Large raindrops pelted the roof of our van as it climbed up a mountain road, deep into the heart of El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s lush tropical rainforest.
“You won’t need a raincoat,” someone said earlier. “The rain is warm and gentle in the rainforest.”
Moments later, as seven-year-old Ross and I walked toward the El Portal Visitor Center, the rain had become a fine mist, like the wet spray you feel standing near a waterfall. Only this mist felt warm—not at all unpleasant—and suddenly, I was glad I’d left my clammy raincoat behind. To enjoy a true rainforest experience, you really need to get wet!
Ross and I recently flew south for a four-day mini-vacation in Puerto Rico, otherwise known as the Isle of Enchantment. El Yunque—the only tropical rainforest found in the U.S.—was just one of the many highlights of our first-ever visit to the Caribbean. From beginning to end, Puerto Rico was enchanting.
Ross was immediately delighted with the animals we encountered. At the Wyndham Rio Mar Resort, where we stayed, Ross loved visiting with two parrots in the lobby. Outside iguanas roamed freely on the resort grounds, so it wasn’t unusual to find a three-foot scaly green fellow sunning on a walkway. Numerous small lizards also skittered around underfoot. One morning Ross had the misfortune of jumping down a couple steps, landing right smack on top of one of these poor creatures. I thought Ross would cry as he looked down at the squished remains. The little lizard never had a chance.
My favorite animal in Puerto Rico was the coqui, a small frog that’s practically impossible to see, but you always know when one is nearby. The coqui, which is indigenous to Puerto Rico, sings at night: “Ko-kee. Ko-kee!”—a lovely, haunting sound that I’ll always associate with tropical Puerto Rican evenings.
Of course, the music of the coqui was only one of the sensory experiences Ross and I discovered in Puerto Rico. Back in El Yunque, we oohed and aahed over the colorful tropical flowers and lush green foliage that spilled down the mountain slopes. Impatiens grew waist high, and birds of paradise soared above our heads in a showy display of orange and yellow. Not to be outdone, cousins of the bird of paradise—heliconias—displayed bright yellow banana-like blooms, and African tulips, the “flame of the forest,” brightened up bushes with their orange flowers. Being surrounded by these colorful blooms was like walking in a painting by Gauguin.
The rain flurries brought me back to reality, however. Sometimes light, sometimes a little more intense, the rain was a constant as we hiked along paved trails in El Yunque. Ross made a new friend named Kyle, and together they fashioned umbrella hats out of huge leaves, transforming themselves into little jungle boys.
Waterfalls cascaded down the mountain slopes all around us, adding to the ambience of the rainforest experience. Ross and Kyle couldn’t rest until they’d gone swimming in a waterfall. We found a little spot where the boys could take a dip, and they had a happy time splashing and getting thoroughly soaked. Of course, by then even I was drenched and ready to head back to the resort to get out of my wet clothes.
The Wyndham Rio Mar Resort is a delightful oasis on the Atlantic coast of Puerto Rico. Set on 481 beachfront acres, this classy property caters to everyone from golfers to families.
Ross spent his first full day at the Rio Mar hanging out at Club Iguana, the resort’s club for children. Smiling staff greeted us at the door at nine a.m., and Ross joined a half dozen other children in the cheerful setting. He immediately headed over to the video game corner and barely looked up as I said goodbye. Later I would learn about all the fun he had in Club Iguana that day: swimming in the pool, making a seashell frame, feeding lettuce to the iguanas, and playing in the playground.
Now it was my turn to have fun—only my kind of fun would be much more relaxing. Novel in hand, I headed to a hammock by the shore and proceeded to while away the day. Resorts like the Rio Mar are perfect for anyone who wants a carefree Caribbean vacation. Everything you’d ever need is at hand: two giant pools, a tranquil beach, twelve restaurants, a spa, planned excursions, golf, tennis, water sports, the list goes on. The resort also caters to conventions and meetings and offers the largest oceanfront ballroom in the Caribbean. There’s even a casino.
That night while Ross was in the Club Iguana evening program, I dined in the resort’s four-diamond, award-winning Italian restaurant called Palio. A plate of antipasto began the meal, followed by a fresh green salad, and filet mignon, which arrived perfectly char-grilled on the outside, rare on the inside. My dessert was dreamy: strawberries in a balsamic glaze served in a crispy pastry shell. It was an exquisite meal.
After fetching Ross from Club Iguana, I headed up to my room and fell into the signature “heavenly” beds that Wyndham is known for around the world. That night Ross and I slept on a cloud!
