Highs and Lows of a Family Beach Vacation in Puerto Rico

Plans for this year’s spring break vacation with my teens called for rest, relaxation, and playing in the ocean, with just a few scheduled excursions on the island of Puerto Rico. We’re longtime fans of the Riviera Maya, Mexico, for our annual sun-and-sand trip, but wanted to try something a bit different, yet still tropical.


We opted for two different apartment rentals in the western and northeastern parts of the island that promised some good surf for boogie boarding: Rincon and Luquillo.

Overall, our relaxing spring break was great and one for the books, but it wasn’t without a couple of disappointments and snafus (i.e. don’t try to find an open restaurant on Good Friday in Puerto Rico). Here’s the scoop:

Low: Cueva Ventana. We flew into San Juan’s international airport after dark, so we crashed at a nearby hotel because we knew we’d be tired from our 12+-hour travel day.

After waking at the high-rise TRYP Wyndham (fine for our purposes) and walking Isla Verde Beach in the morning (my husband and I) and jumping in the ocean (my kids) we made our way to Cueva Ventana, which a pal had recommended to me.

However, she had visited the “window cave” years ago before it became commercialized — driving off the beaten path to the trailhead and making her way to the underground caverns and passageways with her own flashlight.

Now, visitors pay to borrow hardhats and follow a guide to a large cave that opens to a magnificent, lush valley view.

Though the vista is indeed pretty, and we were entertained spotting bats (eek!) hanging from cavern ceilings, I don’t think the 90-minute-or-so easy hiking excursion is worth the money for a family of four. We have more impressive caves close to home!

Dull decor (no decor) in our Rincon rental.

Dull decor (no decor) in our Rincon rental.

High/Low: Rincon Apartment Rental. Our first vacation rental in the municipality of Rincon was in the northern Punta Gorda area. We opted for this location due to its proximity across the street from Sandy Beach, and the rural nature of Punta Gorda that is far from the big-city scene.

The top-floor unit at Punta Taino Guesthouse was perfectly sized for our family; the three bedrooms and two bathrooms allowed us to spread out, and having a kitchen for prepping inexpensive breakfasts and picnic lunches was also ideal.

I liked the common areas of the guesthouse, which included a hammock and gathering place with chairs on the rooftop, as well as a covered ground-level courtyard area.

Overall, this was a great place to lay our heads for three nights (a “high”), though I do believe the blandly decorated property caters more often to laid-back surfers, than to families who expect a few simple amenities.

Missing from our unit were a hair dryer, paper towels, and a fresh sponge and scrubby Brillo pad; the sponges from the previous renters we left in the sink — ick — a “low.” That said, the friendly on-site manager did bring us a new sponge and more dishtowels when we asked for them; we bought our own paper towels.

A couple of other things to note about this property: Towels and washcloths are not plush by any means; the only bath/body products provided are small bars of soap; there is no ironing board; air-conditioning is only found in the three bedrooms (though it does work well in those small rooms); the wi-fi is spotty, at best; and late-night music from neighboring bars kept us awake until the wee hours, even on weeknights.

Yay for awesome boogie-boarding waves at Sandy Beach.

Yay for awesome boogie-boarding waves at Sandy Beach.

High: Sandy Beach. Surfers flock to Rincon on the west side of the island for its waves, and I understand why. They’re great for surfing, and pretty darn good for boogie boarding, too, which is what my teens really wanted to do on this trip.

On arrival on the island, we bought $20 boards at Walgreens, which lasted just long enough before the styrofoam broke toward the end of the trip. Sandy Beach is just that — sandy — and I found a great spot in the sand and in the shade to keep an eye on the kids in front of (yummy!) Tamboo Seaside Grill.

High: Kahuna Burger Bar. Yes, we ate our fair share of seafood and Puerto Rican favorites (frituras! mofongo!) on this trip, but one restaurant our entire family agreed was outstanding was Kahuna Burger Bar, just a stone’s throw from our apartment in Rincon.

It’s a tiny spot, with a surf-themed covered bar and open deck with a handful of high-tops, picnic tables and umbrellas. Burgers and accompanying fresh buns served with hot skinny fries are outstanding. We loved our burgers so much, we ate here twice.

My fave was the Kali Burger – bacon and pepperjack cheese melted over an 8-oz burger topped with chipotle mayo, onions, lettuce and tomato — washed down with a coco loco mojito (or two).

Low: Puerto Rican Roads and Drivers. Getting to the Punta Gorda area of Rincon involves navigating windy, hilly roads that are barely wide enough for two cars.

My husband is a cautious, skilled driver, but I felt myself constantly gasping and grabbing the dashboard as he navigated turns only to come face to face with another car.

We escaped any sort of accidents, but I never felt safe on the narrow roads and the native drivers who continually rolled through stop signs didn’t help matters. I don’t think I could drive on the island confidently.

Full kitchen in our high-rise Luquillo apartment rental.

Full kitchen in our high-rise Luquillo apartment rental.

Luquillo apartment view

One view from our apartment balcony.

High: Luquillo Apartment Rental. Our three-bedroom VRBO rental in Luquillo, on the northeast shore of the island, was quite different from our rental in Rincon.

First, it is located in a gated, high-rise building on the third floor, amidst apartments that are occupied by residents who seem to live there year-round.

The brightly painted apartment decorated in a beachy nautical theme was fully equipped with amenities — from hand soap and lotion to paper towels and fresh sponges to beach chairs and beach towels.

