During the month of October, 2017 Hurricane Maria tried to decimate Puerto Rico island. The level five hurricane ravaged certain cities more than others, causing widespread destruction and most of the residents without electricity and clean water.Recently I traveled to Puerto Rico to see what recovery efforts have been made in historic Old San Juan, Fajardo and Ponce areas on the island. I’m happy to report that the airport has arrivals throughout the day, tourist sites are repaired, cruise ships are visiting San Juan daily, hotels are reopening refurbished or rebuilt and tourism is coming back to experience the Old and new Puerto Rico.Cruise ships were one of the first modes of transportation to bring tourists back to San Juan. It’s important to the island with roughly 1.7 million passengers visiting, generating roughly $250 million in revenue. Some of the cruise lines that visit San Juan include Royal Caribbean International, Carnival Cruise Line, Celebrity Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, MSC Cruises and Disney Cruise Line. Not only is San Juan a fun cruise port to explore, it’s a hub for the cruise industry. San Juan is a departure port for many Southern Caribbean cruises, and a port of call on a number of Eastern Caribbean cruises.
The beauty of traveling to Puerto Rico is that it’s a US territory and Americans don’t need a passport or have to deal with immigration lines. Many hotels are open, however most of the rooms are a “home away from home” for FEMA relief workers, contractors and the insurance companies rebuilding the island. You will notice freshly painted hotels that have reopened have new windows, furnishing, and re-plastered pools.There are a few high-end hotels that have not re-opened, including the Carolina Ritz-Carlton Reserve, St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort (scheduled to re-open October, 2018) and the El Conquistador Waldorf Astoria.
Hotels that we noticed are open include La Concha, A Renaissance Resort; Courtyard by Marriott Isla Verde Beach; Condado Vanderbilt Hotel; The Serafina Beach Hotel and Hotel El Convento.
Staying at the La Concha, A Renaissance Resort we toured around San Juan by foot and bicycle. Later we rented a car to visit other areas on the island. Here are 10 of our favorite Puerto Rico experiences:
- Visit the UNESCO World Heritage sites including El Morro constructed in 1539. Located on the headland overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay, this impressive stone fortress was originally built by Spanish colonialists to protect and defend the city. To the left is the deep harbor, ideal for sailing ships. To the right is the fortress and Atlantic Ocean. Take the stairways, pass cannons, arched passageways, and overlook the famous colonial-era Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. It’s the final resting place of many of Puerto Rico’s most prominent natives and residents.
- Enjoy a meal at the luxury Hotel El Convento. It was an old monastery next to the San Juan Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral is the second- oldest in the Western Hemisphere. Inside the five story hotel is a lovely central courtyard, and a pool on the fourth floor terrace offering great views of Old San Juan.
- Walk along the cobblestone streets to Pigeon Park – Parque de las Palomas in Old San Juan. It’s next to Capilla del Cristo at the end of Cristo Street. This bird sanctuary is a home for hundreds of pigeons. The park has a couple of large twisted trunk trees trees, benches, and views of the San Juan Bay.
- Walk down to the water and take a tour of the San Juan Harbor aboard a passenger boat for a 50 minute narrated tour. Learn about the 500-year-old city of Old San Juan, including the Roots Fountain, Paseo de la Princesa, Governor’s Mansion, Barcardi Rum factory and see El Morro by boat.
- Since Puerto Rico is known for their rum cocktails, take a ferry from Old San Juan over to Cataño to the BACARDI Factory. They offer a variety of tours that include a historical and rum tasting tour through the distillery. Known as the “Cathedral of Rum,” it’s an opportunity to taste and understand five unique, premium rums. After the tasting grab a Hula Hoop near the Casa BACARDI sign near two towering windmills. These windmills power the factory and can generate enough power for 100 residential homes.
- We rented a car and drove to El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States Forest System. What was once a lush forest is coming back after Hurricane Maria with over 12 lush hiking trails. The road is still closed beyond La Coca Falls, yet you can park, walk and see the waterfall.
- We also drove to Fajardo to kayak in one of Puerto Rico’s three bio-luminescent bays. There are only five in the world and Puerto Rico has three of these natural wonders. In Laguna Grande the bay is filled with tiny organisms that glow in the water at night. Kayaking at sunset under red mangrove trees, lazy iguanas rested on branches above us. We stirred the water with our hands and tiny sparkles activated, leaving glowing swirls in the water. After the hurricane this bay filled up with rainwater and muddy run off. The bay is recovering and will hopefully get brighter. It’s also a beautiful spot to look up and see the stars fill the sky.
Take a catamaran to a small islet called Cayo Icacos. It’s a uninhabited island off the coast of Fajardo. The thirty minutes boat ride delivered us to a special snorkeling area. The rich and cooler blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean meet the calmer turquoise-green Caribbean Sea. We snorkeled right where the two connect.
- Visit Ponce to see a beautiful melding of Caribbean and European architecture. The city offers free admission into many of their historic sites including the Museo de la Historia de Ponce, and the 1885 red and black firehouse. It’s the oldest in Puerto Rico.
- Be sure to eat authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. The roadways all over the island have kiosk dining spots opening up again. There is a lot of fried food that includes empanadillas ( similar to empanadas), pinchos (small bites), mofongo (mashed fried plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork), and tostones (a popular plantain dish).