Sun, fun and rum; A review of our family Puerto Rico trip

What do you get when you combine a tropical breeze, lazy days at the beach, a water park, along with a National Rain Forest and a really cool 400 year old City?  The answer, Amigos, is our family trip to Puerto Rico.

Where did we go?

As previously noted in this article, we planned a trip to El Conquistador resort, which is about 45 minutes from San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Our Southwest flight took about 6 hours, including a layover in Tampa Bay, FL, to fly into San Juan.  Upon arriving in San Juan, we picked up the car we had rented with Chase credit card points, from Alamo.  Obtaining the car rental was easy and the rental car area was easy to find.  We were told that we would be given a sticker, for $3.99, for tolls in Puerto Rico.  Tolls incurred would be added to the $3.99 fee.

We were upgraded from our mid-size car to a full size jeep SUV (after being asked if we would pay for an upgrade).  Ironically, the amount of storage space in the upgrade was about as much as we would have in a midsize car.  However, the car we were automatically upgraded to was a fantastic vehicle to drive.

My first impression of Puerto Rico was how different rules of the road are there.  I can’t quite put my finger on everything unique, but driving on the mainland USA is not the same as driving in Puerto Rico.  For starters, people don’t use blinkers to switch lanes, as in ever.  Some roads are extraordinarily bumpy and driving in the right lane in residential areas is not advised.  Parked cars jump into your lane all the time and without notice.  Also, many roads don’t seem to have great paint markings to determine where you are supposed to drive and where the center median is located.

El Conquistador Resort

After our 45 minute drive, we arrived safely and without any accidents to our resort in Fajardo, Puerto Rico.  Even though I had booked a “garden view room,” the El Conquistador Resort hotel kindly and promptly noted my Hilton Gold Status and upgraded us to an outstanding Ocean View room.  I can’t say enough good things about Hilton as they gushed over my gold status and I also got two free drink coupons for my stay as well as a coupon for free bottles of water.  For a family of 4, the room was very spacious and had a great balcony to sit outside and enjoy the beautiful scenery from.

From the top of the resort, looking down at El Conquistador. The resort is built into a scenic hill and has multiple levels.
Real view from our balcony room at the El Conquistador Resort

For our first three full days, we took the free ferry over to the resort’s Palomino Island.  I can’t say enough good things about the beauty of this Island.  The ferry rides were on time and fun, and the Island exceeded all of my expectations.  From the white sand beach, to the shallow water with great snorkeling (for my daughter), and the endless rays of sun as well as activities on the Island, we were not disappointed.

Relaxing and playing on beautiful and private Palomino Island. The Island even has hiking trails and horseback riding (for a fee).

The Island had extracurricular activities such as a basketball court, table tennis, mini golf, pool table, and others that you could do (free) if you got bored with sitting on the beach.  Inevitably, I took the kids to play some of these games.  In addition, there was a bar and restaurant on the Island.  As much as possible, though, we brought our own lunches to the Island (technically not allowed but not enforced) and our resort food purchases were kept to a minimum.  We also brought our own beer and rum to the Island and made sure our brand of beer matched what we had seen sold on the resort.

El Yunque National Forest

On day four of our trip, we took our rental car, about 30 minutes away to the El Yunque National Forest.  It’s the only national forest in the US that is a rain forest.

As described on the Forest’s website:

The El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system.  At nearly 29,000 acres, it is one of the smallest in size, yet one of the most biologically diverse of the national forests hosting hundreds of animal and plant species, some of which are found only here.

Upon arriving, we visited the visitor center for $4 admission per adult.  We had to pay cash.  I am glad we did this as the visitor center is gorgeous and provided a lot of help for our trip.

 

Our first hike was to a waterfall and, as one can imagine, was filled with tourists buses mostly coming from San Juan.  One of the cool things about this waterfall, though, was people were swimming in this waterfall.  The temperature was very warm and comfortable in Puerto Rico, and our day of hiking was filled with clouds;  perfect conditions for hiking in a tropical destination.

Waterfall in El Yunque Forest
Mt. Britton tower, which offers an elevated and stunning view of the rain forest.
View from the top of Mount Britton. This view is best experienced in person.

Our second hike was to Mount Britton.  As we had two kids with us, we had to find a trail that wasn’t the longest or most difficult and this was a great trail for that purpose (only 0.8 miles each way).  The trails in the rain forest were nicely paved with stones and rock that helped prevent you from slipping and falling.  Much of these trails were built during the Great Depression and are of excellent construction and have been well maintained.  I couldn’t help but think of how nice and user-friendly the entire experience of this rain forest was.  You never know what you’re going to get with a national landmark/park/forest etc and in this case it was better than I had expected.

An example of the well-built and well maintained infrastructure in the El Yunque national (rain) forest.
One of the many beautiful views visitors have inside the rain forest.

If you plan on going to Puerto Rico, this national rain forest is a MUST SEE.  I highly recommend going here, you will not regret it.  The scenery is absolutely stunning from up high, and like most Americans, it’s not everyday you get to go hiking in a US rain-forest.

Bio Bay Kayak Tour

On day five of our trip, we spent much of the day relaxing at the resort’s pool and, in the evening, went to our planned Bio luminescence kayaking tour.  For the trip, we met at a place within walking distance from our resort, and our group was set to go out at 6pm.  I don’t recall ever having kayaked before, but I can say that it is a very physical thing to do.  My boat had my six-year-old son in it, who had even less experience kayaking than I did.  I knew I would mostly be on my own in steering this boat, and the challenges in navigation were numerous.

