Storm- and Scandal-Damaged Puerto Rico Is Still Worth Visiting — Here's How to Plan a Trip There
An Island Experience with American Convenience
Glorious beaches. A temperate climate. A gorgeous blend of architecture incorporating elements from Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassical periods. And rum — lots of really good rum. For decades, elements such as these have drawn visitors to the shores of Puerto Rico, visitors ready to drink deeply of local sites, Caribbean charm and some stiff mixed drinks.
However, events in recent years have made some travelers wonder whether or not they ought to consider visiting other island nations. It’s not hard to understand why. From natural disasters to political upheavals to mysterious illnesses, Puerto Rico has had a rough time of it. Still, this U.S. territory has lots to offer for visitors who want an island experience combined with American convenience.
We’ll go over the finer points of Puerto Rico travel so you can decide for yourself whether this is a destination you want to venture to on your next vacation.
“Haven’t You Been Reading the News?” Why Puerto Rico Is Still Worth Visiting
Over the past four or five years, every mention of Puerto Rico in the newspapers seemed negative. The island defaulted on its governmental debt in 2015, plunging the territory into economic chaos. Not long after, cases of the Zika virus began appearing in parts of the Southeastern United States, Central and South America, and all over the Caribbean — Puerto Rico included. Medical professionals soon linked it with birth defects such as eye damage, joint problems and microcephaly.
In 2017, a pair of major hurricanes struck the island in the same month, wrecking untold havoc. One study estimated that nearly 5,000 people died following the storms. More recently, a political storm engulfed former governor Ricardo Rossello, who resigned amid money-laundering accusations and leaks of crass online communications.
Hardly sounds like the perfect place to visit, right? Well, despite those troubles, Puerto Rico has rebounded remarkably well. The island has a new governor in place, the airport and ports of call are open, and both man-made and natural sites are swiftly recovering.
Contracting the Zika virus seems the greatest risk, but careful visitors can mitigate it. While pregnant women simply shouldn’t visit a Zika-prone area, others can avoid the mosquito-borne illness by using insect repellent and avoiding unprotected sexual intercourse if you do get bit. (For more tips, visit the CDC’s website.)
After the hurricanes, Lin-Manuel Miranda, star of the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” returned to his island home with a declaration for the world: “There’s nothing better for your soul than a trip to Puerto Rico.” Seeing as the island has so much to offer, why not take the plunge and see if he’s right?
The Basics of Traveling to Puerto Rico
But before you make your way to the southernmost American territory, there are a few basic things you ought to know.
Passports and Currency
Because of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States, American citizens won’t need a passport to travel to the island. Its proximity to the mainland means it’s a surprisingly short trip to its shores. The island also uses U.S. dollars as its currency, so travelers from abroad will find it easy to figure out conversion rates.
Yet although Puerto Rico is American in name, it certainly doesn’t feel so in practice. Spanish culture (and the Spanish language) dominate. While most everyone speaks English, brushing up on on a few Spanish phrases will definitely improve your experience.
Every locale has its quirks, and Puerto Rico is no different. Fortunately, it’s easy to get on the island, but driving deserves careful consideration. The roughly football-shaped island is shorter than it is wide. If you find yourself tempted to directly drive from north to south rather than taking the beltway of highway that encircles the island, don’t give in to it. Mountains make up most of Puerto Rico’s middle, and though the roads are in good shape, attempting to take a car through those winding passes is an exercise in frustration.
Though you’ll find that authorities have listed speed limits in miles per hour, most distance get quoted in kilometers. Also, street signage gets spotty in Old San Juan. (When I visited several years ago, I more than once found myself inadvertently speeding down the wrong way of a one-way street, much to the consternation of the locals.) Indeed, Puerto Rico is bigger than your typical Caribbean nation, so if you want to explore a little beyond, say, Old San Juan, you may want to rent a car.
Explore the Northwest Triangle of Old San Juan
Of course, Old San Juan itself could easily occupy you during the entirety of your travels to Puerto Rico. A roughly triangle-shaped section of the northwesternmost section of San Juan, this historical district sits on a bay, affording picturesque views pretty much everywhere you look.
The multicolored, colonial-era buildings sit stacked up against one another row house-style and bracketed by cobblestone streets. Antique statuary seem to dot every corner, and ancient forts peer out over the waters. Shoppers stroll among boutiques or stop in at little restaurants for a bite to eat or turn in at repurposed historical structures that have since become hotels for a good night’s sleep. You get the idea — an engaged traveler can find something interesting at every turn.
Where to Go
The Castillo San Felipe del Morro stands among the most iconic things to discover in Old San Juan and is located at the tip of the barrier island. Walled and boasting a tall tower, it saw some sort of military action every century from the 16th on. Today, it’s still an impressive sight, especially on windy days when countless kite flyers take to the grass swath on which it lies.
Across the way you’ll find Capilla del Cementerio Santa María. Marble, cross-clad tombs perch by wave-swept rocks. It’s simultaneously sumptuous and sobering. The Castillo de San Cristobal isn’t quite as striking as El Morro mentioned above, but you can enjoy guided tours and poke around pretty much all of the fortification’s structures, including the tunnels beneath.
Where to Eat
When you’ve explored enough, and heat and hunger rear their ravenous heads, duck into Señor Paleta, a small dessert parlor in a pink-sided building where local fruits and other ingredients combine to make gourmet popsicles. (And make no mistake, Puerto Rico gets warm and stays warm most of the year.) Cafe Quatro Sombras serves single-origin coffee grown right on the island and makes for a great lunch stop.
