest (4,745 feet) and highest (more than 800 feet off the ground) zip lines on Earth and far outstrips any other in the Caribbean. Until now that is. The recent addition of the monster upped the ante, spanning 1.5 miles over Puerto Rican mountain terrain at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour. Not for the faint of heart. Not to worry, among Toro Verde’s other attractions is the Bull Maze, which is like playing a video game in real life. The ropes course challenges visitors with three levels of difficulty and nearly three dozen stages including suspension bridges, rope nets, monkey bars, and various obstacles spread out over a nearly 40-foot tall structure.

Why not spend part of a precious vacation day away on a family bike ride? Try the visually stunning 11-kilometer biking boardwalk in Piñones, which sits just minutes away but a world apart from the bustling Isla Verde tourism district. Pedal along palm-lined pristine beaches, stands of sea grape-studded dunes and craggy coves. After working up an appetite, hit the brakes for fresh seafood and fried delights at one, or several, of the many inexpensive eateries that dot this Afro-Caribbean cultural hub. You’ve earned it.

Or stick to the city and take advantage of one of the bike tour and rental outfits operating in and around Old San Juan. What better way to take in the sites at your own pace while also getting in a breezy bit of exercise?

Another awesome family endeavor is a combined daytrip to the Arecibo Observatory, which is world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, and the Camuy River Cave Park.

Peer way down from observation deck into the 1,000 foot dish sunken into the top of a limestone outcropping, known locally as a mogote, in a lush and rural area. Let your imagination soar at the thought of the important science still being done at the famed facility – featured in blockbuster Hollywood film’s including “Contact” and “Golden Eye” – more than 50 years after it opened.

Researchers used the radio telescope to identify the first planets beyond the solar system, and it once sent a three-minute broadcast to the Hercules constellation in 1974 in a quest to contact alien civilizations. The observatory’s historical and continued importance are both brought to light in the stellar visitors center, which offers guided tours, films, presentations and hands-on science exhibits that are guaranteed to bring out the kid in adults and heighten your understanding of the vast spaces above.

At the other end of the spectrum of this easy outing is a visit to the well-run Camuy River Cave Park, where a subterranean world of wonders awaits within an extensive network of caves, canyons and sinkholes carved out by the world’s third-largest underground river surging trough the porous limestone.

A highpoint in this deep down, hour-long tour is passage through Cueva Clara, a cavern that boasts a jaw-dropping chamber studded with stalactites and stalagmites that arches up well over 200 feet tall and 700 feet across. The hike down may be a bit of a challenge, but views of the stunning cave and the rushing waters of the cliff and forest-ringed Camuy River make it well worth the trek. The trolley-based tour will also stop at the 650-foot wide Tres Pueblos sinkhole, which gets its name from the three towns – Camuy, Hatillo and Lares – that meet at this monumental abyss that provides an awesome vantage point of the rapid river some 400 feet below.

Families that get an early enough start on the Arecibo Observatory – Camuy River Cave Park visit can grab lunch and then continue on and comfortably reach northwest coast hotspots like Isabella or Aguadilla before nightfall.

Or stick around the area for a visit to Arecibo Lighthouse & Historic Park. Billed as a cultural theme park, this attraction overlooking the Atlantic Ocean puts a real premium on fun. Large-scale models of the three famed Christopher Columbus ships – the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria – are there for kids to board and clamber across as their imaginations run wild. A replica Taino village is both fun and educational as is the onsite aquarium with toothy denizens of the deep including circling sharks. The lighthouse is filled with maritime artifacts and provides unforgettable vistas from its top-floor observation deck. A water park and playground will prove irresistible for the little ones.

As of this writing, work was continuing to raise a 300-foot Columbus along the Arecibo coast. The massive statue, dubbed “The Birth of the New World” by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, the finishing touches on putting together the 2,500 pieces of the 600-ton work was expected to be completed and the attraction opened for visitors in 2016. The monument pays tribute to Columbus’ landing in Puerto Rico during his second voyage to the New World in 1493.

Finally, no family trip to Puerto Rico would be complete without a visit to the Luis A. Ferre Science Park (Parque de las Ciencias) in Bayamon, a thriving commercial and residential municipality in the San Juan metropolitan area that has grown into the island’s second-largest city. The educational and recreational landmark recently underwent a $6 million overhaul that includes ample parking, revamped museums and zoo areas, a new planetarium, mini-golf, and four-dimensional cinema theater that simulates the peaks, plunges and speeds of a rollercoaster ride.

So by now it should be crystal clear that there is no shortage of fantastic avenues for family fun in Puerto Rico.

There is more than enough to keep everyone on their toes for at least a week with a range of pursuits that will be reminisced about around the dinner table long after you leave the enchanted isle. Still, there’s nothing wrong with carving out a little time to do a whole lot of nothing. So feel free to kick back and tip back a cooling cocktail poolside. We won’t judge.

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