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  • Janis Nunez

Puerto Rico: Old San Juan, El Yunque National Forest, San Juan Beaches

Updated: Jul 1, 2023

Our first time going to San Juan was back in 2014. It was one of the stops on our cruise and we fell in love with Old San Juan. We decided to go back in March of 2017 over spring break to experience a little more, and to hike and explore the Yunque National Forest.


BEFORE YOU GO


WHERE TO STAY: This really depends on what kind of vacation you are looking for. We chose to stay at the Doubletree by Hilton for a couple of reasons. First, we get points for staying at any Hilton hotels, and second, they provided transportation to and from the beach, so we wouldn't have to search for a parking spot. The Doubletree by Hilton San Juan is in an excellent location if you want to spend time at the beach, go to Old San Juan, and go to the Yunque National Forest. The Doubletree will take you by golf cart to the beach where they have beach chairs and towels for their hotel guests for free. You can also get an umbrella. The hotel has a nice outdoor area with pool, jacuzzi and a ping pong table. My son used the fitness center to run and workout. The beds are very comfortable, and the staff is great. My kids may have gone to the front desk more than once for a warm cookie and they were always accommodating.



There is a grocery store right across the street open 24 hours. Great food at the deli, an acai bowl station, and a little counter for cafe con leche and pastries. Great way to save a few bucks while on vacation.


TRANSPORTATION: We rented a car as we knew we were going to the National Forest to hike and to other beach locations that we would not have transportation to get there otherwise.


GROCERIES: Usually no matter where we go, we try to find a grocery store to stock up on water and snacks. The Super Max Grocery Store is right across the street from the Doubletree and has a deli where you can purchase full meals. We picked up a Styrofoam cooler to take to the beach to keep our drinks cold. We got acai bowls, cafe con leche, and lunch there while visiting. All delicious and reasonably priced.


CURRENCY: No need to exchange money. They use the US dollar.


SIGHTSEEING


Our first time visiting Puerto Rico was in March of 2014. I'm adding this information so that if you are on a cruise and you wonder if you would be able to fit in some of the fun things we did, you absolutely can. From our cruise ship we were able to walk around Old San Juan, have breakfast, explore both forts, and wander a bit. You can do most of this on foot, but they do have a FREE trolley that will take you to all of the tourist spots.


2014 TRIP


On our recent trip in July of 2017, we were able to do some new things, but we also went back to Old San Juan as it's such a beautiful place to visit, and very affordable.


OLD SAN JUAN


The forts are really a must see if you go to San Juan. $7 gets you into both forts, and you can walk from one to the other, or use the free trolley. It's been hot both times we have gone, so be sure and take water with you, as well as sunscreen. There are a lot of opportunities to take fun pictures in the forts and along the streets.


Castillo de San Cristóbal: The forts are huge so be prepared to do a lot of walking. San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.



Castillo San Felipe del Morro: You can take a kite to fly in the huge grassy area before the fort. Both times we went tons of people were flying kites. You could also take a lunch and picnic on the grounds outside of the fort. We saw some people in the shade on the side of the fort picnicking and it looked fun.



La Puerta de San Juan: We walked this way after leaving El Morro. It's a nice walk and you get a chance to see a lot of architecture on your way to the gate. You can then walk along the water and get some shade from the trees. Comfortable walking shoes and water are a must. It's hot out. If you walk through the gate and go right, you will see a lot of stray cats hanging out. They are harmless.



If you go to the left you will see the trees I'm talking about and a bench or two to rest for a few before you continue on.



Yunque National Rainforest: To get here you have to rent a car. You cannot take an Uber or taxi as you need to drive throughout the park. Definitely stop at all of the lookouts and take pictures, there are stunning views in every direction. The park is just 35 miles east of San Juan. It is open from 7:30am-6:00pm.


El Portal Tropical Forest Center, Yokahu Observation Tower, La Mina Falls


El Portal Tropical Forest Center - There is an entrance fee to go to the visitor's center ($4 for adults, 16 and under are free), but it's not really necessary. There is a small walking trail which was nice, but the map we got at the desk was the same one you can print out for yourself from the website. They do have a gift shop there, and a cafe. If you collect walking stick pins you can purchase one there. The park is so big though you could just bypass this stop, and you wouldn't miss a thing. The visitor center is open from 9:00am-5:00pm.



La Coca Waterfall - This waterfall is right along the road. There is a small parking lot just past the falls, or you can park on the road as you approach the waterfall. Use your park map to locate the waterfall.



Yokahu Observation Tower - Tower allows you to look out over the whole forest. There is a small gift shop at the bottom. There are a lot of stairs, so stay hydrated. It's extremely hot in July.



La Mina Falls - There is a lot of uphill and downhill hiking on this trail. You definitely want good shoes (we wore our hiking shoes). If you want to swim in the waterfall wear you suit under your clothes. I'd take a towel too if you think of it. We didn't know we could go in, and the boys just went in with their shorts on. There are a TON of people here, but it's still fun and not overwhelming. Make sure you hike back the direction that you came so you can get back to your car.


There are two ways to get to the falls. You can hike from the north or south end parking lots. The north end has bathrooms, picnic tables, and shelters. There is also a small store if you need something. We took water and brought lunch to enjoy at one of the pavilions.



WHERE TO EAT


There are several really good restaurants in San Juan. Be sure to ask your hotel or locals you meet along the way. That's usually how we find the best places to eat.




Bebo's Cafe is extremely busy and filled with locals. This is EXACTLY what we were looking for. Our meals were very affordable and absolutely delicious! I had the pork mofongo with a side of rice and beans. It's walking distance from the Doubletree Hotel. This restaurant was recommended to us by the valet at our hotel. Definitely don't miss this place!





Cafe Cultura (Old San Juan). We went here for coffee and breakfast. This was our second trip to this cafe. Excellent food and coffee. It's a bit pricey, but delicious and right in the middle of everything. You can sit inside or outside to enjoy your meal.


2017 2014




The Super Max Grocery Store - You can pick up fresh acai bowls at the Super Max right across from the hotel. They are made to order right on site.


There is also a coffee bar that sells cafe con leche and pastries filled with guava paste.


They also have a huge area that you can order food for lunch or dinner (meat, rice & beans, etc.) that was very good and had quick service.






BEACHES


Isla Verde Beach has soft sand and beautiful views. We rented chairs for $4 each, and an umbrella for $10 for the day. There are a lot of hotels directly on this beach. You can take a cooler with drinks to keep you cool, or there are several vendors selling drinks. Remember to reapply sunscreen. That sun is hot! Lots of families there. Free parking in lot.



Ocean Park Beach - This beach has free chairs, towels and umbrellas for Doubletree customers. They will drive you to the beach in a golf cart, an pick you up when you are ready to return. Not as crowded as Isla Verde, but not kept as nice. Still a beautiful beach.


We didn't know a the time, but we were told later that we could have gone to another beach at the Doubletree's sister hotel and used their chairs and umbrellas. So, find out from your hotel if you have access to other beaches when you arrive.



That's it. It was a quick trip, but so relaxing. There is so much more of Puerto Rico to see on other parts of the island. We look forward to exploring them another time.

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