Travelling San Juan, PR with Kids

We were looking for an affordable Caribbean vacation for the family. I have to admit, I simply typed into google flights “Caribbean” and San Juan, PR came up as the most affordable rate for May 2018. Travel to San Juan was cheap because they had suffered the wrath of Hurricane Maria in September 2017. While recovery had begun, even while we were preparing to leave on our trip, the electrical system on the island was weak, and the entire island was without power for 2-3 days. Needless to say, we were beginning to wonder if our travel plans were a mistake. While we had done our research, and the San Juan tourism industry was begging for people to come back to visit. Boldly, despite our hesitancy, we took the leap to finally visit this beautiful Caribbean city.

San Juan, PR, as it happens, was a great getaway for the whole family. There was little evidence in the main areas of the devastating hurricane, though there were areas near the beach where we were told entire rows of palm trees were missing. While it wasn’t uncommon to see trees without tops, or damaged roofs on buildings, there had clearly been a lot of clean-up done. Essentially, if we hadn’t known there had been such a huge hurricane just 6 months prior, we might not have noticed. It was clear the region had come a long way since the devastation, and people and businesses were quickly rebuilding their lives. It was very humbling to be there in the aftermath, as a tourist simply looking to visit the many beautiful sights and sounds of the area.

We managed to find some really great spots around San Juan and beyond that were perfect for children and adults alike. Uber had started service on the island just the year before, so we were able to seamlessly get around without a rental car. Our Air BnB, in the Ocean Park area, was just 1 block from the beach, though, as we discovered the first day there, our closest beach was renowned for kite surfing and heavy waves, hence not safe for a 3 year old. We had fun in the sand anyway, and found a couple of great parks where Miss E preferred to play anyway. Part of the fun became trying out different beaches each day. I could write an entire post about beaches in San Juan…stay tuned.

Old San Juan

A visit to Old San Juan is a must while in PR. The buildings are absolutely stunning in their old Spanish style, and the El Morro Fort has an incredible history and some of the best views in the city. We also found a small water fountain just up the street from El Morro which proved to be a much needed refreshment from the sun (it’s the simple things when travelling with kids, isn’t it?).

Old San Juan is really a place you could wander and shop through for the whole day. Given that we were travelling with a little, we spent only a short time shopping between food stops 🙂

Isla Verde

We ended up in Isla Verde in search of a good swimming beach. While the waves were still high for a toddler, it was the perfect spot to hang-out for the day. The first day I visited this beach, my sister and I had taken a long walk from Ocean Park area to Isla Verde. We had a great walk through town, until we could join the beach. Then we sat on a patio at the Intercontinental San Juan to enjoy a drink and the view of the Atlantic. We didn’t stay at the Intercontinental, but it looked like a fantastic resort for future travel. Up the beach you can also rent beach chairs and umbrellas for a longer lounging experience. There are tons of restaurants in Isla Verde that we didn’t even get to experience. Next time we’d probably stay closer to this area, with easy access to downtown San Juan by Uber.

Playa La Pocita de pinones

This beach was recommended to us by one of our Uber drivers, and it did not disappoint! He described this beach where the water is calm due to an inlet from the ocean, making it perfect for small children to swim. This is such a cool place where all the local go! It was maybe a 20 minute drive out of San Juan, but oh so worth it. We were able to wade into the shallow, warm water, while just over the natural barrier/breakwater, waves came crashing in. We were shielded from the intense waves of the Atlantic in this shallow pool. I would recommend water shoes, though, as it is rocky. Our water excursion ended a little early when Miss E stepped on some coral.

There were vendors selling ice cream on the beach, and across the street, an awesome food market where they sell all sorts of delicious meals and treats for the best prices we had found anywhere near San Juan. There were also some wild dogs that were hanging around that provided some entertainment after lunch. The dogs were in some rough shape from the sun, but they were frequently fed scraps and water in the short period we were there.