We also had access to a washer/dryer (BYODetergent), which was marvelous. The apartment has a good-sized balcony, where I enjoyed drinking coffee in the morning in full view of the ocean.

The neighborhood itself is a bit rundown, with many empty and graffitied buildings, but I never felt unsafe in the area, which we chose for its proximity to El Yunque National Forest, where we hiked to La Mina Falls on a wet Easter morning, and Fajardo, an eastern port town, from which we took an evening kayaking tour (see below). There are also a handful of restaurants within walking distance.

High: Azul Beach. Upon arrival in Luquillo, my water-loving children immediately went into the ocean right in front of our apartment… and they promptly got reprimanded by a local and told to move down the beach to where the current wasn’t as strong.

Indeed, “no swimming” flags stood on nearby La Pared Beach, so¬† during our time in Luquillo, we walked about 10 minutes to get to Azul Beach, where the waves were safer and families flocked.

We enjoyed being part of the scene here on a Sunday, when hundreds of locals set up camp under pop-up tents with barbecue grills to eat, drink and socialize for hours.

Just three of the 60 kiosks in Luquillo.

Just three of the 60 kiosks in Luquillo.

High: Luquillo Kiosks. The strip-mall-like open-air buildings that line the main drag in front of Luquilo Beach may not be much to look at, but the small restaurants and food stands here are absolutely worth a visit on any trip to Puerto Rico.

There are sixty kiosks, some of which feature souvenirs and clothing, while the large majority serve Puerto Rican food and drink.

Visitors can bar hop and sample fried foods, such as arepas or empanadas stuffed with beef, chicken, shrimp or other fillings — this popular and casual street food can be wrapped in a paper napkin and eaten on the go.

We sat down for some civilized ceviche and tostones (friend plantains) at Ceviche Hut; other recommended kiosks include El Jefe Burger Shack and Revolution Pizza.

Graffiti-style sign at an randomly decorated restaurant that serves amazing food.

Graffiti-style sign at an randomly decorated restaurant that serves amazing food.

High: Pasta y Pueblo. This restaurant literally around the corner from our beach rental is nothing to look at — similar to the Luquillo Kiosks.

The shack with a tin roof has only seven tables, and each one was filled the two nights we ate at the funky-decorated spot (yes, we went twice).

Seafood and steak are served with your pasta and your choice of sauce (pesto and alfredo were out of this world). My husband gave a big thumbs’ up to the mussels, while my teen daughter loved the mango smoothie.

I was entertained by all the skateboards, surfboard paraphernalia on the walls and seashells hanging from the ceiling.

Outside is a skate-park half pipe and a beached boat with a makeshift garden and cork-decorated tree branch (random). Pasta y Pueblo is a definitely gem; don’t miss it if you’re in Luquillo.


Glass Bottom Kayaks Puerto Rico

High/Low: Bioluminescent Bay Kayaking Tour. Several outfitters offer tours of Bio Bay, officially named Lagunda Grande, one of the few places on earth where single-celled dinoflagellate organisms appear to “glow” when the water they live in is disturbed.

We went on an 8pm tour with Glass Bottom Kayak Tours, whose guides led about 20 pairs of kayakers in double kayaks along the shore, through mangroves and out to the “big lagoon,” where we waved our hands in the water to see hundreds of tiny, diamond-like sparkles moving around, reminding me of fireflies.

Unfortunately, the “glow” of these organisms was not nearly as impressive as it was when I visited Bio Bay on a girls’ trip to Puerto Rico in 2008 (that’s the “low” part).

Apparently, a few months ago a seaweed or bacteria (or bacterial seaweed?) invaded the lagoon and adversely affected the organisms making their home there — at least that’s what one of the friendly Glass Bottom guides told me.

Still, my teenage kids thought the sparkling water was cool, and I was hugely impressed with my kiddos’ skills navigating their kayaks in the dark — the definite “high” of this adventure.

They were more adept than some of the adults! Another plus for booking with Glass Bottom Kayak: The guides take photos of you (above) and post them on the company’s Facebook page for you to share. Smart marketing!

Emergency room in Puerto Rico

Good times at the ER in Luquillo.

Low: Emergency room visits. While this vacation isn’t the first one where my family sought some urgent medical care, I’m pretty sure it’s the only one where two of us needed doctors.

First, after playing in ocean waves, my husband couldn’t hear out of one of his ears. He rightly suspected some ear wax got lodged in an ear tube, blocking his eardrum.

A visit to the ER in Rincon took care of that problem (a nurse unlodged wax with a force of warm water). Then, I got hit in the face by a rogue wave (okay, maybe not so rogue; but I wasn’t paying attention), and felt like my eye was scratched by churning sand.

I suffered for about 24 hours before going to the ER in Luquillo, where a doctor couldn’t confirm a scratched cornea (didn’t have the eye dye at his small clinic to check) but gave me some steroid and antibiotic drops and told me not to wear contacts for the next few days.

My owie eye did feel a ton better by the time I stepped on the airplane to fly home. Of all the things that could go wrong on vacation, these minor injuries were just a little dent in the overall fun factor of our trip to Puerto Rico — and certainly nothing that would stop us from planning another tropical family beach vacation anytime soon!

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Plans for this year's spring break vacation with my teens called for rest, relaxation, and playing in the ocean, with just a few scheduled excursions on the island of Puerto Rico. We're longtime fans of the Riviera Maya, Mexico, for our annual sun-and-sand trip, but wanted to try something a bit different, yet still tropical.