Issue 3: Spring Break in Puerto Rico
A guide on where to stay, eat, and play in PR, 2022
Well, guys, I did it. I planned and (ok, with my husband) executed an amazing spring break.
Our late March spring break trip to Puerto Rico was the first family trip we have taken by plane since 2019, and the first time that I felt we truly traveled in the way my husband and I did before we had kids. Part of it was our kids’ ages (newly 6 and 8), but part of it was also just the novelty of taking a “big trip” requiring air travel. Even choosing treats at the airport was exciting again. May we bring this born-again energy to all our trips this year and savor this return to travel.
A few notes before we begin. We went to both PR’s mainland and Vieques and rented cars in both places (probably the best money we spent on the trip; the drives were honestly often as impressive as the destinations). We spent roughly 8 days and nights in PR and moved between 3 hotels. I was generally pretty happy with how things shook out, but I’ll point out a few things I would amend as we jog down our itinerary below.
Old San Juan
Even though trip to PR started at 4:30 a.m., our children remained mostly game to spend our first afternoon in PR exploring San Juan. After landing and picking up our rental car, we drove straight to Old San Juan, about a half hour away. I had read some recommendations to try food tours as a way to explore the city, but I couldn’t quite stomach the $100+ pp price for the tours and was skeptical about my children’s energy and attention span given the length of of our first day. We discovered that many food tours actually listed the places they visit, and so we cobbled together our own poor man’s food tour with those lists and our old friend Yelp as we walked around the city. We took a drive around the city before hopping out to wander around, and bumped into a few historic and popular sites along the way, but we did not purposely seek out any non-food destination. It was a good and low-pressure introduction to Old San Juan, where we returned at the end of the week.
Enjoying artisanal ice pops from Senor Paleta, a popular stop on many OSJ food tours.
West Coast of PR
After spending the afternoon in Old San Juan, we drove 3ish hours to the Copamarina Resort, in Guanica, a town on the southwest coast of Puerto Rico. This was the only brutal drive of the journey, partially because of Friday night traffic and partially because our travel day had started at 4:30 in the morning (that’s right, I made my family spent 8 hours traveling to PR, 4 hours walking around the capital, and then subjected everyone to a nearly 3 hour drive).
We decided on the Copamarina due to the reviews, the relatively reasonable price for a resort during peak season, and the proximity to PR’s west coast. We were generally happy with the choice, because I really wanted some time to laze around at a resort with pools, ocean views, and easy access to food. But we loved PR’s west coast so much that were I to do it again, I would search a bit harder for a resort or hotel with a pool on the west coast. We ended up spending no time in Guanica outside of our resort, and instead drove to west coast beaches each day.
After spending our first morning at the resort, we drove 45 minutes to Playa Buye, a bucolic beach in Cabo Rojo. The water was Caribbean blue and calm, and on a Saturday, crowded with locals. There was decent shade under palm trees, and some vendors selling food and ice cream.
With more time, we would have explored more of Cabo Rojo’s beautiful beaches. Instead, we ended the day with a special dinner for our birthday girl at Buena Vibra, a local restaurant with a great vibe. We promised the children their very first Cokes to celebrate, and the restaurant delivered.
HBD to my birthday girl, enjoying her first Coke!
We started bright and early on day 3 to drive 1.5 hours to Rincon, a surf town in the middle of PR’s west coast. We began the day with breakfast at the English Rose, where the food is terrific, but the views are SPECTACULAR. This was probably the most “special” meal we had on our vacation, and was worth the reservation (a call a couple of days in advance was all that was needed).
View from Patio of English Rose
Our other stops in Rincon included Tres Palmas Beach (also known as Steps Beach), at the end of the road from English Rose, and Sandy Beach. My son snorkeled for the first time on Steps Beach, and loved it so much that snorkeling became his main goal for the remainder of the trip. Sandy Beach, a laidback and uncrowded beach dotted with boutique hotels and a few shops and restaurants, was a great place to spend the rest of day. We purposely set up camp near Tamboo, a restaurant on the beach with good food and terrific views. We didn’t have to wait for a table, but there is probably no better place to wait for a table than the beach, ESPECIALLY when you have kids.
Gozalandia, Luquillo and El Yunque National Forest
We headed to PR’s east coast for part 2 of our trip. Instead of heading straight there from Guanica, we decided to squeeze in a trip to Gozalandia Waterfall in San Sebastian because I had heard the siren calls of internet recommendatons. While we had a fun couple of hours jumping in the falls and swimming in the pools, the truly amazing waterfalls were waiting for us in El Yunque National Park. If you plan to visit El Yunque’s falls, I’d suggest skipping Gozalandia.
The focus of this part of our trip was on El Yunque, the only rainforest in the United States National Forest system. These days, a trip to El Yunque requires a bit of planning, as entry to a signficant part of the park requires advance reservations. Park reservations are $2 per person and can be made up to a month in advance through Recreation.gov (some number of reservations are also released 24 hours prior to entry). We saw a number of tour operators also offering visits to El Yunque, but with your own car, you can choose your own adventure in a much more fun and cost-effective way.
