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On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, hit Puerto Rico, knocking out power, destroying homes and disrupting the flow of clean water. The number of lives lost is still being debated almost a year later. Over the following months, hotels and restaurants scrambled to rebuild or renovate to encourage tourists to return.
When I recently told friends that I would soon travel to Puerto Rico for vacation, I heard, “I love the beaches! Of course, I haven’t been there since the hurricane,” or “Be careful there — everything is different since the hurricane.”
The phrase “since the hurricane” became a mantra.
“Six months after Hurricane Maria hit, more than 50 percent of travelers said media coverage negatively impacted their view of Puerto Rico as a destination,” said Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico. “We’re hoping to change that. We have lot to celebrate, including one of the greatest comeback stories in tourism, as we reach the one-year anniversary.”
I arrived in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, with some trepidation, but everything seemed “normal” at first glance — as if nothing had happened at all. I headed straight for Condado Beach to relax on dulce de leche-colored sand and play in the warm, clear water with easy, rolling waves.
The hotels lining the beach all appeared to be open and ready for guests such as myself. According to Discover Puerto Rico, the island’s hotel room inventory will reach pre-Maria levels by mid-2019.
However, while San Juan and the majority of the island have electricity and running water, there are still areas living with damaged infrastructure. Encouraging tourists to return to the island is what many people believe will help the island fully recover.
As one local woman told me, “People coming to visit us is good. We need people to visit us.”
RestaurantsAcross the island, visitors have more than 4,000 restaurants to explore, and that energy is evident in the city of San Juan. On Calle Loiza street in the Santurce district, many new restaurants have opened just in the last year, making it one of the newest up-and-coming areas. In late 2016, an empty lot in Santurce was turned into Lote 23, a multitiered space with 16 curated food and drink trucks, picnic tables and weekend-only live music. Relatively undamaged by the hurricane, it has remained a festive hub for locals and tourists to gather.
Puerto Ricans are rightfully proud of their heritage and food, and, best of all, they want to share it with visitors. From mofongo, a dish featuring fried plantains, to the famed pina colada, Puerto Rican food is steeped in history, and restaurants are celebrating these traditions.
Princesa Gastrobar serves modernized recipes from a mid-1800s family cookbook, and El Jibarito serves traditional home cooking to a lively crowd of regulars and tourists. Some chefs are innovating traditional recipes for fine dining. Celebrated restaurants, such as Marmalade, are updating traditional recipes with modern interpretations and are purposefully using locally sourced ingredients, which in turn, helps to support the island’s farming communities.
ShopsSeveral independent stores in San Juan are working hard to rebuild their own businesses, as well as find ways to support local communities.
Urban Tribe only sells jewelry, clothes and interesting objects made by artists living in Puerto Rico. In front of the store is a sign encouraging people to buy local as it helps “keep a dream alive.” Similarly, Concalma sells bags that are designed locally and produced by a women-owned factory in the central mountains of Puerto Rico. Forteza Caribbean Chocolate, which has been using locally grown ingredients for generations, made a commitment after Maria to work with partner farms to grow diversified ingredients, which they later plan to incorporate into new products.
NatureMany of the destinations tourists love to visit, such as the beaches and bioluminescent bays, are ready and waiting for visitors. The famed waterfall in El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System, is open; however, several of the trails in the park remain closed.
Good to KnowAs I walked around San Juan, the city seemed back to normal on the surface. People went to work; families flew kites in the park in front of El Morro; and cruise ships stopped in the harbor.
While the infrastructure and natural world have recovered, the people of Puerto Rico are leaning on each other — and visitors — to help them heal the emotional wounds.
Perhaps most telling of Puerto Rico’s recovery is the community of Humacao, made famous by the viral photo of the S.O.S. sign created with rocks during the aftermath of Maria. The community has since recovered, and they’ve partnered with Discover Puerto Rico to make sure the world knows it by creating a new sign, which reads: “Bienvenidos!”
As I drove to the airport, I promised myself to come back. The natural beauty and the exciting food scene are reasons enough, but it is the people who drew me in. I was inspired by their resiliency and charmed by their warmth, love of a good story and eagerness to welcome a new friend.
The DetailsDiscover Puerto Ricowww.discoverpuertorico.com