Old San Juan – Puerto Rico

Lovely to read an article featuring Puerto Rico. Published by the New York Times on Friday, January 26, 2007. Here is the link http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/01/26/travel/escapes/26kids.html 

Highlights of the story:

Puerto Rico is a lush island, 100 by 35 miles, outlined by long stretches of white beach, which, for most tourists, are reason enough to visit.

Now a cross of Hispanic and Anglo cultures, Puerto Rico was visited in 1493 by Christopher Columbus. Under the leadership of Juan Ponce de León, the island became a strategic military outpost for Spain, and with its massive forts built in the early 1500s — and still standing (and a favorite tourist stop) — the island protected its port of San Juan from attacks by the English and Dutch.

As part of the Spanish empire, Puerto Rico thrived during the 1800s. After the Spanish-American War in 1898, Puerto Rico became a part of the United States (which also makes it one of the few Caribbean destinations that Americans can still visit without a passport).

A walk through Old San Juan should include a visit to El Morro (Calle Norzagaray, 787-729-6777), a fortress built by Spanish colonists on a promontory 140 feet above the sea. Kids love to touch the fort’s cannons and explore the maze of dungeons, towers and tunnels. A green esplanade just outside the fort — perfect for kite flying — separates it from the historic town it was built to safeguard.

Where El Morro guarded against attacks from the sea, San Cristóbal (Calle Norzagaray, 787-729-6960), a fort one mile to the east, was built to stave off land attacks. Finished in 1790 and covering 27 acres, the fort offers spectacular views and a chance to walk on the ramparts. Both forts are managed by the National Park Service (www.nps.gov/saju) and are Unesco world heritage sites. Admission is $3 to visit one fort; $5 for both. Children 15 and younger are free.

NATURE’S DIVERSIONS

A 40-minute drive from San Juan puts you in the Caribbean National Forest, known locally as El Yunque (Route 191, 787-888-1880; www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean), the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest Service system and where more than 250 inches of rain falls each year. On 28,000 lush acres, you can view birds, like the endangered Puerto Rican parrot, and hundreds of species of trees and plants. Be sure to listen for the song of the coquí, a tiny tree frog native to the island, which you won’t see but will most likely hear. The Big Tree Trail, 1.4 miles round trip, takes you to La Mina waterfall where — if you don’t get wet from a rainfall — you can cool off. Before you start exploring, make a stop at the El Portal visitors center (open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), where there are multimedia displays and several hands-on activities for youngsters.

The Rio Camuy Cave Park (Route 129, kilometer 18.9, 787-898-3100), a 90-minute drive west of San Juan, is a big cave system, formed by the Camuy River, one of the world’s longest underground rivers. From the visitors center (admission is $12; $7 ages 4 to 12), you can take an open-air trolley down to the caves through a 200-foot deep sinkhole, a chasm where sunlight reaches down to thriving tropical trees and flowers. There are many caves in this 268-acre ecosystem, with winding footpaths and “rooms” with stalactites, stalagmites and huge limestone formations. Keep an eye out for the bats.

For a different type of eco-adventure, try a nighttime boat or kayak ride on a “bio bay.” About an hour and a half drive from San Juan, the bioluminescent lagoon at Las Cabezas Nature Reserve in Fajardo (Route 987 near Las Croabas; 787-722-5882)is lighted by millions of microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates. Adults ($7) and older kids ($4 ages 5 to 11) may like getting close to the water in a kayak, and there are boats for those with younger children. Admission is by reservation only; guided tours are recommended.

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