Marmalade blends gourmet dining with eat-local panache. Diners can craft their own meals using a number of preselected, Puerto Rican-grown ingredients. And if you’re an early riser, you absolutely have to try La Bombonera. A local landmark, this charming cafe serves up deliciously stiff espresso from a gigantic polished coffee maker that looks like something out of the golden age of science fiction and stunningly good pastries.
Where to Stay
Old San Juan also offers plenty of places to stay as you ramble its quaint streets. The Gallery Inn embraces its tropical heritage with a lush garden growing around and through the property, dark-wood furniture and stairways decorated with Spanish tile. The CasaBlanca Hotel strikes a more trendy tone with an airier ambiance and eco-friendly construction.
But perhaps the most unique place to lay your head happens to be one of the oldest. El Covento started out in 1646 as a (you guessed it) convent. While the convent lasted into the 20th century, the Archbishop of San Juan closed it in 1903, and it would reopen in 1962 as a hotel. Marble, tile, hand-shaped furniture, and a cream-and-coffee color scheme welcome visitors to this luxury property. It’s also mere minutes from some of the area’s best sights.
Behold a Regrowing Rainforest, Starry Waters and Wondrous Waves
El Yunque National Park
One of the greatest losses from the hurricanes that struck Puerto Rico involved America’s only tropical rainforest: El Yunque National Park. Located a mere 20 minutes from Old San Juan, it contains a wealth of endemic species not seen anywhere else — or should I say contained? Many were driven nearly to extinction after the storms’ damage.
Still, parts of the park have reopened, and visitors can snap photos at the famous La Coca Falls, one of El Yunque’s best-known attractions. But don’t expect the dramatic vistas and lush forest canopies that once covered the area. Experts say those may take four or five decades to recover.
Fortunately, Puerto Rico’s bioluminescent bays have fared better. Truly world wonders, these small bodies of water contain high concentrations of dinoflagellates, itty-bitty single-celled creatures with a unique defense mechanism. When disturbed, they glow an eerie greenish-blue for a few moments.
Only five bays in the world have such high concentrations of these critters that any disturbance causes the waters to seemingly swirl with stars, and three of them are in Puerto Rico. One is on Vieques, an island off of Puerto Rico’s easternmost shores. Another is in Fajardo (northeastern Puerto Rico), while another is in La Parguera (southwestern Puerto Rico).
It’s hard to oversell just how amazing it is to behold a so-called bio bay. The stirred waters sparkle as though swirling with tiny blue stars, and the best way to experience it is via kayak. Just make sure to hire a guide for a private ride. Though more pricey, it’s far more enjoyable than milling about with a loud, overeager crowd that may number in the dozens.
Sometimes people want more mundane natural charms such as relaxing on a beautiful beach. Well, sun worshippers can rejoice, because Puerto Rico has more than a few wonderful stretches of sand. Rincón in northwestern Puerto Rico is renowned for its surfing and even served as the host of the 1968 World Surfing Championships.
Desecheo Island, which lies just to the west and is uninhabited, offers superb diving. And Seven Seas Beach in Fajardo will fulfill your every desire for getting a deep golden tan.
Experience a History Far Older Than the United States
Though many people don’t pause to think about it, Puerto Rico is much older than the United States, the nation of which it is a territory. The island contained a native population that stretched back to the fifth or sixth century, and Europeans didn’t arrive until a millennium later. Puerto Rico contains sites that can allow you to get a grasp on its rich and varied past.
La Placita de Santurce
We’ve already mentioned the various forts in Old San Juan, and those are good places to start. So is La Placita de Santurce, a San Juan marketplace where you can hear salsa strains, music that traveled more than half the world before reaching the Caribbean.
Another seemingly ubiquitous Puerto Rican product that actually has a rich background is rum. Bacardi Limited is based in Puerto Rico and offers tours of its facility. You can learn all about how imprisonments, revolutions, exiles and mummies all factor into the world’s most famous rum brand.
History buffs can look at more traditional places, too. Old San Juan’s La Fortaleza, the home of Puerto Rico’s governor, is the oldest executive residence in the world’s western half that has stayed continuously occupied since its construction.
Casa Museo Felisa Rincón de Gautier
The Casa Museo Felisa Rincón de Gautier celebrates the life and legacy of Doña Fela, a mayor who worked to aid the poor and promote voting rights for women.
Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular
Fundación Nacional para la Cultura Popular does much the same thing with Puerto Ricans in general, highlighting the contributions the island’s inhabitants have made in the performing arts.
Plazuela de la Rogativa
The Plazuela de la Rogativa draws attention to a rather humorous interlude in Puerto Rico’s past. When the British attempted to lay siege to the city in the late 18th century, stories say that they saw the torches of a Roman Catholic processional and believed that the island’s inhabitants had received reinforcements, which led to their retreat.
Tribes Indigenous Ceremonial Center
The Tribes Indigenous Ceremonial Center, which you’ll find near Ponce, provides an entirely different kind of perspective on the island’s history. Considered the oldest archaeological site on Puerto Rico, it provides a glimpse into how the native people lived for hundreds of years prior to encountering Europeans.
However, the best Puerto Rican history isn’t what you read in the newspapers or see in a museum or experience firsthand in some admittedly wonderful scene. It’s the history you make yourself, the history you make with friends and loved one on an island that has been battered and bruised — but still has plenty to offer travelers.