Taking the kids to Puerto Rico

Accidental tourists find an island filled with natural attractions.

08/17/2008 3:01 AM

08/13/2008 1:33 PM

We'd never given San Juan, Puerto Rico, a second thought as a ''bring the kids'' vacation destination. To us, it was just a portal to more exotic island destinations.

We adults had done a brief tour of Old San Juan on a layover, and enjoyed the cobblestone streets, candy-colored facades and criolla cooking of this World Heritage city, but kid-appeal? Nah! We've been around the block enough times to know that a centuries-old capital doesn't rate high on the list of must-sees for our adventure-loving bunch. We could just imagine: ``Mo-omm! Do we really have to see El Morro? We already saw San Cristobal!''

But, thanks to an airline snafu that resulted in some free tickets, San Juan started looking pretty good. (It was the only place we could afford to go on the cheapie tickets.) Surely we could find some outdoor action that would sell our teens on the charms of this destination.

Did we ever. We hedged our bets (and garnered some Cool Mom points) by staying at a hotel with the liveliest pool scene ever, the El San Juan, and rented a car so that we could get out and explore the hilly areas beyond the city. Here's what we discovered, from mild to wild.

NATURE'S HOT TUB

Head 40 miles east, and the hillsides turn deep green, the outlet malls disappear and you arrive at 28,000-acre El Yunque, the Caribbean National Rainforest -- the only tropical rainforest in the United States.

Wild animals are few here, unless you count the mongoose and the (rare and endangered) Puerto Rican parrot, but exotic blooms are abundant and gorgeous. Torch ginger, slipper hibiscus, flaming red ginger and ''lobster claws'' grow everywhere, sharing the soil with bananas, breadfruit and mangoes.

The day was hot and humid, but the rainforest was a cool refuge. We meandered along La Mina Trail, accompanied by the sound of running water. With four rivers flowing through the park, there are tumbling cascades at nearly every turn.

Halfway through the hike, we reached Cascada La Mina, a splendidly bushy waterfall, with pools at its base. Great for splashing around in, as a dozen visitors had already discovered.

''This is like a water park, without the cement,'' 15-year-old Jarrett remarked, pulling his T-shirt over his head and boulder-hopping toward the waterfall. The rest of us quickly followed suit. For our city kids, a dip into Mother Nature's hot tub was an unexpected treat.

Back on the trail, we Moms reveled in the earthy green scent and damp beauty of the rainforest. Meanwhile, Jarrett and Connor, 17, were contemplating Tarzan-like moves on the huge, ropy vines that dangled over the trail. (''Just. Please. Don't!'' we said, in that no-nonsense Mom-speak that still works, in public anyway, on our teenagers.)

The kids were eager to get back to the hotel and catch dinner at the El San Juan hotel's Tex-Mex restaurant (translate: connect with some kids they'd met at the pool and ride the mechanical bull).

BIOLUMINESCENT BAY

This one takes some doing, but it is so worth it! In Fajardo, about an hour's drive east of San Juan, we caught the ferry ($2) to Vieques, a lovely little island about seven miles off the coast. A quick taxi ride got us to the beach town of Esperanza, where Blue Caribe Kayaks would take us out after dark to commune with the dino-flagellates. These microscopic organisms live in the waters of Mosquito Bay and emit light when they get riled up.

Under a sliver of moon, we, and seven other families and couples, followed Blue Caribe guide Alex (he wore a glow-stick) through a mangrove forest, where we slipped our kayaks into the lagoon. The short paddle into the bay, under cover of darkness, was eerily delightful. Constellations galore revealed themselves in the inky sky; the boys identified the Southern Cross, Orion, and the Milky Way. We've done lots of kayaking, but night paddling is a different experience altogether.

As we dipped our paddles into the water, we noticed something wondrous: the bay lit up with a shimmering streak with each stroke. Then, in the middle of the bay, we rolled out of our kayaks and into the bathtub-warm water. With each movement, we were covered with a million little diamonds of light. Swishing our arms and legs made dazzling vapor trails. The boys quickly launched into a Star Wars-ian battle of light sabers, courtesy of Mother Nature.

Were we doing harm to the environment by being here, we wondered? ''Not really,'' Alex said. ``We'll leave here with hundreds of them on us, but they reproduce at lightning-fast speeds, so no harm done.''

As he spoke, a shooting star fell from the sky, adding to the magic of the night.

The kayak tour ends at 9 p.m., after the last ferry back to Fajardo, so we'd booked a night in a nearby hotel, giving us time to enjoy a late-night walk along the beach and dinner in Esperanza.

CAVE-CRAWLING

Our heart-pounding, knee-scraping, muddy caving adventure began with a hot, sticky hike through the jungle, a zip line ride across a plunging gully, and a 250-foot rappel down a rocky cliff. And that was the easy part.

While most tourists opt for a relatively tame tram ride through Puerto Rico's Río Camuy Cave Park -- the third largest cave system in the world -- we followed island guide Rossano Boscarino to the mouth of Angeles Cave, a lesser-known section of the underground labyrinth. Headlamps, helmets, life jackets . . .

''We're ready,'' Boscarino said. ''Watch your footing; it's slippery. And watch where you place your hands. There are lots of guavas hiding in the crevices.'' Guavas? Those, we learned, were creepy spiders the size of dinner plates. There were plenty of them, along with thousands of bats and scurrying bugs.

For the better part of the day, we sloshed through knee-deep mud, crawled through narrow, wet tunnels and climbed slippery slopes. There were free jumps into dark pools of water and body rafting the underground, fast-moving river.

''Start swimming before you hit the water,'' Boscarino warned us. ``You don't want the river to take you away.''

Everywhere were strange sea creature fossils, large calcite water drippings, and fascinating formations. Lunch was served in a chamber the size of a cathedral, decorated with giant flowstones, hanging stalagmites and glistening stalactites.

The underground journey ended at the top of a two-story-high mudslide. We rode it to the bottom, popping out, mud-caked and tired, into a bright, sun dappled forest.

''Sick!'' the boys exclaimed, high-fiving. We couldn't have agreed more.

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