Puerto Rico Birthday Weekend

I have long believed that experiences mean so much more than any material possession. I hatched up a plan to take my kids wherever they wanted to go for their 16th Birthday. I knew that I would not have enough money to buy them a car but I did work where I got hotel points and knew that I could trade some of them in to make a pretty nice trip.

My ex won’t let my kids have a passport. You need both parents to sign off on a passport until the kids turn 16 (I had previously thought it was at 18 years old). So, when I asked her where she wanted to go – and she responded, “a beach in Mexico.” I knew I  couldn’t make that happen. That is how we decided on Puerto Rico. As a U.S. Territory – U.S. citizens don’t need a passport to travel to Puerto Rico. But, since Spanish is the primary language it would feel like Mexico. (Coincidentially they were in the news right before we went as they have voted to try to become the 51st state).

We chose to stay at the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino. One of the primary factors that went into that decision was they are right on Condado beach and family friendly.  It is also in a safe neighborhood that has a lot of great restaurants and other activities nearby. We let the hotel know that it was her birthday. We were upgraded to a suite that had two balconies – one facing the ocean and the other facing the pool and up into Old San Juan (along the beach). When we arrived at the room there was an amazing “Happy Birthday” sign on the headboard of the bed and they sent a birthday cake to the room! Wow. What a welcome! (They also gave me vouchers for free drinks and casino matching money to play). That first night – we ran down to the beach and spent about an hour there. Then decided we were hungry.

We asked the front desk what is something uniquely Puerto Rican that we should have to eat and where to get it. They suggested mofongo (it is mashed plantains, grilled with garlic and oil, turned upside down and smothered with a soupy gravy and beef) at Orozco’s just down the street.

Photo of Orozco's Restaurant - San Juan, Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico. Realllllly. GoodIMG_4667

It was delicious. The girls (my daughter brought a friend) enjoyed the food (we also got empanadas and beans and rice) and the waiter was fairly young. He was super patient at letting them try out their Spanish (while he tried out his English). I also had a rum punch drink that was delicious (Hello! Bacardi is made there).

The next morning was early to rise. We headed out on a tour a the El Yunque Rain Forest Hiking Tour. The tour was arranged by my friends with the Puerto Rico Convention and Visitors Bureau via Destination Puerto Rico. They were really easy to work with and did a fantastic job of explaining everything to us. Our tour guide, George of the Jungle was friendly and knowledgable.

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He seemed very excited to share his island with us. He gave us a brief history as we rode in the shuttle bus with about 20 other people. The first stop was the visitors center. He explained many of the plants and a bit about the Rainforest itself (it is the only one in the U.S. National Forest Service). Then we stopped at a small rainfall “la Coca Falls”, next was an observation tower. Again, the knowledge of the tour guide was amazing – not only did he tell stories but he also pointed out what the islands in the distance were. We did have to hike up several stairs to get to the top (so if you’re not of a mind to walk much this might be a part you skip) the last stop was an upper hill above La Mina falls. We hiked down on a fairly steep path. It took about 30 minutes to walk down. Then we were allowed to swim at the base of the falls. It was so beautiful. The water was a bit chilly (but felt good for the warm day). There were several tour busses there and it appeared that some locals were there as well. Then after swimming for about an hour – we headed back up the hill (the other way) and came out near a parking lot where George was waiting for us. We did hear some other people talking about how steep it was (it wasn’t a big deal for us Colorado gals). Indeed it does rain in the rainforest. The rain was not cold at all. On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at a road-side cafe (more traditional Puerto Rican food) and souvenier shop. Then the best part, is my daughter had mentioned her love of mangos – George took us to his “friends house” and let everyone get off the bus quickly and pick mangos! (We ate those for breakfast for the next couple days).

 

When we got back to the hotel we had about two hours to chill – then we were headed out (this time in our rental car*) for the BioBay Tour. The BioBay tour started at the beach in Fajardo, a town pretty much on the other side of the island. Once we arrived at the beach area of Fajardo, there were several tents set up. We easily found the one we needed to check in for our tour. There are two tours. We took the earlier one. They told us to use lots of bug spray and then wait. When everyone had checked in we were issued our lifevest and told that the kayak trip would be a 2.4 mile round trip tour. Across the bay, through the jungle (covered – and btw it was VERY cool but hard to photograph), to an open lake where the only way to this lake is via boat. That is where the plankton who when moved create a glow. The glow was not what we really expected – we really could see the blue sparkes of the light up plankton. Then we followed the lights on kayas ahead of us back through the covered part and across the bay.

Sunday was a beach day. I could not have been happier that we planned it this way. People in Puerto Rico either take their Sundays very seriously or Father’s Day seriously. But we were told that there would not be much open. We planned the day at the beach and pool right at the hotel. We did make it down the street for a brunch – and a short detour to a couple touristy shops (had to get a t-shirt and a snowglobe) and the Walgreens there (Icee). We explored the game room at the hotel and the pool. We later ate dinner right at the hotel as well.

Monday morning – the girls slept in just a bit (I woke up my normal early and walked along the beach).  We headed across the street for a quick starbucks breakfast and headed out to the airport in our rented car. We had to return the car right at the airport and then check in to our flight (SJU>MCO>DEN). The trip was short in time – but hopefully long in memories. I think this may just be a birthday gift she remembers for a long time.