Kayaking, at night, with my six-year-old in tow.

Luckily our tour had multiple guides willing to bail us out and rescue us if need be.  The water we were in was shallow but I found navigation to be difficult.  The trip to the Bay wasn’t bad because it was still light out, but even with Mosquito repellent on, I still managed to get bit quite a bit once we wandered into the Mangrove trees.

After we reached the Bay, we held on to each other’s Kayak’s and began to witness the lighting up of the bio-luminescence.  I was surprised to hear that fireflies have the same natural phenomenon when they light up as these aquatic creatures do.  It was dark enough to see this very well and many on our excursion were very impressed with this show.  I was moderately impressed as I was more worried about my six-year-old being safe and getting back in what was now pitch black darkness.

The Kayaking back, in the dark, was confusing and at one point my kayak was twirled around backwards.  Another time our boat got stuck in a Mangrove tree and one of the tour guides had to help get us out of the tree and back into the darkness.  Luckily we made it back to the main area in one piece and my wife and daughter said they really enjoyed it.  My son and I, on the other hand, were both exhausted and happy to be back and out of the swamp.

Coqui Water Park

For our last full day at the resort, we decided to pay extra and check out the Coqui Water Park.  We had heard this park was a blast and, for the most part, it was.  Even though it has only three slides, one of the slides is exceedingly high and the kids really enjoyed going down this high slide multiple times.  Of course dad had to check this out as well.  I can report that it was very exciting going down this slide with my eyes closed (so my contact lenses didn’t fall out).

Myself chillaxing at the Coqui Water park, some water slides are in the distance on the right

The park also had a lazy river which we mostly walked in and occasionally the kids would float in.  I was glad we had this option as an alternative to the scary water slides.  The park wasn’t exceedingly large, but it was well laid out and had a great view of the Ocean.  If you ever stay at this resort, I recommend doing what we did, and go at 1:30pm in order to pay reduced rates for the rest of the day.  About 3-4 hours is all you really need to check out and enjoy this water park.  For a family of 4, we paid $49 for the afternoon hours in this water park.

Last Day of our Trip, the Gem of Old San Juan

Before our late flight on the last day, we decided to take our rental car to Fort San Cristobal, in San Juan, and walk the cobble stone streets of Old San Juan.  The first thing that struck me about old San Juan was how large it is.  This area of the City is over 400 years old and goes on for miles.  The streets are very narrow, much like in European Cities, and the buildings are stunning pastel colors (think Art Deco district, Miami) that are well maintained along with gorgeous cobble stoned streets.  There is parking on only one side of each street and parking is for resident’s only.  If you are a visitor, I suggest parking in the parking ramp or where we did, which was San Cristobal Fort.

Cobble stone streets of old San Juan. The streets all look this amazing.
Walking the streets of old San Juan. The area is like being in a time warp.
View from Fort San Cristobal. The view is amazing.

Financial Review of our trip

How much did we spend?  As previously noted in our trip planning, we were going to try to get by spending as little as possible.  To do this, we planned to use points and cash, as well as do some grocery shopping for food as much as possible but not to the detriment of a poor experience during our vacation.

Below is a summary of our non grocery out of pocket spend.

 

According to my original post, I had estimated our out-of-pocket expenses at $2,000.  So we came in about $337.55 over.  That isn’t bad in my opinion.  It was my wife’s 40th birthday so we splurged a bit. We also made a few rookie mistakes such as not stopping at Wal-Mart on our way to the resort.  This cost us badly the first day by necessitating resort restaurant eating, which was over priced.  Still, I am not ashamed of the cost, given the experiences we had.

I hope you enjoyed the review of our family trip to Puerto Rico.  El Conquistador resort is a great resort if you are bringing kids.  If you are going as a couple, my advice is to stay in San Juan instead.

What trips have you recently gone on?  How did you save money on those trips?  Have you used credit card hacking in order to visit places you normally wouldn’t have?

8 comments

  1. Wow. Beautiful scenery. Looks like you guys had a ton of fun, and for $2k, looks like it was a steal! I’d like to visit my motherland, South Korea. It’s been a few years. No time, is the main factor, and the kid is too young to travel.

  2. This looks like an amazing time. Thank you for sharing your planning, how it turned out, and the pictures. It makes it feel attainable!

  3. That looks like a ton of fun. We’d love to visit Puerto RIco someday. Will it become a state soon? 🙂
    We’re heading to Cancun for the first time later on this year. The trip should be very cheap because we have a lot of points now. I’m looking forward to it.

    1. Congrats on your Cancun trip. We loved Cancun. I don’t think Puerto Rico will become a state, too much political opposition to adding two more senators and 5 congressman to the mix.

      That’s great you have a ton of points. Are you staying at the Hyatt or some other points resort?

  4. Wow that looks amazing!!! Sounds like you all had a lot of fun and going 15% over budget really isn’t bad in the grand scheme of things 🙂

    My wife and I recently went down to the beach and tried to save some money by hitting up the local Wal-Mart to cut down on some of the expenses while we were down there. It definitely helped and we didn’t spend an arm and leg which was nice 🙂

  5. Glad to hear all went as planned and you found ways to save while still having a fantastic time.

    Coincidentally, I celebrated my 40th birthday with a trip to Puerto Rico 18 months ago. We drove the entire perimeter (I hear you on the driving) and flew out to Vieques for the the bioluminescent bay and low key good times in Esperanza.

    Cheers!
    -PoF

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