Señor Frog’s

I realize this is a chain restaurant, but we were travelling with a rambunctious toddler and this was just the kind of fun, distracting atmosphere we were in need of at this point in the trip. It was bright, happy, and air conditioned for everyone to enjoy. The balloon hats and shots for Chris straight out of the bottle didn’t hurt either.

Parque de Las Palomas (Pigeon Park!)

Ok, this was a very fun experience for our daughter, if a little unnerving for us adults. The Pigeon park is within the walls of Old San Juan, and there is someone selling bird seed for $1 USD near the entrance. Once inside the park, there are HUNDREDS of pigeons vying for food, or nested in the pigeon ‘apartments’ along the wall. It probably goes without saying: watch where you step, and be careful walking under the giant tree in the centre of the park!It was still a lot of fun and an interesting experience that Evey still talks about!

Museo de arte de Puerto Rico

This was a cultural trip for the parents, on a rainy day. At 3 years old, the art galleries were interesting to Miss E for first 20 minutes, but the highlight of the visit for her was most certainly the big open-air area at the centre of the museum. She and Chris ‘hunted’ for geckos in the big space, while my sister and I explored all the floors of the museum. It was a nice balance. Visiting here maybe took 1 – 2 hours total.

Miramar food truck park

Located at 1006 Avenida Juan Ponce de León, San Juan, we stumbled across this gem of a food park while wandering home from the museum. There are a bunch of food trucks with varying menus, and, as a bonus, a covered eating area. The covered eating area came in handy as the skies opened-up while we were eating our food. We arrived here by foot following a long and loud emotional fit from Evey, who was probably tired and hangry because she ate well and then fell asleep on the way home.

There were so many fun places to see in San Juan, it’s difficult to name everything. I think we found the perfect balance of beach lounging and entertainment. Next time we agreed we would want to stay further away from the city centre, because overall the biggest challenge was how expensive the tourist district was. While our flight and Air BnB stay was quite reasonable, we paid for it in the exchange rate from Canadian to US dollars in a tourist area. Overall though, it was an incredible trip that I could see us doing again and again.

What we’ve learned about Thailand

We read a lot of things about Thailand before visiting.  This was really a trip 5 years in the planning until we could afford to go. Now that we have traveled around different areas of Thailand (Bangkok, Kata, Rawai, Chiang Mai),  I’ve accumulated a list (in no particular order) of things we noticed:

– Metered Taxi drivers will inevitably try to avoid using their meter and charge you a flat rate that will be considerably higher.
When we arrived in Bangkok, for example, the taxi driver offered to drive us to our hotel for 200 Baht. I insisted on the meter, and the ride ended up costing only 100 Baht.

– Chartered taxis and tuk tuk’s alike will make an extra stop at a jewelry shop because they get a commission for bringing people. The drivers collect stamps and get paid when they fill the card. This happened to us a couple of times. We went in to look around and didn’t buy anything. The driver was thankful. We’ve been told the jewelry is a scam, but not all the shops had terrible prices. The shops were clean and air conditioned,  so not too bad.

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– Thai people love babies. It is a daily occurence that we walk down the street and people get excited and run over to say ‘hi’ to Evey and smile at her. If my daughter has learned nothing else on this trip, she is awesome and worthy of worship 😉

– Bartering is expected for shopping, taxis, boat rides, etc. We found it best practice to not barter at the food stalls or places with small prices, because it’s so cheap already. Also, it seems like restaurants are set prices, too. Canadians are not known for bartering well, apparently, but we did our best. Ultimately, you pay what you feel comfortable paying and what it’s worth to you.

– The image of Buddha should be respected: you can photograph it, but don’t use it as decor, get it as a tattoo, or deface it in any way

– The Thai national anthem is played once a day. It’s respectful to stop what you are doing and stand.

– Papaya salad is way hotter than you would think. Way.

– Most places we encountered took cash, not Visa. But there are ATM’s everywhere, and especially in front of 7/11’s, which are equally everywhere. We take out cash every few days so that we aren’t carrying large amounts around.

– A lot of products like soap have ‘whitening agents’ in them. This is because Thai people see white skin as esthetically pleasing. As a result, we had difficulty finding soaps without these ‘agents’ at small shops.