While the most popular set of waterfalls, La Mina Falls, remained closed during our visit, we hit several other attractions in the park, including Yokahu Observation Mount Britton Lookout Tower, and and La Coco Falls. Our favorite stop, however, was Juan Diego Falls. For most visitors, these falls appear as a bi-level waterfall, with the first smaller level accessible through an easy trail. The second level is less traveled and a little harder to access by climbing up a short muddy trail on the right or a rocky area on the left of the first pool. Both have shallow, clean swimming areas and you can stand directly below each set of falls.
Bottom Level of Juan Diego Waterfalls
There is also a third waterfall that we accidentally almost visited. In trying to access the second set of falls, we began climbing a steep muddy bank winding through trees. After climbing for nearly 40 minutes, with rain pouring on and off, we found ourselves crossing another stream that fell into yet another waterfall. Drenched and unsure where we would be lead if we continued, we turned around and apparently missed swimming in the “secret” Juan Diego falls. Please don’t make the same mistake we did and make your way to the end of these falls, which we just glimpsed through the rain.
Our other mistake was to leave our raincoats behind. Surprise, it rains pretty frequently in the rainforest. We tried to wait out the rain to do the hikes we had planned but eventually gave up. Instead, we headed just outside the park to visit Las Paylas, a set of natural waterslides formed by rivers that come down from El Yunque. It looked a little rough, but my family eventually persuaded me to take a slide down, and I admit, it was fun.
We stayed at the Luquillo Sunrise Inn, a basic, but beachfront, hotel in Luquillo about 15 minutes from El Yunque that was perfect for our needs (we ended up checking in after 10 p.m. the night before visiting El Yunque and left at 6 a.m. the following morning to head to Vieques). Note that Luquillo Beach, while lovely, is known for riptides and the surrounding neighborhood is a bit run-down. Most rooms have balconies facing the beach. There is also, however, one standalone two bedroom suite behind the hotel without a view but was a welcome respite from cramming four family members in one room. We returned to the Luquillo Sunrise Inn for our last night before leaving PR and actually left several of our bags with the hotel staff while we visited Vieques for two nights.
Even though the internet warned us not to take the ferry, we took the ferry to Vieques, a small island 8 miles off the coast of PR, for the next three days of our trip. The ferry had a notorious reputation for being late, and gives locals priority over visitors. We couldn’t resist the gamble on a $2 ride to the island, however, and our guesthouse operator in Vieques said that with advance reservations on an early ferry, we shouldn’t have trouble. My husband dutifully purchased our tickets for an 8 a.m. ferry a few weeks in advance and did not have any trouble reaching the island an hour later. We parked our rental car for mainland PR at the ferry terminal in Ceiba and rented a new car with four wheel drive in Vieques. While it felt extravagant to rent two cars at the same time, it was honestly the best money we spent in PR.
Swinging at the beach closest to our hotel, the Vieques Guesthouse
Vieques has around 40 beaches, and our main activity during our stay on the 52 sq. mile island was wandering from beach to beach. Our favorites were the small beach closest to our guesthouse, Playa La Chiva and black sand Playa Negra.
Sunset on black sand Playa Negra
Playa La Chiva is part of the Vieques National Wild Life Refuge, which has many other beaches to explore as well. I’d recommend spending a full day exploring the beaches in this area, which occupies approximately half of the island.
Playa La Chiva
We stayed at the Vieques Guesthouse, and highly recommend it, particularly for first time visitors. The owners, Todd and Amanda, gave us great recommendations on pretty much everything on the island. They also have snorkelling gear, beach umbrellas, coolers and other beach equipment available to borrow, which was amazing. We’d book a little further in advance, to snag the one two bedroom suite next time.
The only formal tour we did in Vieques (or PR, for that matter) was a night kaykak tour of Puerto Mosquito Bioluminescent Bay or the Mosquito Bio Bay, famous for its bioluminescence produced by the dinoflagellate Pyrodinium bahamense, which produces glowing blue light when agitated. There are only five bioluminescent bays around the world, with Vieques’ known as produring the brightest bioluminesence. The only time to really observe biolumenscence is when there's little or no moonlight, and our trip luckily coincided with a totally dark, new moon night.
Here are some of our favorites, all in one spot. Hope our trip to PR inspires your own.
Eat: Pirilo Pizza Rustica (loved it so much we ate at both the Old San Juan and Dorado locations; get the fries.); Senor Paleta
Play: Drive around the exterior of Old San Juan, and then spend a few hours walking through the colorful interior streets.
PR West Coast
Stay: Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa, or look for a boutique hotel or airbnb in Rincon
Eat: Buena Vibra (Cabo Rojo); English Rose, Tamboo, Taqueria Vatos Locos (Rincon)
Play: Playa Buye, Steps Beach, Sandy Beach
Luquillo and El Yunque National Forest
Stay: Luquillo Sunrise Inn.
Eat: Luquillo Kioskos
Play: El Yunque National Park, Las Paylas. I regret not looking for a guided night hike.
Stay: The Vieques Guesthouse
Eat: Duffy’s Esperanza (the only place other than Pirilo Pizza that we ate at twice. Get the wings, and try as many sauces as you can). We ate at a couple of fancier restaurants as well, and though the ambience was nice, the food was just OK.
Play: Beaches in Vieques National Wildlife Refuge (spend a full day beach hopping, and include Playa La Chiva); Playa Negra. Night biobay kayak tour (ours was fine, but would suggest researching options as there are many companies offering these trips).