The sun is shining and recovery is underway in Puerto Rico.
Coming off a rocky time is easier with support. In Puerto Rico’s case, that means support from volunteers, construction workers, recovery organizations, and tourists—especially right now. Yes, American’s Caribbean-island territory is still rebuilding after devastation caused by last fall’s hurricanes Maria and Irma, which wrecked the local infrastructure along with so much of the island’s other functionality and beauty. But just as Houston, New Orleans, and other destinations have overcome the havoc of extreme natural disasters, the people and businesses of Puerto Rico are restoring their home state with newfound courage.
That’s where we, the travelers, come in. Over the past months, many of the island’s hotels, retailers, restaurants, and tour operators have regrouped and rebuilt. Their steady progress continues, and in the main tourism hub and capital city of San Juan, companies are open for business and eager to welcome travelers back to their enchanted island.
Flying into San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is incredibly affordable. So far in 2018, big carriers including Delta, American, United, and JetBlue are offering fares that could be considered dirt-cheap. Flexible-date searches might reveal round-trip flights from New York City airports for as low as $103 up to the still-affordable $289. And the airport itself, which underwent an extensive renovation a few years back, is in full swing with shops, bars, eateries, and easy-access cab stands at the ready.
Support Through Spending
Whether you’re natural thrifty or a true shopaholic, Puerto Rico’s boutiques, galleries, and other businesses are prime spots for retail therapy. In Old San Juan especially, travelers will appreciate independent shops where they can invest in locally made arts and souvenirs, beach wear, handicrafts, and other Puerto Rican goods. Some sweet shops to keep in mind are Concalma, a women-owned, locally made handbag shop; Puerto Rican Art & Crafts selling handmade paintings, jewelry, souvenirs, and more from its restored Spanish-Colonial building; and Olé, a family-owned hat store proudly minimizing forehead sunburns since 1977. Consider every dollar spent an investment in an economy that very much needs support now more than ever.
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What are the tropics without trees, plants, and flowers? Lush foliage is part of Puerto Rico’s inherent beauty. Para La Naturaleza is the island’s leading environmental organization that’s protecting nature, and helping to restore what was lost in the hurricanes. It’s also one of the top local volunteer outfits for visitors and locals, with daily opportunities to help in community and ecological gardens, in plant nurseries, contributing to the local bird census, and in other eco-related ways. Para La Naturaleza also organizes lectures, workshops, eco tours, and other events all over the island. (Donations are welcome too, of course.) Visit See Puerto Rico for more volunteering opportunities and events.
Climb aboard the Amazing Grace schooner for a memorable sunset sail around San Juan Bay. The ship belongs to East Island Excursions, which has operated history tours, snorkeling tours, and charter sailboat tours from ports around Puerto Rico since 1994. It offers daily tours from Old San Juan’s cruise-terminal marina, and its sunset excursions are a particular delight, with an onboard bartender crafting variations on favorite tropical cocktails, plus beer, wine, and homemade snacks. Even better, the skilled sailing crew will impart notes of seafaring and native–Puerto Rican history throughout the cruise.
Two of the oldest structures in Puerto Rico date back to the era of Conquistadors, and both are open for tours (for only one entry fee). The sprawling, cliffside Castillo San Cristóbal stands in San Juan as the largest fortification built by the Spanish in North America in 1783, on the same site where prior forts stood since 1539. In Castillo San Felipe del Morro, located on the northwest peninsula of Old San Juan, is a citadel positioned to defend San Juan Bay. Today, both structures are U.S. National Parks and on the National Historic Register, as well as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
It seems like everyone’s talking about the Santurce neighborhood’s rising culinary scene, anchored by two standout restaurants. Santaella offers a “modern Puerto Rican dining experience” helmed by namesake author and award-winning Chef Jose Santaella, who incorporates tropical ingredients with classic and Creole touches for intensely flavorful dishes. The location is understated outside, but seductively sleek and lush inside, with a life-size terrarium to gaze upon while enjoying tapas and entrées. A few blocks away is Jose Enrique, a restaurant modest in appearance but bold in its handwritten menu that changes daily. Chef Enrique is a Santurce native (and James Beard Foundation semifinalist) who’s brought his big-city training home—and is redefining Puerto Rican cuisine with natural and organic products that direct his menu curation.
