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A romantic getaway to this island paradise sounds great! But the reality is your kids don't want to be stranded on a remote beach watching sunsets.
Fajardo is about an hour east of San Juan on the north tip of Puerto Rico. We rented a two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building overlooking Fajardo's two marinas. Beautiful views from every room -- of the marinas, bay, islands, ocean and rain forest. There are several more developed properties in Fajardo with condos for rent, but we don't like to be surrounded by all the amenities and tourists. This apartment is in Dos Marinas, which in addition to the views has a huge pool and lovely grounds, including a playground and a picnicking area with grills. The owner provides all you need for cooking and dining at home. I always prefer that to sitting in restaurants with tired, impatient kids waiting for food. The apartment has room to sleep up to six people. It's attractively decorated and invitingly clean with a balcony overlooking the water.
Seven Seas is Fajardo's public beach. It is a lovely blue crescent beach ringed by palm trees. Public beaches are called balnearios. They have the amenities you want, including bathrooms, outdoor showers and lifeguards. We snorkeled here two days. It's amazing that even in one foot of water, you still can see many varieties of fish and sea life. We rented snorkeling equipment from a dive shop just a few streets away from the apartment.
For families who don't mind a little trek, you can have an entire beach to yourselves. From Seven Seas beach, taking a path from the left of the beach out onto a peninsula, you can get to what the locals call a "red" beach, with reddish sand, and El Convento beach, which goes by several names. Other tripadvisor reviewers raved about the snorkeling at El Convento, but locals warned us against the currents. Instead, we walked to the right of Seven Seas to get to an undeveloped stretch of sand, and then around the peninsula to a virtually untouched beach below the lighthouse where we explored tidal pools.
It's hard to drag me away from a beach, but you'll want to take a walk in El Yunque, the rainforest. One walk of medium difficulty rewards you with a view of a lovely waterfall. Easier walks will give you a good overall impression of a rainforest. There are several stands selling traditional Puerto Rican refreshments, including coconut water right out of the coconut. You may not see the elusive birds and frogs of the rainforest, but you hear plenty. You can get help and directions from the visitors center, along with a dose of traditional music and art and craft souvenirs.
On the day you go to the rainforest, stop at the Hacienda Carabali in Luquillo, just a few minutes away. Here you can ride horses, mountain bike, or drive go-karts or ATVs. It's just about the most picturesque go-kart track your kids will ever visit!
While you're in Luquillo, there are several beaches to visit. We were so happy with Seven Seas beach in Farjardo that we didn't bother. One beach, which you can see from the road, has a line of food kiosks (kioskos) from which you can order very traditional food. Our apartment owner recommended #2, El Parillo.
Several kayaking outfits and two electric boat operators will take you out into the bioluminescent bay at night. This is a fantastic thing to do with kids! Bacterium in the water glow a bright bluegreen when the water is disturbed and when fish dart around. It's like fireworks in the water! If you go on the earlier trip -- 6 or 7 p.m. -- you can see the mangrove swamp on the way out, but it gets dark enough for the fireworks. (Keep an eye on the phases of the moon... try to get as dark a night as possible.)
I'd advise families to take the boat. It's a long trip through the dark and creepy mangrove swamp to the bay (but your kids will find it cool!). Many kayakers were struggling to steer clear of the mangrove roots, and several tipped over. One young girl came unglued and was crying and rocking back and forth in her kayak. Many kayakers had to be tied up to the tour guide's kayak and towed back home. The electric boat is the way to go.
We tried to make a reservation with Bio Island, but they did not return our many calls until we got back to the States, and they did not have the stand they advertised in Las Croabas (where the tours depart from -- 10 minutes from the Fajardo marina). Instead we went out with Baby Bay. We hated to do it, because Baby Bay is reputed to use a gas motor instead of the electric, which is harmful to the bay. And, yes, Capt. Suarez did use the gas motor on our trip. I felt bad about it, but we had no choice, as there are only the two boat operators.
Las Croabas is the closest thing to a boardwalk you'll find here. We didn't spend much time because it was crowded and unappealing to us. But you can get Puerto Rican goodies, clothing and jewelry from trucks and stands in Las Croabas Park, and there are roadside tapas bars and restaurants aplenty. My husband tried a "tripeleta" -- a hot hoagie type sandwich with three kinds of meat: chicken, ground beef and shredded beef slathered in cheese, ketchup, mustard and mayo.
