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Puerto Rico: Rain Forests, Forts, and a Friendly Kid’s Museum

Leading us down the Big Tree Trail through Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rain forest, our guide suddenly stopped us at a small stream. Edging his way along the water, he picked up some river rocks, made sure that they were wet, rubbed them together, and started to draw squiggles and shapes with them on his bare arm. “We used to do this when we were kids,” he said with a grin.

Within minutes, all of us were in the water, searching for these special orange, black, and grey rocks lying in the stream. Just like the Taino Amerindians, who used these natural paint “brushes” over 500 years ago to decorate themselves for ceremonies, we ceremoniously covered our own arms and legs —and each other’s— with curlicues, snake-like wavy lines, dots and dashes. It was more fun than a kindergarten finger painting class. And just one of the many surprises offered up by this family-friendly Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.

For adults, Puerto Rico may be known these days for its Vida Loca music scene courtesy of Ricky Martin, its share of Latino heat thanks to movie stars like Benicio del Torro, and its controversial testing on the offshore isle of Vieques due to U.S. military policy. But for kids and kids at heart, think forts—amazing forts with thick walls, turrets, and lookouts over the harbour—exquisite natural attractions from the only rain forest within the U.S. National Forest system to a palm-lined beach with a special ramp for kids in wheelchairs to one of the world’s largest cave networks (where families can ride a tram to two large sinkholes), interesting sites such as the Arecibo Observatory used in the movie Contact where scientists have sighted possible UFOs, and such kid-pleasing spaces as the Children’s Museum in Old San Juan. This walled colonial city was also a surprise. Declared reminded me of Old Quebec, a Spanish-speaking hot-weather version with cobble-stoned streets, a similar 400-year-old history, and an Hispanic joie de vivre among a people proud of their heritage.

Best of all is that you don’t have to blow the budget. Much is free like the El Yunque rain forest or tours of the Bacardi Rum plant, or almost free, like the few dollars charge to see the El Morro fort or the Children’s Museum. The hundreds of beaches along the 272 miles of coastline, including the family-friendly Luquillo Beach, are by law open to the public. And yes, your family can book into the bustling Hyatt Regency Cerromar Beach resort in Dorado (1-800-233-1234), with its impressive propeller controlled River Pool, the longest in the world, its waterfalls and slides, and its Camp Hyatt program for kids. But budget-minded families can also opt for hotels such as Howard Johnson’s or the Best Western Pierre in the popular Isla Verde beach area, the Ramada in Condado, or the Paradors, the family-run small inns located around the island where mom, dad and the kids can bunk in for between $65 and $85 U.S. a night, breakfast included.

If you’re planning to take advantage of the new direct Air Canada flights to San Juan, here are just a few of the must-sees for families:

EL MORRO CASTLE: This huge fort has guarded the San Juan port and channel for more than 400 years. There’s lots of space for flying kites or just running around on the expansive lawns outside. Once across the drawbridge, kids can explore the secret passageways and the ramps used to roll the cannons weighing as much as 10,000 pounds, climb on the towers of old cannon balls, visit the small museum, or have their picture taken standing in a turret.

MUSEO DEL NINO (Children’s Museum): This small three-story museum across from the San Juan Cathedral is alive with hands-on activities. Kids can pound nails into blocks of wood, write with markers on mirrored wall tiles, and examine mosquito eggs under a microscope. There’s a special section for the under-three’s. On some weekends, workshops teach kids (in friendly Spanish) to make handicrafts.

EL YUNQUE: This vast Caribbean National Forest offers 28,000-acres of waterfalls, bathing spots, 13 hiking paths, unique plant and animal species (some not found anywhere else in the world such as the tiny coqui singing tree frog), and a new interpretive centre to explain it all. About an hour’s drive east of San Juan, the steamy rain forest is worth a day of exploration.

Because this misty place, a United Nations World Biosphere Reservne, receives about 250 inches of rain each year amounting to more than 100 billion gallons of precipitation, bring rain gear and rubber-soled shoes for the kids. Paths can be wet and slippery. A ranger guide, reserved at least two weeks in advance, will be able to guide you around, tell stories about the jungle-like foliage and unique wildlife (you might even catch a glimpse of the rare green parrot), and for artistic sorts, maybe even hunt out the body painting river rocks to nurture a future Picasso.

HOW TO GET THERE: This month, Air Canada is planning to start direct flights every Friday from Toronto to San Juan. Call the airline or consult your travel agent to book the four and a half hour flights.

INFO: For information on the many more family surprises around the island and to inquire about accommodation choices, contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Company in Toronto at 1-800-667-0394 or visit their brand new Web site, www.gotopuertorico.com.





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