Notes on visiting Puerto Rico

These are some notes on our first major vacation since having kids. Probably not that interesting unless you’re considering a similar trip.

(Note that it feels a bit weird to write about a significant, totally optional, expense. Jeff and I decide each year what percentage of our income to donate. The nice thing about this is that the remainder is for us to spend however we wish, including on fun things.)

I’ve spent this week with Jeff, the kids, and my parents in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Upshot: I’m happy that we went someplace where low-key hanging out at the house and in the neighborhood was a pleasant way to spend the week. We mostly did normal stuff we do at home, but with beaches instead of snow. This worked particularly well with little kids.

General reasons we chose it:

  • San Juan is a 500-year-old city with interesting buildings and history
  • Nice weather, except during hurricane season
  • There were cheap direct flights from Boston, though only at inconvenient times.
  • There’s enough to do in San Juan that we didn’t need to take any car rides longer than 15 minutes

Part of the US:

  • don’t need passport
  • money is the same
  • cell phones work the same
  • We enjoyed practicing our Spanish, but most people you encounter speak enough English to communicate fine, and many are fluent.
  • There’s a lot of interchange between the mainland and the island, so a surprisingly large fraction of waitstaff and Uber drivers who asked where we were from had visited Boston.
  • Even kids Lily and Anna met were bilingual a surprising amount of the time.

Safety:

  • Crime is high for an American city, similar to New Orleans.
  • Feels a lot safer than our time in Quito, Ecuador, where pickpocketing/theft was a major problem.
  • As a woman I had zero problems walking around alone, no street harassment.

Vibe:

  • The Puerto Rican economy depends heavily on tourism, and people here seem to like having tourists around (particularly after Hurricane Maria). People on the sidewalk who heard us discussing where to go would stop and offer directions unsolicited. Uber drivers often gave us advice on places to visit and foods to try. One of them spotted us the day after he’d driven us somewhere and stopped to ask if we’d had a nice time. Another promptly and cheerfully brought my phone back after I left it in his car, despite it being after he was done working for the day. People say hello to you on the street. No one seems to be in a hurry.
  • It feels similar to where I live (Somerville, MA) in its blend of hipsters and older working-class people, but with fewer hipsters.
  • There’s no smoking in public places.
  • We’re in a residential neighborhood, but it’s quite a bit noisier than our neighborhood at home. The frogs, roosters, etc. are loudish at night even in a fairly urban area. The houses are close enough that we could hear a neighbor snoring at siesta time, but I found it charming. An apartment in a high-rise would probably be quieter.
  • It feels pleasingly tropical, with little lizards in the garden, beaches shaded by coconut trees, and brightly-colored buildings in the old city.

Transit:

  • Uber worked great, actually better than in Boston or the Bay. We never waited more than 3 minutes for a car.
  • Carseats are not really a thing – drivers are confused if you try to install them.
  • My parents rented a car and spent a day driving around the island.
  • Driving is similar to a northeastern US city like Boston, but with worse potholes.
  • I took a city bus once and that was fine too.

Health:

  • There is Zika here. Even in a house with screens we got bitten quite a bit, so definitely don’t count on avoiding mosquito bites.
  • We had the routine vaccines already, including Hep A. The CDC says you should probably get a typhoid vaccine, but our doctor’s office was confused and wouldn’t give us one, so we didn’t get one.
  • Many tourists drink the water. Some of us had iced drinks and popsicles with no ill effects, and boiled the water at home. The kids had no unboiled water.

Costs:

  • $1750: 4 round trip plane tickets from Boston
  • $1192 2-bedroom Airbnb 7 days (we actually paid $1680 for a 3-bedroom because of traveling with my parents, but this is the price for an Airbnb I think we would have gotten if traveling with just 4 of us)
  • $120: Ubers (1 or 2 round trips each day)
  • $315: groceries (3/4 of meals and snacks) and restaurants – we would have spent about $140 at home.
  • $51: entertainment (kayak rental, museum entrances)
  • $75 childcare: what we would have spent on babysitting if not traveling with my parents
    Total: $3363 more than we’d have spent otherwise, or $120/person/day for the 4 in our immediate family.

It’s worked well for us as a low-key place to go with young kids. There are more exciting things you could do here if you’re traveling without kids (water sports, hiking, dancing/clubbing).

Many US stores and brands are here, which might be good or bad depending on what you want. Lily currently subsists largely on English muffins, so it was nice to be able to buy them at the local supermarket. Restaurants usually have a kids’ menu with grilled cheese, etc.

We’ve stayed in an AirBnb and kept a relaxed schedule, with expeditions around San Juan in the morning and evening and afternoons napping at home. I’m happy we got a standalone house with a garden, where we enjoyed eating and looking at lizards and plants, rather than an apartment. This way even time noodling around the house with kids felt like we were enjoying vacation.

Part of the reason to go with my parents was so they could do some childcare and Jeff and I could have some time without the kids. We only did this for one morning while Jeff and I went kayaking and swimming without the kids. I took some afternoons to explore alone while Jeff stayed with the napping kids. A trip with just two adults would have worked fine, maybe with some time from a babysitter.

The waves and riptides can be strong on the oceanfront. Our favorite place to go was the Condado Lagoon – the lagoon side has very gentle water, and the swimming area on the other side of the street is protected from large waves by a breakwater. We didn’t see the lagoon’s manatees but did find lots of coral washed up on the shore. On Mondays the place was pretty deserted, but on other days there was a food kiosk and a kayak and paddleboard rental.

Favorite Spanish overheard: the dad we heard in the park telling his son that, lamentablemente, they would need go to home in 2 minutes. “Lamentably” is my new favorite parenting expression.

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