*We rented a car as we were told that the bio bay tour that we booked was filled but we were the only three that were asking for transportation from the hotel to Fajardo where the tour would take place. We were offered to “buy out” the bus at $20 per person (even though there were only three of us) which would have amounted to something like $200. So I started looking at cab rides or uber. Everything that I could see and those that I talked to told me that a cab ride would be something like $80 each way. And since Uber is not a real presence there that it would likely be not much less. So I started looking into renting a car – which would get us to/from airport as well as this excursion to the tour. The car rental from the airport was around $125 (it would have been less expensive but I sort of decided to do it last minute and prices had gone up). They are crazy drivers – speed limits and signs mean nothing to them. They swerve and go all different speeds. Also our GPS/Siri didn’t work well on one of the carriers (we had two one of us was on ATT the other two on Verizon). Streets don’t seem to be well marked. They also like to ride on bumpers pretty tightly in traffic areas and we were in a small Kia that just making a turn felt like it was going to fall apart. We were supposed to have paid for parking at $10 per day at the hotel – but somehow the guy who marked our ticket didn’t charge us at all! I thought this was just us and our timing until I heard a lady on the beach on Sunday talking to someone on the phone and her plight sounded eerily similar. (There is a car rental desk at the hotel – but they were out of cars when I wanted to rent).

 

Perfect Break To Orlando Vacation

I planned the trip months ago. Last year we took my mom to Washington D.C. (the kids and I). She had always wanted to go – but my dad didn’t. (Yes, my parents are still married). So we invited him to go with us to Orlando – which just happened to be this year’s destination. With teenagers, we knew that DisneyWorld and Universal – the big theme parks – would be on the agenda. But, I didn’t want to overwhelm my 70-year-old dad with roller coasters and costumed characters. So, we left one day in the middle of the week for him to plan what we were doing. He did a GREAT job! It was probably one of my most favorite days.

The day started early (early by definition of my teen daughter would be anything before noon but this was 8 a.m.). We rented a car just for the day. It didn’t make sense to rent a car for the week and then pay for it to sit in a parking lot. The reason we needed a car? We were headed to Lone Cabbage Fish Camp. By the looks of the map on my iPhone we were literally going to the middle of nowhere. It didn’t appear that there was ANYTHING else nearby. The camp really is out there by itself. While it is weather worn and looked a bit old (seriously straight out of a movie) – it was clean and the people were GREAT. They were very down to earth. We waited on the deck (which is beautiful on the back side of the building – you wouldn’t know it was there when you first drive up. We had actually reserved a 60 minute ride but through some scheduling conflict we weren’t on their calendar – so we opted for the 30 minute (which you don’t have to make reservations for).

Lone Cabbage Fish Camp between Orlando and Cocoa Beach.

Lone Cabbage Fish Camp between Orlando and Cocoa Beach.

The 30 minute airboat ride was awesome. The guide was very knowledgeable about the alligators and other wildlife. He told us that he is a hunter – there is actually a process to get your alligator hunting license. He is careful just to hunt what he is going to eat (and told a story about his dad catching him shooting a crow – which he had to eat). He told us about the migrations and where they like to hide, what they eat, poaching, feeding and more. The boat got going fast enough for my kids to really feel like it was a ride (and not just a float).

Airboat Ride at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp

Airboat Ride at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp

We were told we HAD to have the sampler plate which included gator, frog legs and catfish. I was impressed that both of my kids ate some of each. I thought the food was great. Especially the frog legs.

Sampler Plate at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp includes gator, frog legs and catfish. #nomnom

Sampler Plate at Lone Cabbage Fish Camp includes gator, frog legs and catfish. #nomnom

We asked the lady that did everything at Lone Cabbage (cook, wash, bartend, answer phone etc) the best way to get to Cocoa Beach. Her directions? “Go East on the same road you got here on until you hit sand.” Sounded simple. And it was! Within 15-20 minutes we were at the beach!

We forgot to pack swimsuits (guess we weren’t really thinking) but figured that since it was a rental car and that the sand and wet wouldn’t make much of a different. So we literally jumped into the ocean with our clothes on! I suppose it was not all that different from a swimsuit – when my daughter and I have shorts and sports bras on and my son had basketball shorts. Being from Colorado means that my kids hardly ever get to see a beach or the ocean. This was the perfect opportunity to play for a couple hours! We parked at a meter (thanks to the attendant/park ranger who told us where the meters were just a block away – so that we would not have to pay the full $10 day rate). Besides, I think the walkway was cooler looking than if we had gone to the paid lot.

At Cocoa Beach

At Cocoa Beach before we fully jumped in. 

We HAD to shop at the iconic Ron Jon Surf Shop located right there at the beach. The shop had all assortment of beach needs and some fun souvenirs. Even though we live in Colorado we have seen several Ron Jon stickers in the back of cars here. (Plus, I thought if someone wanted a clean/dry shirt they could get one there).

Ron Jon Surf Shop

Ron Jon Surf Shop

Ever since I was a kid my dad would ensure that we had an afternoon snack on any trip. This one was no different. As we were driving back toward Orlando from Cocoa Beach we decided that we were going to have a Key Lime Pie somewhere. I couldn’t remember exactly where I had seen the store – but I knew we passed one on our way between Lone Cabbage and Cocoa Beach. When I drove past it (on the left side of the road), I literally drove around in circles getting to it. While the location of the Key Lime Pie Company isn’t easy to get to if you’re on the wrong side of the road – it is worth the circles! The shop is little and there is no seating inside – but there is an awesome tiki bar just outside (up the stairs) where you can take your key lime and sit in the shade to eat it.

Key Lime Pie Company

Key Lime Pie Company

Our day was winding down. We headed back to our hotel in Orlando. We visited the new Orlando Eye (although we didn’t go in) after we got cleaned up from our ocean excursion. While we didn’t go in (I’m cheap – it is about $25/per person). We had a great time! (And then went to the theme parks again the next day.

Have you had a perfect break from all the tourist hype somewhere? What is your favorite?