Our third child arrived in December. By the time she was five months old we had already taken the enlarged family on a couple of trips, but those ventures were to introduce the new daughter to relatives. While we did earn some stripes taking three young children on a plane, trips to visit relatives only technically count as “travelling with the kids”. Once you arrive, someone else wants to hold the baby or play with the kids or feed all of you. It’s an easy life.
No, as of late April, our new five-member family hadn’t gone wandering where there was no one genetically obligated to take care of us. But then my wife had a couple of unrelated work deadlines arrive at the same time. After this perfect work storm passed she told me, “I want to get out of town”. I don’t ordinarily need to be asked twice to plan a trip – I enjoy it. But something about the way my wife snarled her wishes communicated the risk I would be taking if I didn’t do it fast and get it right.
With one child, and then with two, we kept taking our trips. Other parents, upon hearing that we had just returned from some place or another, had one of two reactions. Either they displayed genuine excitement that maybe it’s possible to raise children and still go on trips that don’t involve water parks; or they remarked on our adventurousness while not so surreptitiously rotating their extended forefingers in a circle next to their temples.
When talking with other parents in the safety of our own home and fortified with a couple glasses of wine we blather on about the importance of exposing our children to different places, customs, and accents. But now there are three of them, and even we recognize the vacationing challenge that presents. So we had to decide: was our decision to raise the children with an open-minded sense of adventure just crazy drunk talk, or would we step up to the challenge?
We followed the lead of our newborn and decided to take baby steps: we went to Puerto Rico. This seemed like a good place for a test run; it’s exotic, but it’s still sort of like being in the United States. They use dollars, drive on the right, and don’t take their shoes off when they enter a house. And legally, it’s just like being in the U.S. – you don’t need a passport to get there, which is important, since we don’t have one for #3 yet.
Our family was at a dinner event where I met a woman who told me that she loves Puerto Rico; she goes there for one week every year. Excitedly, I asked her what we should do while we were there. Here was my big chance to get some insider information, something the guidebooks didn’t know about. She leaned in to make sure I heard every important word clearly: “Make sure you stay at the Hilton. It’s got a private beach.” Oh. They don’t make insider information like they used to, I thought. Trying to salvage something, I asked what else she does when she’s in San Juan. “I just stay at the hotel. I mean, you can’t leave the hotel, you’d be robbed, of course.” Just then our middle child did something to attract attention, probably whacked the older one. Seeing the children and growing more excited about her recommendation, she added, “And there are seven different swimming pools there! The kids will love it.” I asked if she ever left San Juan for the countryside. “Oh, that’s even worse. In the small towns they’ll rob you and then beat you. And with the children…” The horrors that awaited them were apparently so bad she couldn’t even finish the sentence. This happens every time we go anywhere; someone tells us it’s so-o-o-o dangerous there. Granted, this was the first time anyone alluded to a likelihood that our children would be eaten, but I really wasn’t that surprised. For every spot on Earth, someone somewhere is frightened of it. I’ve even seen it on a local level in Chicago: lots of people are convinced some other (perfectly safe) neighborhood is a lawless killing field. I would not find it at all strange to be held up by someone who at the same was also telling me not to go to that neighborhood because it’s too dangerous.
Retreating to the guidebooks, I looked for things to do. We were planning to spend two of our five nights in San Juan and the rest of the time in the countryside. One kind of attraction that I’ve found to be an effective compromise between parents and offspring is a historic site; specifically, a military historic site. If the structure is sturdy enough to have survived a war, then, as destructive as my kids are, they probably won’t be able to damage the place much. My wife and I can get our history education from reading the informational panels scattered about, and the kids can run around without having to ignore my near-constant implorations to stop it right now.
San Juan happens to have two large, old Spanish forts that are U.S. National Historic Sites. Both of them are in the part of town called Old San Juan, which is also the tourist center. I managed to find a location with places to stay, places to eat, and places to see where the kids can’t break anything. Perfect.
We arrived at the airport and hopped in the van to take us to the car rental center. On past vacations we have usually travelled by public transportation, as opposed to renting a car. The enlightened, self-congratulatory reason for this is that a public bus can, at times, open a window onto the life of wherever we happen to be: a four-wheeled diesel-powered Anthropology 101 class. But there is no getting around the fact that public transportation is a lot cheaper. And we’re cheap. Full stop.
But this time, there was so much stuff. A small suitcase could have been allocated for diapers alone. Navigating a bus terminal and the streets of San Juan with our pile of bags and kids was not tempting. And even if we had made it onto a bus, the one who has graduated out of diapers has about a two minute window between the first warning and unavoidable crisis. A bus journey of any appreciable duration would either end badly, or have us so nervous en route that we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the people-watching anyway.
