Almost one year after Hurricanes Irma and Maria nearly blew Puerto Rico off the Caribbean map, the routine of life is returning to the tiny island.
But everywhere are subtle reminders that Puerto Rico is adjusting to its post-hurricane “new normal,” and still struggling in recovery.
I recently spent a week in the San Juan area, the most populated region of Puerto Rico, exploring both the everyday aspects of the island, as well as the tourist offerings.
Here, I had to look closely for signs of hurricane damage — the occasional torn billboard and still-boarded up businesses were clues — but the intensive recovery efforts have certainly taken hold. Venturing away from the population center, however, it’s a different story of active recovery with much left to do.
In San Juan, the hotels are bustling, thanks to legions of federal contractors still working on recovery programs, as well as tourists who make the port of San Juan a regular stop on their cruise destination. (I learned “volunteer cruises” are popular for those looking to combine time on the seas with volunteer work in Puerto Rico).
Open-air restaurants and bars in the popular Condado district spill people and the sounds of reggae into the streets late into the night, and you can’t travel far without hearing “Despacito” (the non-Justin Bieber version only).
Visitors and their money are a boon to the battered island. Its population has plummeted by nearly 500,000 residents, who have relocated to the U.S. mainland since Maria and Irma blew ashore last October. In a nation of fewer than four million, it represents a huge loss in both revenue and “brain drain,” say locals, who suggest those who left will likely not return.
I had heard reports of routine power outages. The entire island lost power twice in the weeks before I arrived, so I was braced for the worst. But in San Juan and the more populated areas, power was restored within weeks after the hurricanes, and is no longer an issue. That is not the case in the more remote areas of the island, where an estimated 20,000 residents are still waiting for the return of electricity.
What is surprising in San Juan is many traffic signals still remain dark, primarily on the side streets, which makes for a harrowing commute at times. Heed the advice of tourism guides, who warn guests from renting a car.
When I asked our shuttle driver why some intersections remain without signals, he simply replied it was not a priority yet for the government. He seemed unfazed by the game of cat and mouse required when approaching some intersections (the idea of a four-way stop is lost on local drivers), but I spent most of my rides braced for impact!
Puerto Rico has never enjoyed the upscale reputation of its sister islands....the Virgin Islands, St. Martin, St. Bart...and others that draw tourists in for the luxury and amenities. To me, Puerto Rico is the working man’s island — the authentic version of everyday life far removed from the mainland.
Beaches are open to all — not walled off from the locals like you often find on tourist-driven islands — so pull up a chair next to a raucous family of 20 or the grizzled fishermen catching dinner for the day. The sand is lovely, and the water is clear and blue.
There are more than 300 beaches on the island, from heavily used to secluded and sparse. In San Juan, Condado and Ocean Park are the top two tourist draws and are located near the luxury hotels that dot the coastline. Here, the vibe can be rowdy and crowded. If you are looking for something more low-key, travel outside San Juan, by car or ferry, to find your quiet spot.
Luquillo Beach, about 30 miles east of San Juan, boasts warm, shallow waters, and is a stone’s throw from the El Yunque National Rainforest, one of Puerto Rico’s top natural attractions.
Or take the short boat or seaplane trip to the small islands just offshore, Vieques and Culebra, where pristine, unpopulated beaches await the traveler searching for a unique experience.
But let’s turn to what Puerto Rico is most known for — food and drinks. Nearly every conversation I had with residents quickly turned into the best places to both eat and get a great cup of coffee. Sorry Starbucks, even Burger King offers some of the best coffee I’ve ever had — and this is coming from an eight-cups-a-day drinker.
Our large party tried numerous restaurants during our eight-day stay in San Juan, and we were rarely disappointed by the service, the quality and especially the bill at the end of the meal.
Service staff seemed genuinely interested in giving their guests an “experience.” Guests are not just viewed as tourists ripe for the picking and never to be seen again.
I loved everything from the juice bar, Crush, across the street from my hotel, where $10 bought the acai bowl loaded with fresh fruit, to the hole-in-the-wall restaurant, Mojitos, where that same $10 bought a pina colada loaded with rum and made from (and served in) an actual pineapple.
Down the street at Yerba Buena, a massive pork chop (referred to as a “chuleta can can”) spilled off the edges of my companion’s plate and rivaled the line of beautifully butterflied shrimp with fresh coconut shavings that others selected.
No meal is complete without “mofongo,” the unofficial national dish of Puerto Rico, which is made by mashing fried green plantains into a bowl in which various ingredients are nestled.
We also quickly found moonshine is both readily available and shared — and to be approached with caution when early wake-up calls are in order. Find a trusted local to share his homemade brew.
Although Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, it is clearly an independent entity with its own unique identity. Sure, they use the dollar, but do not expect English to be used or understood across the board.
We found the employees of hotels and other tourist-centric places to be somewhat bilingual, but for most everyone else, it was a series of hand signals and Google translator that got us through (usually).
As for safety and security, Puerto Rico is like many other islands that advise their tourists to be watchful. We traveled in large groups, stayed on only busy streets and never went exploring off the beaten path. I rarely saw police officers, other than in hotels, (and at the many, many traffic accidents we saw every day) but never felt a need to be any more cautious than I am on the streets of downtown Atlanta.
At the end of the day, it was the spirit of the Puerto Ricans that made my week most memorable. The hurricane aftermath is certainly a recent memory, but life moves on, and there is another meal to enjoy and friends to laugh with and share.