– There are tons of places to get your laundry done. They charge by the Kg, and a load costs only a couple of bucks. I will begrudgingly do our own laundry now that we are back in Canada.

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– There are tons of places to eat, and so cheap there is no point cooking yourself. For even cheaper meals, street meat abounds. We had this wonderful kitchenette and used it to make instant coffee and store our empty beer bottles 😉

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A Vegetable & Fruit Vendor Also Selling Gas in Recycled Wine Bottles

-People are very entrepreneurial. This may be by necessity (few jobs available). Many places are family-run businesses, and it’s easy to support local. Many places provide several services to pay the bills (tattoo shop/currency exchange, tour agency/ laundry/gas sales, restaurant/internet cafe/ motorcycle rental).

– Quite recently (within the last  5 years), it has become very easy to fly all around Thailand to the major cities. We are told that prior to this, there were not many flights and you had to take the train (slower, but enjoyable), or drive. The opportunity to fly allowed us to get all over Thailand in very little time, and this was the easiest and most convenient method when travelling with a baby.

– There is a saying about the ‘Thai Smile’ in Thailand. It refers to how friendly Thai people are. We truly found this to be right. Everyone was welcoming, kind, and helpful. We always felt comfortable chatting with folks and getting around. When we came back to Canada, we missed that warmth! (and not just the weather)

That’s all I can think of for now. Reading through this list, I can’t wait to go back!

Thailand: Where we slept

It’s inexpensive to travel around Thailand. You can stay very cheaply (read: $6/night) for a backpacking hostel in some areas. With the baby (& in all honesty, for our own comfort), we stayed in hotels, which cost us slightly more, about $30-45/night. Still, for this price, we felt it was worth the ‘splurge’.
We didn’t pre-book many hotels because we had heard you can get better walk-in rates, and we also didn’t want to be held to a particular schedule. Want to stay an extra few days in Chiang Mai? Great, just book it!
We did try to ‘walk-in’ and book a couple of times, but because we were travelling at the beginning of the busy season (Nov – Feb), most places were booked solid in the areas we were in. Plus, with baby, it wasn’t practical to be wandering around with our luggage and nowhere to stay. It also put us in a poor bargaining position, because we were evidently desperate. Anyway, we tended to research and book places online as we went. Here is a break down of the places we stayed in, some great, some not so great.

The Vismaya, Bangkok
$30/night in Oct

This was one of the places we booked ahead of time, as our first hotel upon arrival in Bangkok. This is a nice, modern hotel near the Suvarnabhumi airport. It’s fairly new, and I would recommend booking the airport shuttle offered through the hotel because it is cheaper, and we found that the taxi drivers didn’t know where it was.
We arrived at 7am, so we had booked our room for the previous night because we wanted to check right in and go to sleep. We later found out that the hotel guarantees early check-in, with an hourly rate surcharge (A really nice convenience if you get there way before check-in!).
The room was clean and modern. There was a shower and a tub, although the shower tended to have intermittent water pressure. I’ve heard it can be like this all over Thailand, but we didn’t encounter this anywhere else. Our only complaint with the room is that the air conditioning had to be kept at 22 degrees, which was downright freezing. So we wore sweaters in the room and turned off the air conditioning when possible.
The pool is kept very clean and the restaurant serves a variety of great food. The breakfast buffet includes both Thai and Western breakfast and is quite complete.
We enjoyed this place so much that we booked it again on our way out of the country.
The hotel itself is close to the airport but nothing else. People generally only stay a day or two before they head to their next location, it seemed. We stayed 2 nights in order to adjust to local time.
Oh, and room service is 24 hrs, which is great when you’re jet lagged!

Sugarpalm Grand Hillside, Kata
$40/ night in November

We stayed at this hotel for 3 nights. It is in a great location, walking distance to the beach and most Kata restaurants. The pools are beautiful (no. They’re gorgeous!) and every room is facing them. The staff are very friendly, and we had an effortless airport transfer. However, we would not stay here again because there was a dead cockroach on the porch upon arrival and the room had a musty/mildew smell that wouldn’t go away.
Based on other reviews, I’d say maybe other rooms don’t have this issue. Otherwise a nice hotel.

