5 Things to do in San Juan
Puerto Rico is packed with adventurous, educational and fun activities for the entire family to enjoy. In addition to this, the weather year round is perpetual beach weather and the cuisine is delicious. Here I list five of my favorite things to do in San Juan, Puerto Rico and I will also leave you with some tips while you are on the island.
5-Puerto Rican Cuisine
It may seem funny to some to hear food referred to as an “attraction.” But hear me out on this.
Puerto Rico is a beautiful island filled with stunning beaches, nature, history, architecture, friendly people, lively music and vibrant colors. But, don’t miss out on the unique cuisine of the island. Puerto Rican cuisine is a mix of Taino (The Native Puerto Rican), African and Spanish influence. The basics are beans, rice, plantains, pork, fresh seafood and tropical fruits. These basics are prepared with Puerto Rican spices and love. Fried or roasted on a spit. Almost everything is served with red beans and white rice. A typical Puerto Rican meal consists of pork, plantains (green or ripe), beans and rice. This keeps my kids satisfied daily.
Here are some of my favorites.
Mofongo, a quintessential Puerto Rican dish, consists of fried green plantains, mashed with salt, garlic and oil. A “bowl” is created with the mixture and filled with pork, fish, chicken or shrimp.
Chillo Frito Con Mofongo Y Ensalada (Fried whole red snapper with mofongo and salad), order this, you won’t regret it.
Tortas de Bacalao (fried codfish), served on an appetizer platter alongside croquettes, alcapurrias and tostones. All fried deliciousness.
Coco Frio, an ice-cold coconut cut off at the top by a machete and served with a straw.
You will find tropical fruits at stands and markets all over the island.
Sorry Starbucks, but the Puerto Ricans have you beat. You can find strong, delicious local coffee anywhere in Puerto Rico. It will be better than any Seattle bean that you have ever tasted.
A relaxing beach day is in order after touring El Morro (inside and out), walking the vibrant streets of Old San Juan and hiking the rain forest. There are many unbelievably beautiful beaches in Puerto Rico. Your choice of beach will depend on what you want to do. Some beaches are quiet and secluded. If you are into a more happening scene, there are beaches that are bustling with activity.
Isla Verde beach is a beautiful, laid-back, tropical beach lined with coconut trees. The water temperature is perfect, ranging from 78-83 degrees Fahrenheit. There are people listening to music, families picnicking and relaxing, kids playing paddle ball and making sand castles. If your family is into water sports, you can rent a jet ski, ride on a banana boat, or learn to surf on this beach. This is a popular area for kite surfing and parasailing. I have even seen fly boarding here on Isla Verde Beach. There are vendors walking the beach selling Helados Caribe, a cold, sweet treat, always a highlight of our beach day.
3-El Yunque National Forest
Travel from the beautiful beaches of San Juan to the stunning tropical rainforest of El Yunque in less than an hour. The hours of operation of El Yunque National Rainforest are from 6AM to 6PM. They will close the gates if the park becomes full, so arrive early. You can access the rainforest for free. However, I suggest that you check in to the Visitor’s Center for directions. There is a charge of $4 at the Visitor’s Center, but it is worth it. The center is full of information. There is a gift shop and coffee shop. You can try to find the trail with your GPS, but thus far, I have had no luck with this option. GPS is hit or miss on the island, so best to find the Visitor Center and get proper old fashion directions to your destination.
Our favorite hike in El Yunque is the Big Tree Trail to La Mina Falls. The hike from the trail head to the falls will take about an hour. The trail is almost entirely paved. There are some steps to climb. You will be walking at an incline on the way back to the trailhead. I would say that the hike is easy to moderate in difficulty. There are a few covered rest stops, in case you need a snack or water break. You will be serenaded by the coquis throughout your trek to the falls. It is much like a peaceful enchanted forest. Amazing flora and fauna. You will be able to hear the falls a bit before you arrive. Your effort will be rewarded with a beautiful site at the end of your hike, La Mina Falls.
**During our recent visit to Puerto Rico (June, 2018), El Yunque was closed until further notice. Heartbreaking news. The rainforest was heavily damaged by Hurricane Maria. The forest roads are considered unsafe due to potential landslides. Many of the trails are blocked due to storm debris.**
2-Old San Juan
Strolling around Old San Juan has been a family favorite for many years. Old San Juan is a combination of history, art, architecture, culture, culinary delights, colorful scenery and shopping. Plan on at least half a day, maybe even a full day of exploration. Walk down Calle Cristo toward the Chapel of Christ the Savior. Shops, restaurants, and art galleries abound while surrounded by old world architecture.
The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista is one of the oldest buildings in San Juan and the oldest cathedral in the United States. It is located in the heart of Old San Juan. Tour this medieval structure and find the tomb of the Spanish Explorer Ponce De Leon.
At the end of Calle Cristo is the Parque de Las Palomas. Buy some bird feed from the lady in the park and watch the doves become your best friends. If you line the seeds up your arm, you will end up with a line of friendly snacking doves. The kids were at once nervous about the birds landing on them. Now they think it is fun. As you leave the park, you can grab an adult version of the piragua, a Margarita, at El Parnaso, a nearby Mexican Restaurant with outdoor seating on the cobblestone street. This is a great spot to have a seat, relax and people watch!
Castillo San Felipe del Morro is guarding the entrance of San Juan Harbor. This may be the most recognized image of Puerto Rico. The history of this beautiful fort began in 1539-1540. As you know from history class, Christopher Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493. Initially, El Morro was a tiny fort built at the entrance of the harbor for protection. However, pirates continued to invade and attempt to claim the island as their own. The tiny fort needed fortification as pirate invasions became more frequent and more protection was needed. About 150 years of enlargements and enhancements began in the 1700’s. The fort now stands at six levels of defense. And it is breathtaking.
The entry fee of El Morro is $7 for adults, kids are free. Operating hours are 9AM-6PM. You will be given a map at the entrance and you can tour all six levels of the fort, self-guided. Allow yourself about two hours to tour the inside of El Morro. You will find stairs, tunnels and ramps which will take you all around the inside of the fort. The kids love hiding in the garitas, the small sentry boxes where the guards stood watch.
You can take pictures with cannons and even cannon balls. Some of the stair cases are spiral which make for some fun images. And the family line up photograph in the long archway is a must-do. The inside of Castillo San Felipe del Morro is astounding. But, in my opinion, spending time exploring the outside grounds of El Morro can be just as fun. Before or after your tour of the inside of El Morro, spend some time on the grounds in front of the fort to fly a kite. There are vendors all around selling kites or you can purchase them in many stores in Old San Juan.
There will be many people out there in front of the fort on the grass, picnicking, chatting, watching their children run free. It is really something not to be missed. Now head over towards La Puerta de San Juan (the San Juan Gate). Once you walk through the gate, you will discover Paseo del Morro to the right. This trek will take you towards the entrance of San Juan Bay while walking alongside the majestic walls of El Morro. The walk around El Morro ends in a picturesque coastal cemetery with incredible views of Old San Juan and La Perla. Now it is time to grab a Piragua and cool off. A Piragua is a frozen, sugary treat that kids love. It is shaved ice covered with fruit flavored syrup.Delicious!