INSIDER TIPYou’d be smart to make advance reservations for both restaurants.
Puerto Rico’s verdant El Yunque National Forest was hit so hard by Maria and Irma that the 29,000-acre park had to close for months while roads and downed trees were cleared and infrastructure rebuilt. A small army of workers restabilized trails and repaired many facilities, and set this protected tropical rainforest’s rich flora and fauna back on the way to natural rebirth and regrowth. Visitors are now welcomed back to El Yunque’s lower roadways and first waterfall; and in time, the forest will restore itself in the magical way only Mother Nature can, for all the world’s travelers to appreciate.
It’s time to rethink rum, and the Bacardi Distillery’s Mixology Tour is the place to do it. Along with a dose of local history, the sunny bay view, and, of course, a complimentary welcome drink, the historic Puerto Rican Bacardi outpost has produced the world’s No. 1 rum since 1936. Through its mixology experience, your tour guide becomes your ace bartending instructor, teaching the proper way to mix a mojito, daiquiri, and Cuba libre. Unless you’re a secret expert, you’ve probably been making all three of them wrong; and wow, are they so much tastier when made right. (These skills may be the best souvenir you’ll take home.)
Beachside and Poolside Lounging
Of the various hotels and resorts that line the city’s broad public-beach strip of Condado, the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino was among the first to reopen after the 2017 hurricanes. While some of the 525 guestrooms are under renovation (primarily in the extended-stay wing), the highrise resort is back to hosting guests with the full slate of amenities. Most rooms have unbeatable views with private balconies, and all guests have their choice of kicking back at the big pool area or on lounge chairs along the ocean. The swim-up and shady outdoor bars are lovely all day, while evenings bring lucky casino time or Thursday-through-Sunday live salsa music and dancing over drinks in the Red Coral Lounge.
Puerto Rican Art
The streets of Santurce are lined with murals and other street art, so it makes sense to let them lead you to the city’s top arts institution. The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico houses one of the best Caribbean and Puerto-Rican collections of master works and pieces from younger generations of artists. The collection spans more than a thousand works of paintings, photographs, prints, and new media across 18 exhibition halls plus a botanical sculpture garden. The grand neoclassical building itself is part of the draw too, and houses a theater, interactive gallery, and conservation laboratory to restore historic artworks.
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Old San Juan is home to a special place that travelers rely on for the ultimate afternoon pick-me-up or handheld dessert: Señor Paleta. From its tiny outpost on Calle de Tetuan, Señor Paleta sells handmade popsicles for every palate. The company started in 2014 by two local entrepreneurs with a refrigerated tricycle, and it took almost no time for the popsicle frenzy to begin thanks to their cool flavor concoctions. Creamy coconut, fruit-sweetened strawberry mojito, tangy lemonade, smooth nougat—the selection is wide and changes daily.
Few trips are complete without enjoying a great dive bar. They’re usually friendly places to catch bartenders’ inside tips, sip cheap drinks, and connect with locals and other travelers. In Old San Juan, that’s El Batey. Situated in the same gritty outpost on Cristo Street for decades, visitors are usually struck by its décor: every square inch of its walls are coated by graffiti and autographs, lampshades are covered in layers of business cards hovering over the bar and pool table, and hand-drawn art hangs haphazardly about. It’s a family-run, cash-only joint with a pool table and jukebox, and it’s clear that patrons here feel the love by how compelled they are to leave their own mark on the place.
Creative Dining Experiences
Where there’s perfect tropical weather, there’s outdoor dining. In Santurce, Lote 23 is the “gastronomic park” that’s part food festival, part park, and part cocktail garden. The shaded lot is surrounded by about a dozen food stalls and trucks serving tacos, grilled fish, pizza, fried chicken, donuts, and other temptations and libations. Check Lote 23’s calendar (they’re open daily except Mondays) for upcoming special events, yoga sessions, and live-music afternoons.