An all-day excursion to Old San Juan was on the agenda the next day, which dawned clear and sunny. The one-hour ride from the resort passed quickly, and we found ourselves in the charming historic district of Old San Juan, where pastel-colored stucco buildings perch along bluffs overlooking the sea.
Our first stop was El Morro, a fort jutting out into San Juan Bay, designed to defend the city from enemy attacks. One tradition among the locals is to fly kites on the expansive grounds of the fort, where a stiff breeze washes across the grassy lawns. We brought a kite along, and Ross ran and jumped and shouted with glee as his kite lifted higher and higher in the sky. To me, old-fashioned fun is the best kind! Afterwards we enjoyed another Puerto Rican tradition: piragua, also known as sno-cones. Refreshing, icy, and sweet, these were a big hit, especially in the heat of the day.
After lunch, we explored the streets of Old San Juan, which were full of boutiques, art galleries, and of course souvenir shops. I picked up a turquoise bracelet for a good price, hacky-sacks for the boys, and for my husband, Peter, a bottle of smooth Puerto Rican rum.
The next day Ross and I signed up for a sailing lesson on a 13-foot Hobie Cat. I hadn’t gone sailing in years, not since my dad sailed his 33-ft. Pearson on Virginia’s Rappahannock River many moons ago—but I was pleasantly surprised at how easily I remembered how to trim the sails and work the wind. Our instructor, Guillermo Nieves, a handsome young local with white teeth and an easy manner, gave basic instructions and then put me at the helm. We spent an hour or so, zipping along the coastline, Ross happily holding on to the canvas trampoline.
During our stay at the Rio Mar, we lunched at an open-air restaurant near the pool called Club Coqui. This restaurant features casual dining fare, as well as a kids’ menu. I enjoyed their shrimp salad, a tasty mixture of huge shrimp, green olives, and pickled onions, in a mayonnaise-based dressing. One nice thing about Club Coqui is the tables sit right next to a playground, so Ross was able to dash off and play while I enjoyed the rest of my lunch at leisure.
Other restaurants we sampled at the resort included Marbella, where we filled up at the hearty breakfast buffet each morning. I couldn’t get enough of the mango, pineapple, and other fresh fruits. Pastries, donuts, cereals, omelets cooked to order, waffles, and out-of-this-world smoked salmon were also on the buffet.
One night we ate dinner in Shimas, the resort’s Asian bistro and sushi bar. After enjoying yummy sushi. I tried the chicken oriental salad, a savory mixture of sweet and sour chicken, fresh greens, and crunchy nuts in a soy-peanut dressing. It was scrumptious.
The last evening we dined in Cactus Jack’s, a Tex-Mex restaurant at the resort with a convivial family atmosphere. It’s a good thing it was a family restaurant because Ross was especially restless that evening. Fortunately, the restaurant manager, Carlos Sumpter, seeing that Ross was a little antsy, invited him to create a drawing to display on the restaurant door. Ross immediately began producing miniature works of art, all of which the manager praised. As we left that evening, Ross’ picture of a Hobie Cat was taped up to the restaurant door. He beamed with pride.
Conscientious staff, such as Carlos at Cactus Jack’s, are what make a resort vacation great, and the Wyndham Rio Mar staff were exceptional. Even the tour guides were wonderful: Harry Mansonet, who drove us to Old San Juan and shared the colorful history of Puerto Rico with us enroute, and Angel Robles, who accompanied us in El Yunque and shared his knowledge of tropical flowers and plants.
One of my favorite memories of our trip was when Angel pulled the van to the side of the road after our tour of the rainforest, saying, “Now I will show you something very special.” He hopped out of the car for a second, and then he was back bearing his special gift: a delicate yellow yling ylang bloom, whose sweet perfume wafted throughout the inside of the van.
Now when I smell yling ylang, I’ll think back to my enchanting visit to Puerto Rico with Ross. I’ll remember the musical call of the coqui, the warm rainforest mist on my skin, the sound of the waterfalls rushing down the mountains, the brilliant orange and yellow tropical flowers, the sea breezes that filled the sails and blew into my room each night, and especially the happy smile on Ross’ face as he ran with the wind and watched his kite fly up high in the blue Puerto Rico sky.
The Wyndham Rio Mar offers family and golf packages, as well as an all-inclusive arrangement. For more information, visit www.wyndhamriomar.com or see your travel agent.
Peggy Sijswerda is the editor of Tidewater Women magazine. She resides with her family in Virginia Beach, Virginia.