The Title, Rawai
$35/night in Nov

We stayed in Rawai to enjoy the scenery and food. We weren’t disappointed! The Title was a perfect location, right across from the beach. You can’t swim in the water here due to the mooring boats, but this didn’t bother us. It was great to walk out and see the long tail boats and speedboats lined up.
When we checked in, they couldn’t find our reservation, so we were finally upgraded to a room with a separate bedroom (ideal with baby!). Our room had a kitchenette, and I believe they all do in this condo-style hotel. Despite the kitchenette, we didn’t cook once, not even once, because food is so inexpensive all over Thailand!
The staff are helpful, the room is modern and clean (decorated in Ikea furniture, but new and clean). The pool is immaculate and so appreciated.
we booked 5 days and then extended our stay 5 more because we enjoyed relaxing here so much.

Roseate Hotel, Chiang Mai
$35/night in Nov

A little torn about how to review this room. We stayed for 5 days in November. At first, the room was clean, well maintained. However, we found the air conditioner quite bad at, well, cooling. It seemed to take hours to cool the room properly.
Then we noticed a horrible smell that just got worse as the days passed. We were very happy to leave by the last day due to this sewage-like smell. In the hotel’s defense, we never reported it.

Can’t complain about the staff, who were great, and the breakfast was excellent with both thai and western options. The location was walking distance to many great. Maybe you’d have more luck with a different room.

The Prince hotel, Chiang Mai
$30/night in Nov

This hotel is old, dated, in need of renovations, whatever you call it. It IS getting those renos, but the whole building is under construction and thus filthy. The hallways are disgusting, filthy and rotting. Our room was not much better. We had to ask for our room to be mopped and fresh linens. The replacement linens came back with just as many stains. The towels were no better.
The bathroom needs to be redone. It is ‘well used’ and not comfortable to get clean in.
I’m sure this will be a great hotel with character when the renos are completed. It’s just too bad we had to be here while in this condition. There seems to be no effort to keep the place clean while demolition is happening. The only redeeming qualities were the 2 lovely and clean pools with poolside bar, and kitchenette in every room. And the artwork. The artwork was pretty cool.

Galare Guesthouse, Chiang Mai
$30/night in Nov

This was probably the best value for our money of all the places we stayed in Chiang Mai. With its traditional Lanna style and homey charm, we felt quite comfortable here. We pre-booked this months in advance because we were staying during the Loy Kathong (lantern) festival, and hotels sell out. We got an excellent price considering this. It was an excellent spot to see the festival from a less hectic area. Walking distance to the Night Bazaar, and right along to Mai Ping River. We were able to set out a mat and watch the lanterns float in the river, as well as up in the sky next to fireworks. One should be warned, though, that Loy Kathong goes on for 2 – 3 nights, and can get pretty loud! We were missing our earplugs at 4 am when fireworks were still going off seemingly on top of our heads. This isn’t in the hotel’s control, evidently. It’s prime location also has downfalls. We would definitely stay at this hotel again.

Railay Princess, Railay
$60/night in December

This was the last week of our trip, and we wanted to spoil ourselves a little bit. We had wanted to see the iconic limestone mountains, and we certainly got that. This hotel is modern and well maintained, with a top notch restaurant and a pool with gorgeous limestone backdrop. We did have an issue when we got there that the room smelled musty/moldy. Since we were staying 6 nights, we decided to request a different room. The new room had a slight cigarette smell, like someone had smoked outside the window. Strangely, we still decided to stay and accepted their offer of a scented candle to freshen the room. The smell did go away, although now typing this I’m not sure why we didn’t complain again.
Anyway, the hotel was enjoyable and in a good location. We got what we expected and the staff were always very receptive. The room was well maintained by housekeeping, and the pool was always the perfect temperature.