Many catamaran operators will take you out to the islands to snorkel. They leave right from the marina in Fajardo. The trips are about 5 1/2 hours, not too long for kids. We took the Spread Eagle II to Icacos and Lobos islands. It's a beautiful trip! I felt like I was in a Caribbean tourist brochure! The snorkeling was great, and the boats serve lunch and drinks. I saw that they put out peanut butter and jelly for kids, in addition to the lunch meats, cheeses, chips and fruit trays. Oreos make a great dessert for anyone! BTW, Ricky Martin (Puerto Rican pop singer and actor) owns Lobos Island. He allows the boats to turn around in the lagoon in front of his house!
If you have young children, you might want to try the East Wind catamaran instead. We noticed they have a waterslide at the back of their boat. Our son was looking pretty wistfully at it, though the snorkeling kept him engaged the entire time.
When you swim away from the boat to snorkel, make sure you attach one of the flotation devices around your waist. They're optional, but the water is deep and you'll get tired swimming. We got out to the reef and quickly realized we needed the flotation cushions and had to swim back for them.
Old San Juan makes a great day trip. We loved the Spanish architecture and El Morro, the imposing fort that defended the city. If you want, bring kites to fly on the grounds of El Morro. It looks to be a favorite activity, though the winds are fierce and the trees are filled with the remains of beached kites!
The city is hilly, so the walking can be challenging for young kids. But you can refresh yourself in the A/C at Ben & Jerry's, and one parent can hang out there with the kids while the other walks around. That's what we did. There is also a kids museum a block away from the Ben & Jerry's, though we didn't go in, because we're past those days.
Make sure to print out a map of the city before you go. Parking on the street is almost impossible to find. There are three or four parking garages, though, and they're not expensive. I think we paid $10 for the day.
Here's the link to the children's museum in Old San Juan. Even if you don't want to go inside, it's situated in a pretty public square. There's a side street to the left of the museum that is just lovely, shaded by indigenous trees and flowers and alive with birds.
Here's your chance to inject a little history into your trip. Explorers used to arrive at the harbor in Old San Juan and make their way up the hill to the Catedral de San Juan to thank God for a safe journey. Ponce de Leon's burial place is here in the cathedral. Re-enact a landing and stroll from the historic gate to the city at Fort San Cristobal up to the cathedral. (It's very close to the children's museum, so not too much walking for the little ones.)
Whether you try the Puerto Rican dish mofongo here, or at any of the many places you find it in Old San Juan, make the effort to seek it out! It is a kind of timbale made of mashed, boiled and fried (I think) plantains flavored with garlic and bacon. It tastes something like sweet potatoes. We ordered it at a tiny restaurant at the back of a gift shop. If I can find the name of it, I'll post it here later. It was served beside a mound of shredded pork, but you can order it with chicken, beef or shrimp. Mofongo doesn't reheat well, so clean your plate! You'll want to anyway. For fast food, you might also want to try empanadas, which are much like the British pasty, meat enclosed in a half-circle of crust.
We ate many meals at the apartment, picking up what we needed from local grocery stores. But we did eat here once, and we did take-out a couple of times. The restaurant has a huge menu of Spanish and Puerto Rican tapas, as well as a children's menu. We fell in love with a few of the desserts and got them as take-out a few times. One was a crepe with dulce de leche and the other was a sort of sopaipilla drizzled with dulce de leche and chocolate. The restaurant is reached by a flight of steps and has a patio overlooking the water. It's on the road to Seven Seas beach. The one time we ate at the restaurant, we mentioned to our waiter that it was our first time in Puerto Rico, and the chef sent us out a welcoming appetizer, bacalaitos, or fried cod fritters. So good... even my son liked them until I told them what they were made of!
It doesn't matter that we took sunblock of SPF 75 and reapplied religiously. We all got painfully sunburned. In fact, we had to stay at the apartment one entire day while our son recovered from sunstroke. That's why it's nice to rent an apartment -- otherwise, you'll get stuck together in a tiny hotel room! When you're snorkeling, the only thing you can do is cover up with a t-shirt or swimshirt. I wore long pants on the beach, but because of the many hours of snorkeling the backs of my legs got scorched. If you can, ease into the sun exposure. It's hard to do, though, once you see those beautiful beaches!