In our rental car, we headed out for our apartment in Old San Juan. On this trip we would not be enjoying the unexciting regularity of a chain hotel (even though it meant giving up a private, robbery-free beach). Unexciting and regularity have their place: the night before an early flight back home or when I expect we’ll be too tired to make small talk at breakfast with a fellow guest who is a votive candle salesman. Other than those exceptions, we prefer the independent inns and B&Bs; for better or worse, they tend to be the most interesting (Our high water mark for interestingness came at a log cabin B&B in southern Illinois. The proprietor, as he was leaving our room after showing us in, said, “There’s a raccoon living in the ceiling. If you see it, kill it.”)
The kids change the calculation a little. In a chain hotel, the walls are usually solid, muting any crying or howling. But there’s never anything for them to play with (the phone does not count). At a B&B the hosts often have had their own children, or even grandchildren, and possess both the toys and the patience that our three little angels demand. The downside to small, independent lodgings is that many of them are infested with useless knick-knacks. Upon arrival we have to do a quick recon mission and gather all the breakables onto the highest shelf. And, I have to add, even if I didn’t have three children in tow, I don’t think my stay at any establishment is improved by the presence of a two-inch ceramic cherub playing a harp.
I had been warned that finding parking in Old San Juan is near-impossible. Weaving our way to our apartment, we didn’t didn’t see a single free spot. I had resigned myself to my fate: dropping off the family and our mountain of stuff, and then driving the car to the giant lot near the cruise ship terminal and paying to keep the car there for two days.
We pulled up to our apartment and there was an available parking spot right in front. We were suspicious; it looked like a trap. We took the space, but then spent ten minutes walking up and down the street looking for no-parking signs. We thought, maybe there was a sign here, but it fell over. So we looked under a couple cars. We never found any signs, we never got a ticket, and the car didn’t get towed; but I was never able to shake the feeling that we were breaking the law.
I had found our apartment through the internet startup, AIRBNB.com (which means that by the time I finish writing this sentence they could already have gone under). AIRBNB is a middleman between people who have space to rent for a couple nights and visitors who are taking a pass on the Hilton. I was intrigued by this clearinghouse of potentially even quirkier places to stay. As it turned out though, AIRBNB was already being infiltrated by legitimate businesses, not the big four-star chains exactly, but certainly places that looked to have all of their licensing in order. Our apartment in Old San Juan was a little closer to the amateur than the professional end of the spectrum; we had to pick up the keys at a veterinarian’s office and there was no soap. But there was dishwashing detergent, so until we made it to the grocery store, all of us were able to cut through tough grease and we had a fresh lemon scent.
It was now late afternoon. We dropped off our stuff and headed out for a cursory exploration of the area on the way to finding someplace to eat. We had a stroller for the two older kids and a backpack for the baby to ride in. The stroller is a two-seater, but it has one seat behind the other, so it’s no wider than a single-seater. This leads to arguments and crying over who gets the front seat, but it also means we can get through an aisle in the supermarket without knocking anything over or demanding that everyone else back up and get out of our way. This was important in San Juan because the sidewalks in our neighborhood were too narrow for those Hummer strollers.
My wife and I took turns pushing the stroller, but for the most part I had #3 on my back the whole trip. If we had been in, say, Greenland, this wouldn’t have been a problem. But Puerto Rico is hot. Upon leaving the apartment I didn’t make it a block before I was drenched in sweat. This also wouldn’t have been a problem except that my wife insists that I age gracefully, that is, I’m no longer to dress like a slob. So rather than dress like I know I’m going to be carrying a baby on my back and be sweating the entire time, I dressed like I was headed to a cocktail party on the governor’s veranda. My respiratory system was having none of the charade though, and went into overdrive. I can’t say for sure, but I don’t think aging gracefully was what the waitress was thinking to herself when the sopping wet middle-aged man staggered through the door.
After dinner we headed back to our apartment. Old San Juan has a reputation for its raucous, alcohol-soaked nightlife. Although we missed out on the evening’s revelry, I can attest to its existence: the next morning I went out for a run and passed several puddles of vomit along the way.
For our first Puerto Rican breakfast we went to the local farmers market. At least, that’s how it was advertised. They were selling mostly herbal skin exfoliants and heirloom soap. I suppose I should have known that a farmers market in the tourist district was going to be geared towards foreign visitors, with prices and organic ingredient lists to match. All that being said, the Seven-Grain Country Harvest bread loaf turned out to be pretty good.
