01 May Puerto Rico is Brighter Than Ever
After graduating from UCLA, JIll traveled the world looking for unique destinations. She’s been writing about her travels for almost 30 years in various publications.
She writes a weekly restaurant review for the Beverly Press and Park LaBrea News. It’s inserted into the Los Angeles Times every Thursday and delivered to subscribers from Hancock Park to Beverly Hills, Hollywood Hills to the Wilshire Corridor.
Puerto Rico is Brighter than Ever
By Jill Weinlein
During the month of October, 2017 Hurricane Maria tried to decimate Puerto Rico island. The Level Five hurricane ravaged certain cities causing widespread destruction and most of the island’s residents were without electricity and clean water.
Recently I traveled to Puerto Rico to see what recovery efforts have been made in the historic Old San Juan, Fajardo and Ponce areas on the island. The beauty of traveling to Puerto Rico is that it’s a US territory and Americans don’t need a passport or have to wait in immigration lines.
What I discovered is that the San Juan airport has arrivals throughout the day, tourist sites are repaired, cruise ships are visiting San Juan daily, hotels are reopening, refurbishing and rebuilding and tourism is coming back.
Cruise ships were one of the first modes of transportation to bring tourists back to San Juan. Cruise travel is very important to the island with roughly 1.7 million passengers visiting, generating roughly $250 million in revenue. Some of the cruise lines that are visiting 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 for a number of Eastern Caribbean cruises.
I also discovered that many hotels are now open, however they are a “home away from home” for FEMA relief workers, contractors and the insurance companies rebuilding the island. The freshly painted hotels have new windows, furnishing, and re-plastered pools. There are a few high-end hotels that have not re-opened yet, 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 San Juan by foot and bicycle. Later we rented a car to visit other areas on the island. Here are some of our favorite Puerto Rico experiences:
Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage sites including El Morro constructed in 1539, we were impressed by the beauty of the stone fortress located on the headland overlooking the entrance to San Juan Bay. Originally built by Spanish colonialists to protect and defend the city, the deep harbor is ideal for sailing ships. We took the stairways, pass cannons, arched passageways, and overlooked 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.
We parked our bikes at the luxury Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan. It was an old monastery next to the San Juan Cathedral. This beautiful cathedral is the second- oldest in the Western Hemisphere. The five story elegant hotel has a lovely central courtyard, and a pool on the fourth floor terrace offering great views of Old San Juan.
Walking along the cobblestone streets, we paid $1 for a bag of bird seed at Pigeon Park – Parque de las Palomas in Old San Juan. This park overlooking the San Juan Bay is a bird sanctuary for hundreds of pigeons. The park has a couple of large twisted trunk trees and benches to feed or watch others feed the birds.
Walking down to the water, we boarded a boat and took a 50 minute narrated tour of the San Juan Harbor to learn more about the 500-year-old city of Old San Juan, including the Roots Fountain, Paseo de la Princesa, Governor’s Mansion, Bacardi Rum factory and see El Morro by boat.
Casa BACARDI has two towering windmills. These windmills power the rum factory and can generate enough power for 100 residential homes. While we were on the island, there were no power outages, however after we returned the entire island experienced a power outage, and may have more until all the repair work is completed.
We rented a car and drove to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the United States Forest System. What was once a lush forest is coming back after Hurricane Maria. We noticed the road to many popular view spots and hiking trails closed for repair, however we had to see the beautiful La Coca waterfall.
Driving back down the mountain we drove to Fajardo to kayak in one of Puerto Rico’s three bioluminescent bays. There are only five in the world, and Puerto Rico has three of these natural wonders. Kayaking at sunset under red mangrove trees, lazy iguanas rested on branches above us. As we entered Laguna Grande, the bay was filled with tiny organisms that glow in the water at night. Stirring the water with our hands activated tiny sparkles, leaving glowing swirls in the water. After the hurricane this bay filled up with rainwater and muddy run off. Now 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.
The next day, we sailed on a catamaran to a small islet called Cayo Icacos. It’s an uninhabited island off the coast of Fajardo. The thirty minute boat ride delivered us to a peninsula where the rich and cooler blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean meet the calmer, turquoise-green Caribbean Sea. We snorkeled right where the two connect discovering coral and brightly colored tropical fish.
The next day as we drove to the city of Ponce, we saw more damaged homes and downed trees. The windmills with long blades snapped in two were waiting to be repaired and replaced.
Ponce is 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 fireplace in Puerto Rico.
Throughout the trip, we ate authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. The roadways all over the island have kiosk dining spots re-opening and serving empanadillas (similar to empanadas), pinchos (small bites), mofongo (mashed fried plantains seasoned with garlic, olive oil and pork), and tostones (a popular plantain dish).
With all that Puerto Rico has experienced in the last few months, I discovered it’s resilient and springing back with vibrant colors, lively music and friendly locals wearing warm smiles and an eagerness to welcome back tourists.
To learn more, go to http://www.seepuertorico.com.