After Hurricane Maria and a Slow Recovery Devastated Puerto Rico, Should Tourists Still Go to San Juan?
Having planned a cruise departing from San Juan for the greater part of the year, I am not sure what to expect upon landing in Puerto Rico shortly before Thanksgiving. News reports have shown the devastation—people without water, or power, or decent housing. I feel guilty even thinking about asking about Internet access. Before we even arrive, our hotel cancels on us, causing us to scurry to find an alternative. Will we be landing in a sea of misery? And will it be right for us to be having a good time when so many residents are experiencing a very trying season?
As our flight lands, we see the blue tarps dotting the landscape. Our cab driver—an upbeat fellow counting the days he has been without power and then appending the number with, “but we are alive!”—makes three airport runs a day now where he used to make 20. During Hurricane Maria, he happened to be with his family on a cruise of the Caribbean himself. Because the Port of San Juan closed during the hurricane, his ship was diverted to Fort Lauderdale, where he got to spend some unscheduled days. As we make our way to Old San Juan, he points out some areas that were especially hard hit.
Our drive to La Terraza de San Juan is slowed by all of the ConEd trucks clogging the narrow streets. Yes, there is no utility-generated power, but efforts are certainly being made to restore it. In the meantime, generators power most of the establishments, our hotel included, that are open. Like our cab driver, the staff at the hotel is surprisingly upbeat given the hassle they no doubt have experienced both personally and professionally in the days and weeks since Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island on Sept. 20. Sure, there are generators, but they must be turned off every day, typically between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Yes, generators provide power, but not enough to power the elevators or most of the air conditioners.
Limited power, a somewhat more rugged experience than expected, hotel rebookings . . . so is the place really worth a visit right now? I can only answer with a resounding yes.
“Continuing to visit us, staying at our hotels, eating at our restaurants, buying from local businesses, and giving back through rebuilding efforts is the best way to support us right now,” said Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, in a press release.
You will have San Juan to yourself.
I was last in Puerto Rico over New Year’s in the mid-1990s. Back then, as a resident of New York City, I joked that it looked just like the Upper East Side because so many of my fellow city-dwellers were vacationing there at the time—and crowding the streets and the restaurants. The city of San Juan is quieter now—which means that visitors can experience Old San Juan as it was years ago, and, in many ways, that’s a good thing.
Puerto Rico could use your help.
As a writer focusing on environmental issues, I’ve covered ecotourism and voluntourism and talked with sustainability professionals about the ghosts of projects past—how they sometimes are only half-completed. As someone whose own professional skills are in the realm of reading and writing, I wouldn’t know how to begin providing substantive on-the-ground help to someone who needs power and home repairs. I appreciate that views on the merits of voluntourism vary—and even my own do. At the same time, for events like natural disasters, the people who actually know how to plaster walls or run electrical wires are probably the ones who should be undertaking those tasks.
But visitors can help in other ways. We choose to give aid directly, not through nonprofits, by tipping profusely. People working in service industries have been hard hit as tourists in the aftermath of the hurricane tended to stay away. A little extra cash hopefully at least will brighten their day.
A friend chooses a somewhat different route. She arranges with her AirBNB owner to visit a hard-hit neighborhood where residents are replanting. Arriving with toiletries and other items to which people may not have easy access, she distributes those and spends an afternoon organizing seeds.
Puerto Ricans are delightful.
Throughout San Juan, we meet people who weathered the storm and who have maintained an incredibly chipper attitude despite the upending to their worlds that Hurricane Maria has done. We ask and we listen to their hurricane stories, what they did to prepare, how they endured the storm, and what they have done in its aftermath to survive its challenges. There is plenty of resilience on display here, and it is impressive. I remember being in New York after Hurricane Sandy a few years ago. We lost power for maybe four days. Hanging out in a fast-food joint that had a generator and free wifi, I watched grown men my own age fight over access to an outlet for all of their electronic gadgetry. We see none of that aggressiveness here. I cannot help but wonder whether I would have the same sunny attitude that I am seeing if I were without utility-generated electricity for as long as the people here have been. Truly, the residents of Puerto Rico inspire.
The beers are cold.
We learn that ice is delivered every morning, and our beers (we are partial to Puerto Rico’s own Magna) could not be more refreshing. We have our first of the day at a street café called the Chapel Restaurant and Bar. It’s five o’clock somewhere.
Restaurants are open.
We quickly fall in love with the incredibly good food served at El Jibarito, recommended by our cabbie and conveniently located on the same street as our hotel. The corn sticks are addictive. For one breakfast, we like La Terraza. For another, we choose a place situated at Plaza Cristobal Colón (Christopher Columbus Square). Open restaurants, typically using gas stoves and generators, may be offering limited menus, but good dining can definitely be had.
Shoppers can get bargains.
Stores that are open seem to be offering some good deals. I am not a power shopper, but I was very tempted at the Coach Factory Outlet in Old San Juan.
Visitors can go on self-guided walking tours of Old San Juan.
Downed vegetation for the most part has been cleared in Old San Juan. For this tourist, the greatest hazard is navigating the cobblestone streets that date from the 1500s. We visit the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista where Juan Ponce de Léon, the first governor of Puerto Rico, is buried. Afterward, we wander around without any particular destinations in mind and come upon the Christ Chapel, Raíces Fountain, and La Rogativa.
Is a visit to San Juan perfect right now? Probably not. But the city is likely more authentic at the moment than a tourist will ever find it. Unreservedly, go.
The Chapel Restaurant and Bar, Cristo Street, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Coach, 158 Cristo Street, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00927
El Jibarito, Calle del Sol, San Juan, Puerto Rico
La Terraza de San Juan, 262 Calle del Sol, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901