Like the farmers market, all of the restaurants in Old San Juan are geared for the tourists. This is obvious for lots of reasons, one of which is that every restaurant feels obligated to declare in its marquee, just below the name, that it serves only “authentic” Puerto Rican food. If not “authentic”, then at least “traditional”. It was these considerations that drove us to Cafe Mallorca. Recommended by the Chicago Tribune as neither “authentic” nor “traditional”, but rather, “genuine”, we tried to make up for the farmers market.
A Mallorca sandwich is a grilled ham and cheese with powdered sugar on top. In an etymological bulls-eye, Cafe Mallorca is a cafe that serves Mallorcas. The tourist literature touts the sandwich as if it gums up the same place in a patriotic Puerto Rican heart as the hot dog does in an American one. Intrigued, the five of us piled into a booth and ordered our sandwiches. Let me start by saying the cafe’s atmosphere was fun. The waiters wore bow ties and a couple didn’t even speak English all that well; I could feel the authenticity quotient rising. The coffee was delicious, and strong. And the sandwiches? As it turns out, putting powdered sugar on a grilled ham and cheese makes it taste like a grilled ham and cheese, with powdered sugar. It is not greater than the sum of its parts.
Enough eating. It was time to head over to Castillo San Fillipe del Morro. El Morro. It is one of two stone forts the Spanish used to protect San Juan Bay from naval attack. It sits at the end of a spit of land guarding the entrance to San Juan harbor. An enormous lawn separates the fort from the rest of the city.
The fort is five very large stories high. There is a large cliff on the city’s north shore separating it from the Atlantic Ocean. The fort sits mostly on top of the cliff, but the front of it drapes down towards the water, like a giant stone dust ruffle. The entrance to the fort, what could be considered the ground level, is actually the second highest floor. We headed up the insanely steep ramp to the top floor. As I was struggling to push the stroller up the ramp, I could see our two kids peering apprehensively over the side of the stroller, trying to gauge my chances of success. Their expressions made clear they didn’t think making it to the top was guaranteed, but their only alternative was to get out and walk, a choice they didn’t necessarily prefer to rolling back down the ramp, hurtling over the retaining wall, and plunging into the ocean.
We got up. The view was stunning. For 360 degrees we could see all of Old San Juan, the ocean, the bay, the lawn, and the other fort a mile to the east. My appreciation of the scene ended abruptly as the children reminded me that they were hungry again. We found some shade to sit down and eat. There isn’t a lot a shade on the top of the fort at high noon, so there was a little bit of a scramble amongst the visitors each time something opened up.
After the children finally finished eating, again, we explored the rest of the fort. My wife and I got to leisurely read about trade winds and limestone cisterns while the children ran around, giving free reign to their ids. But my military historic site plan worked – the fort is still standing.
After a couple hours we started making our way to fort #2, Castillo San Cristobal. It’s an easy mile-long walk along the cliff road from one fort to another with great views of the ocean and the fortifications along the way. There is also a view of a small isolated neighborhood wedged between the base of the cliff and the ocean. I was only able to spy one road running in and out of this neighborhood. Later, back at our apartment I looked through the guidebook for some explanation or description. Nothing. We never made it down the hill to see what was in this mystery neighborhood; everything I learned came later. The neighborhood is called La Perla. If the Yahoo message boards are to be believed, the streets there are lined with the corpses of tourists who wandered in by accident. A Google search for La Perla also turns up a few pro-marijuana legalization websites, which mention that it is the best place in San Juan to replenish your stock, so there’s obviously something going on in La Perla that’s not on the up-and-up. Whether there’s anything legal in the neighborhood worth visiting, I couldn’t say; perhaps there’s a sandwich shop there that makes killer Mallorcas. Regardless, it was strange to see and be right on top of this neighborhood, with only one road in and out, which the tourist literature studiously ignores.
We arrived at Castillo San Cristobal. It was more of the same, except the views of the waves crashing against the rocks were better. After we had our fill of 500-year-old stone fortifications, we started walking south into the heart of the tourist zone looking for a place to eat dinner. We found ourselves at Plaza Colon. The area seemed to offer a balance between tourist comfort and being downmarket enough for three kids. Also, it’s where we were. My wife and I were learning fast that wandering down side streets to find the perfect restaurant that all the guidebooks had missed was an activity of the past; eclectic ambiance and menu selections hold no cachet for a hungry child.
The next day we got in the car and left for the interior of the island (as a testament to how lucky we had been in finding our parking spot, another car waited patiently for 15 minutes while we loaded the luggage and kids before they could pull in). We drove to Caguas, a non-descript town 30 miles away. My wife would be competing in a 5k road race there that evening. We always try find a race to run when we travel. It’s an easy way to mix with the locals in an activity that transcends cultural differences – “could you believe that hill?!” is a sure-fire icebreaker no matter where you are. And you get a t-shirt.
