Under the spell of sunny Puerto Rico
You know things are going pretty well when the big family argument is over whether to splash in the rain forest waterfall or loll around on the white-sand beach.
You know things are even better when you realize you can do both in a single day and not tax the patience or interest of three children.
From our weeklong base at a rental condo in Rio Grande — there are plenty of them on sites like Airbnb — we had such debates, the kind of decision-making that vacations should be about.
It was winter break for our three, ages 11 to 15, and having not traveled far since a move from Mexico nearly two years ago, they pushed for someplace warm off the mainland.
We settled on Puerto Rico, where we had always wanted to go and which, while a commonwealth, is far enough off the mainland (just under four hours from Kennedy Airport), and culturally apart, too, to count in their reckoning.
Having lived in warm climates for several years, we found that even this relatively mild winter in New York was grinding on us, so almost any natural sunlamp would do.
Rio Grande, a coastal and jungle resort town about 20 miles east of the capital, San Juan, could not have been more perfect, given that almost every attraction could be reached in 30 minutes or less.
Our debates evolved into which day trip was more satisfying.
Although Puerto Rico tends to conjure images of palms and beaches, the rain forest just down the road beckoned, as something a little different.
You could do worse than start with the rain forest.
The El Yunque National Forest, a verdant expanse the size of San Francisco and the only tropical rain forest in the United States forest system, has trails that are clean, well-maintained and well-marked from the roads cutting through it. They funnel you through a rain forest canopy, ringing with the chirps, croaks and shrieks of birds, frogs and other animals, to enticing swimming holes and waterfalls with enough chill in the water to refresh from the near 90-degree heat but not enough to keep you out.
La Coca Trail, for instance, rises and falls on its meandering path to the big payoff: a roaring waterfall and pool that beckon you for a dip and, if you can tolerate the pelting, a shower. A hike a little downstream offers more private relaxing.
Angelito Trail nearby provides an easier walk and more mellow bathing in a large stream, though locals told us it can get brisk after heavy rains. One natural pool there was deep enough for our two boys to jump from a rope swing.
Tropical rain forest. You may be thinking about bugs, particularly mosquitoes, given the Zika outbreak that occurred in Puerto Rico and elsewhere last year.
But, visiting in February, we discovered there were not legions of them, and hearty, cool sea breezes helped keep them at bay and the climate quite pleasant.
Zika cases are on the wane, Puerto Rican health officials have said, and the virus, which can cause birth defects, is primarily of concern to pregnant women and couples who are trying to become pregnant. Places with Zika outbreaks are safe for the average traveler, though we did follow the precaution of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to generously apply repellent with DEET, as we normally do when visiting the tropics.
Really, our biggest anxiety had to do with giving the kids enough of the beach time they demanded.
Pick your pleasure.
A nameless beach a few minutes down the road from our apartment complex, and accessible via a path of wooden planks, offered fierce waves, which delighted the children as they twisted in the curling break, but kept me on guard. The sand and grass beach was narrow and scattered with seaweed, the kind of relatively isolated place you might crave for an only-the-locals experience, but it might disappoint if you expect comfort and, maybe, an umbrella.
Puerto Rico guarantees public access to beaches, even at resorts. Those beaches, of course, tend to be well-maintained and near amenities like a bar. It can be tricky getting to them, though. Our apartment complex was around the bend from the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Beach Resort and Spa, with its manicured grounds, restaurants, casinos, golf course and well-appointed rooms.
Ask at the security gate where the beach is, and you are directed down the road to a place that is not the resort. But if you say you would like to pay for a day pass to the hotel or to visit the casino or restaurants, you are waved in and can park in the garage, which charges by the hour and is a short walk down a path to the beach.
It looks like the ones that you see when you Google “Puerto Rico beach.” Clean sand, invitingly clear water ... and populated by a good number of tourists.