Old San Juan may be a tourist epicenter, but it’s cobblestone streets have long been lined with locals’ favorite eateries. Head to one of the best in town at 280 Sol Street—El Jibarito, a staple for traditional Puerto Rican food for four decades and counting. It’s primarily a lunch stop serving classics like chicken stew, skirt steak, and chillo frito (fried whole red snapper). But one big claim to fame is its delicious mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains spiced and mixed with vegetables, seafood, or meat, then fried and served as a side dish or an entrée with succulent gravy. Though mofongo is common across Puerto Rico’s restaurants, few places make this delicacy as well as El Jibarito.
Head to Santurce’s La Placita by day and you can sample and stock up on fresh fruits, vegetables, and other local delicacies. By night, the La Plaza del Mercado public market becomes the center of bustling La Placita nightlife zone. Small bars, cafés, and clubs line the blocks surrounding the main market building, and on weekends (starting Thursday) the area feels like a friendly Puerto Rican French Quarter. Check out El Sabroso for live music, Maui for tapas and reggaeton, El Patio de Lila for LGBT clientele (especially Friday nights), or just wander until the right atmosphere draws you in.
Whether your trip is a quickie or extended holiday, it’s easy to feel like you didn’t sample enough local flavor. Spoon Food Tours wants to help with a tasty variety of excursions, all of them crafted to support independently operated businesses that cook with locally grown, sustainable ingredients. You can join Spoon’s walking tours for dinner or morning jaunts, a driving lunch tour, rainforest adventure, or the popular “Flavors of Puerto Rico” cooking class.
La Factoría was already famous as one of the world’s top speakeasies. Then musician and Puerto Rican native Luis Fonsi catapulted the Old San Juan lounge into the global limelight by recording part of the music video for “Despacito” there. But not to worry, the fame hasn’t gone to its head. You can still find stellar craft cocktails, great wine and beer, and tapas in La Factoría’s divey-yet-magical multi-room bar, lounge, salsa room, and nightclub.
It’s doubtful this former convent was always as luxurious; nevertheless guests appreciate the four centuries of history behind Hotel El Convento. Located near the landmarked citadel in Old San Juan, the massive building was home to Carmelite nuns for 252 years, before serving as a dance hall, market, and flophouse. But everything changed when it became a hotel in 1962, eventually morphing into today’s 58-room premier boutique hotel. Guests are sure to sense its long heritage in the Spanish Colonial architecture, hand painted tiles, and antique furniture, even as they’re enjoying all the modern amenities.
Storm damage hit local adventure- and water-tour companies hard. Popular destinations like Camuy Cave Park, El Yunque Forest, and Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays are still recovering and have limited or suspended access. But many eco-tour companies offer other fun adventure and sightseeing tours along the coast and inland, including kayaking, snorkeling, ziplining, and scenic hiking. Among them are Pandora Tours Puerto Rico, which is now hosting tours to Ventana Caves and the Arecibo Observatory. Batey Zipline Adventure offers horseback riding through a private forest, and an eco-farm walking tour with seasonal fruit tastings. Most operators offer hotel pick-up and drop-off, and while you can book most excursions online, consider calling to confirm the details (and remember that Puerto Rico is within the U.S. phone network).
The menu at Condado’s Cocina Abierta is full of surprises, which matches the restaurant’s slightly hidden location off Calle Caribe. Super fresh seafood, herbs, vegetables and other ingredients are curiously tantalizing, like the paper-thin sweet plantain carpaccio with tuna tataki, saffron risotto with crab and mushrooms, and other memorable choices, plus a solid wine list. There’s a romantic vibe to go with Cocina Abierta’s modern décor, and the outdoor terrace is a breezy post-beach perch. However, if you’re craving more traditional flavors in Condado, head to Ropa Vieja Grill to try the fresh catch from the airy corner patio.