I pushed the stroller and had the baby in the backpack while my wife warmed up. This particular race, the Mujeres en Carrera, was for women only, and there were several other men wandering around pushing youngsters in strollers. Each time I passed one of these men we’d give each other a slight nod and say “hola” in a voice that was much deeper than we would have used if we hadn’t had pink diaper bags slung over our shoulders.
We were going to be able to see the race at three different places. My job was to prime the kids to cheer for Mommy. We were stationed a quarter-mile from the start. When my wife came cruising past us the kids cheered surprisingly loudly and got a wave and a big smile from Mommy. The race would return to us for the halfway point ten minutes later, but the kids started asking immediately when Mommy was coming back. Explaining that she had to run a mile and a half first meant nothing to them. They peered into the distance. Is that her? No, that’s a person just walking across the street. Is that her? No, that’s a stray dog.
I had seen the results from the year before and I knew that my wife would be right around 10th place. This was important because each top-10 finisher got an award designed by a local artist – way better than a t-shirt. By the halfway point the race had shaped up. My wife was in 12th, but 10th place was within striking distance. The kids cheered. My wife waved. Moments passed. Is that her? No, that’s a light post.
17 minutes into the race the leaders ran by us headed into the finish. I was counting places and spotted tenth a long way off. It wasn’t my wife. But then 11th came into focus and it was my beloved. “Get on your toes!” I screamed. “Use your arms!”
The kids cheered but Mommy wasn’t smiling and waving this time. Three miles in the tropical heat had taken their toll. She had what is euphemistically referred to as a “solid finish”: no one passed her at the end, but she didn’t catch anyone else either. My wife didn’t get a piece of original Puerto Rican artwork for her troubles; the t-shirt would have to do.
We loaded the kids back into the car and hit the road again. Caguas was a way-point between San Juan and Naguabo. We were staying at Hacienda Moyano on the southern edge of El Yunque National Forest. Not far out of Caguas we got off the highway and started driving on the back roads of Puerto Rico for the first time. The landscape was ridiculously green and lush. We drove through wide valleys full of small farms and then wound our way up steep mountain passes. It was peaceful and bucolic, until it got dark and we got lost.
We drove around in circles. The kids started crying that they just wanted to be there. Eventually we called the innkeepers. Sara answered, but I lost the connection. I realized we could only use the cell phone when we were at the top of one of the mountain passes. We started going up again so I told my wife to drive slow to maximize the phone connection time. Sara asked for some reference point so she could figure out where we were. I saw a policewoman and asked her what the name of that cross-street was. It doesn’t have a name, she said. I wondered if this was a language problem. I asked again, phrasing the question a little differently. Nope, it still doesn’t have a name.
We finally passed a church that was distinctive enough for Sara to figure out where we were and guide us in (there are a lot of churches out there; saying “we’re in front of a church” is only marginally more helpful than saying “we’re in front of a mailbox”). By the time we arrived we had been driving around lost for 45 minutes. We spilled out of the car into a cacophony of tree frog chirps. They are called coquís, and their chirp sounds a little bit like their name, “koe-kee, koe-kee”. They are only an inch long, but their size belies the volume of their chirp. There are also a lot of them. I found it quite relaxing to listen to them as we walked from the car to our room. I then proceeded to ruin the groovy vibe in one shot: I told our four-year-old, and extremely tired, daughter, “You’ll be able to listen to the frogs as you fall asleep tonight”. She immediately started wailing that she didn’t want any frogs in her bed. I tried to explain but the damage was done. She staggered into her pajamas and into bed, still whimpering about the frogs.
The next morning we drove 20 minutes to the beach. It was a beautiful cove ringed by palm trees. Except for a guy fishing, it was empty. The problem was I couldn’t find a place to park. There was a road that ran parallel to the water behind the beach and the palm trees. I could pull over and we could unload everything, but then I’d have to go find somewhere else to put the car. So we did, and I drove off looking for a parking spot. As I was driving, it dawned on me that I hadn’t actually seen a No Parking sign. There were no cars parked along the beach road and in my experience that means parking is prohibited. But there were also no people on the beach and, using my razor-sharp powers of deduction, realized there wouldn’t be any cars. I found a couple garbage men and asked if parking was allowed along the beach road. They answered “Yes”, but their expressions said “Of course it is, you nitwit, why wouldn’t it be?”