We had more fun, however, at a public beach called Playa Luquillo 10 minutes down the road. For $5.50, we parked, set up our chairs (you can rent them, and umbrellas, too) and joined local families and fellow bargain hunters. There are concession stands, and the beach abuts a line of food and souvenir kiosks.
Vendors come by hawking fresh seafood from coolers. We tried the shrimp and grilled octopus in homemade mojo sauce and ran after the vendor for more.
But the best beach by far, and one of the most spectacular we have seen in our years of travel in Mexico and the Caribbean, was Culebra Island.
It requires about a 15-mile drive east from Rio Grande to a ferry at the seaside village of Fajardo; it’s a good idea to get there an hour or more before the scheduled time to ensure a seat.
After a ferry trip of an hour to 90 minutes, depending on how long it takes to board everyone, you arrive at a funky beach town with taxi buses ready to whisk you to beaches, snorkeling, Jet Skis and other activities minutes away. With our children growing anxious, we opted for the closest beach, Playa Flamenco, and were enthralled.
A wide, powdery white-sand beach awaited. Swimming-pool-clear water extended yards out, waist-deep, and even deeper water was the blue of a dusky sky.
Gentle but persistent waves playfully banged around the young (and older) daredevils. The presence of a coral reef just offshore seemed an impossibly over-the-top perk, but it had enough fish — lots of blue tang for “Finding Dory” fans — poking around to lure us, some of them zooming off to the shoreline.
Culebra now ranks in our household among our top three beaches.
Almost everything we did after that teetered on letdown.
A popular attraction is nighttime kayaking in a bioluminescent bay in Fajardo. With a guide leading the way, you paddle for a half-hour through a dark mangrove, knocking trees and other boats along the way as novices get used to navigating, into a large bay where luminescent bubbles from micro-organisms trail your hand as you pass it through the water (swimming is no longer permitted).
It was a workout for me as my companion, my 11-year-old son, comfy in his backrest-equipped spot, grew tired of paddling and drifted off to sleep at one point. And overall I guess I was expecting science-fiction level luminescence, but the eerie course through the mangrove, with fish darting and splashing to the surface, passed for adventure.
Long days usually meant quick meals at the apartment, with a couple of supermarkets 10 minutes away good for stocking up on snacks and whatever cooking we were motivated to do.
But plenty of restaurants and shops are worth checking out.
Three stood out for us.
The fresh offerings at La Familia Bakery 2, including mouthwatering sweet bread, are a must, and it’s just off Highway 3 in Rio Grande near a large supermarket.
Lluvia, a modern breakfast and lunch cafe you’ll pass on the road to El Yunque, offers rich Puerto Rico-grown coffee and dishes like waffles with bacon cooked in them and a breakfast “cup” overflowing with egg, cheese, pesto sauce and home fries.
But El Verde BBQ, a roadside stand along Highway 186 (a major thoroughfare to the airport) with its Puerto Rican street food, is the one we would go back to in a heartbeat, though the tasty fare is artery-clogging. Fried plantain, barbecue ribs, empanadas and the Puerto Rican staple mofongo, a fried and mashed plantain dish. Prepare for a long nap afterward.
The Wyndham and some of the restaurants offer live music on many nights, but traveling with children left us mostly exhausted by the time such things got going.
The one cultural stop we will remember is a bit off the beaten path, in Loiza, a small city that is the heart of Afro-Puerto Rican culture. There, the Afro-Puerto Rican artist Samuel Lind has a rambling gallery and workshop where he sells paintings and prints.
His works depict everyday scenes and folklore of African descendants who make up a significant part of the island’s population. He is also a generous host, offering soothing tea and the stories behind his works. We were entranced at the large print of a “bomba” dancer, so he walked us across the street to meet Raquel Ayala, the subject and part of a large family of dancers. She has the original painting on a wall.
The visit reminded us of the charm of this corner of Puerto Rico, a casual place with rich rewards in easy reach.