We thoroughly enjoyed our secluded tropical beach paradise. The ocean was bathwater warm. The kids, conditioned by Lake Michigan, didn’t believe at first that they could just walk right into the water without acclimating one inch at a time.
The next day we left for the rain forest, El Yunque. We could have taken the highway, but decided instead on the backcountry route. At first it was more of those meandering country roads through more lush farmscapes, but one left turn later we were on a climbing, winding trail that looked as if the last time it had been resurfaced was when the conquistadors were calling the shots. The surrounding jungle had reclaimed over half of the width of the road. At first we weren’t even sure if we were on a road anymore. I thought there was a good chance that it was just going to fade into the jungle or end at the edge of a cliff. We were the only car out there and I didn’t see how anyone going in the other direction would be able to get by. As if to help me out by providing a test case, a Sears delivery truck came hurtling toward us around a blind curve. My wife drove the car through the undergrowth to the original edge of the road to let the truck by. I nervously peeked out my window at the ravine we were perched atop. The fright at having almost been knocked off a cliff in the middle of a rain forest while driving on a glorified donkey trail was matched by our surprise that the perpetrator was a Sears delivery truck – why was it out here? Did a family of monkeys just order a dishwasher?
The road eventually led us back to civilization and into the national forest. Per a recommendation from the ranger at the visitor station we parked at the trailhead of the La Mina trail. We were not alone. The La Mina trail runs for a mile downhill to the La Mina Falls. There are other waterfalls in the park, but this is the one with the shortest hike, so everyone chooses La Mina.
The hike to the falls follows a large creek that eventually becomes the falls. The creek entertained the kids, sort of. Mostly it was just me saying “Wow! Look at the river!” to distract them from their complaining.
We got to the waterfall. It was big enough to make me not regret making the effort. There was a shallow, rocky pool at the foot of the cascade that people were lounging in, with some of the more intrepid actually maneuvering themselves right into the waterfall. I walked with difficulty into the pool; the submerged rocks were big enough to create some deep, ankle-busting crevasses. I found a stable place to stand and looked at the falls. I wanted to join the intrepid and go in, but couldn’t. The waterfall would easily knock off my glasses, but I couldn’t take them off because I needed them to be able to navigate the underwater boulder field to get there. I considered wearing my glasses to get to the waterfall, and then taking them off and holding them before entering the cascade, but I rejected that idea. On a previous vacation I lost my glasses playing in the ocean surf and my wife had to spend a day driving me around to get a new pair. This happened two years ago and I am still, deservedly, pilloried for it. The aftermath to losing those glasses was like the reconciliation to being caught having an affair: we have picked up the pieces and moved on with our lives, but she will never really get over it. I was not going to lose another pair of glasses in another ill-begotten aquatic adventure. So I stood there, gazing, before returning to our little group at the shore.
The La Mina waterfall is a popular photo op: everyone wanted a picture of themselves in front of, or, for the sturdier, under, the falls. One young woman stationed a friend with a camera and then not only made her way into the falls, but started climbing up the rock face behind the water. She was up about ten feet when the force of the water began to dislodge the bottom half of her bikini. Because of her precarious climbing position she didn’t have any free hands to remedy her precarious swimsuit position. The crowd of people on the trail all watched this development with interest. Cameras appeared. In the end, the climber got back down with her modesty intact, disappointing the crowd and depriving YouTube of a new top-trending video.
We returned for our last night at the hacienda (we took the highway back, choosing to leave the jungle trail to the Sears delivery trucks). The kids excitedly jumped into the pool there for one last romp. All while we had been at El Yunque, whenever the kids got particularly whiny, they talked about wanting to go back to the pool at the hotel. It was irritating to listen to them, but it did give us some leverage (“Either put down that scorpion, or no pool when we get back!”)
The next morning we drove back to San Juan and flew home. During a rare quiet moment back at our house in Chicago, my wife and I did a post mortem on the trip. We agreed without hesitation that the rental car was the right choice. I will concede right away that for most people this is never a question: either you have the money to do it and you do it, or you don’t and you don’t. I think we tie ourselves up in knots about it because of some nostalgia for the lost adventures of our youth, which never included rental cars. I realize full well that for mourning the passing of the opportunity to ride on a public bus I might as well be nostalgic for acne and algebra tests. Still, the heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.
What didn’t work was the impressions I had expected the sights and experiences of Puerto Rico to make on our children. I had visions of their recounting the chirps of the tree frogs, feeling the spray of the waterfall, and playing on the mighty stone fortresses of San Juan. A week later all they could remember was the swimming pool. Anything else? Oh yes, it turns out that they also really liked the bag of pretzels they got to eat on the airplane.