Experience Puerto Rico: Battered by Hurricane Maria, the U.S. territory is making a comeback

Horses run wild along the river that flows alongside Hijos del Josco in Otuado, a town in the west-central region of Puerto Rico not often visited by tourists.
Horses run wild along the river that flows alongside Hijos del Josco in Otuado, a town in the west-central region of Puerto Rico not often visited by tourists.

Island Experiences

When planning your trip to the Island of Enchantment, here are five things you don’t want to miss.› Old San Juan. It’s a small island off the coast connected by a bridge to the mainland. San Cristobal Fort, built by the Spanish in 1521, is a fortress that wraps around Old San Juan, an island now filled with shops, rum bars and historic sites.› Salsa dancing and music. You can find both at La Placita de Santurce in San Juan.› The Bacardi distillery. Tour the distillery, sample the spirits and learn the history of how it became one of the legendary rums of Puerto Rico.› The beach. Puerto Rico is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea to its south and the Atlantic Ocean on the north. Among the most-popular beaches around the island are Rincon on the west coast and Isla Verde Beach in San Juan.› Record zipline. You’ll find the tallest and longest zipline in the world through the rainforest at Toro Verde in Orocovis.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Standing on the balcony of Ocean Lab Brewing Co., one of several new craft breweries to open in the past year, it's hard to fathom the scope of devastation that engulfed the island of Puerto Rico.

The sun shines on turquoise waters lapping on pristine shores as coconut palms sway in the Caribbean breeze. It's winter, but the Island of Enchantment is warm and inviting. In 2017, on the morning of Sept. 20, you couldn't have said that.

Hurricane Maria made her arrival, spending an entire day battering homes and businesses. In her wake, this U.S. territory was left without power, gas and tourists, the lifeblood of the island's economy.

But now, Puerto Rico is ready for a comeback.

"All the streets you couldn't go through are open again. The mountains are green again," says Will Marrero, general manager of Hyatt Place San Juan and its neighboring Hyatt House.

While some restaurants and businesses have shuttered their doors for good, others have opened and are drawing crowds of locals and tourists like before. There's a new spirit spreading across Puerto Rico - one of determination and hope. "People have come together since Maria," says Xiomara Rodriguez with Discover Puerto Rico. "It changed their perspective."

From a local perspective

Gary Sanders, vice president of commercial lines at RSS Insurance in Chattanooga, took his family - wife Allie, and their children Hannah, 17, Brycen, 14, and Avery, 12 - to Puerto Rico this past summer. They'd never taken a family vacation anywhere but Gulf Shores, Alabama, and considered several destinations.

"California? No. Bahamas? Yes, but then found out it was too expensive," he says.

Then the idea of Puerto Rico came to mind, so he did his research, wondering, he says, "Was it safe? Habitable? Deadly sea life that would rip out my arms and limbs if I swam in the water? Yes, I'm terrified of sharks and jellyfish. And then I wondered if they spoke English. Do they take U.S. dollars?

"Seriously, it all sounds ridiculous, but that's how clueless I was about Puerto Rico. So the more I researched the island, the more I wanted to give it a try. They needed people to come visit to help get the economy back up. Hotel rates were reasonable, and so were plane tickets."

Sanders says their parents thought they were a little crazy, going to an island where electric service was still a little sketchy and hotels were still under construction. After all, it had been less than a year since Maria. But the Sanders family took a chance, bought their tickets, made hotel reservations and flew out on July 2, 2018, arriving in Puerto Rico at 11:30 a.m., local time.

The hotel they booked, Embassy Suites San Juan, was, like Hyatt and others, not directly on the beach, so damage was minimal, if at all. And the beach, a little more than a half-mile away, was amazing.

"Isla Verde - it's one of the best beaches on the island and is absolutely gorgeous. Nothing compares to the water in the Caribbean. It was breathtaking," Sanders says. "The sand, the water, the people - fabulous. I experienced my love of homemade empanadas by the vendors on the beach. They were very respectful and thankful."

The first two days of their four days in Puerto Rico were spent close to the hotel, going back and forth to the beach, trying to get the lay of the land before venturing farther afield to experience more of the local food and culture. In order to do so, they got a taxi and instructed him to take them somewhere authentic.

Throughout Puerto Rico, there are small cafes called chinchorros. In fact, they are so common and popular, a noun has been turned into a verb. The act of visiting a chinchorro is called chinchorrear, and it's something you must do at least once before leaving the island.

The Sanders family found their chinchorro experience at a local flea market, which at first looked like a rundown place in the middle of nowhere, but it didn't take long for them to discover how to chinchorrear.

"It was a happening place," Sanders says, admitting that they were a little overdressed for the experience. "To say we stuck out like a sore thumb is an understatement. Plus, everyone spoke Spanish - and we didn't. The cab driver knew everyone there, and I politely asked him to walk us up there and show us where to go. He spoke to our server and explained the situation. It wasn't the best place we ate at, but it was authentic."

No passport, no problem

Since Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, no passports are needed, and that, Sanders adds, is one thing that made the trip to Puerto Rico all the more appealing. And there are no roaming or international data plans. Calling the mainland from Puerto Rico costs no more than dialing your neighbor back home. And if you happen to rent a car and need directions, just plug in the address and follow the directions. No extra charges.

Some cellphone carriers work better than others. You're in luck if you have AT&T or T-Mobile. Don't count on Verizon getting you where you want to go.

U.S. dollars are the main form of currency in Puerto Rico, so no need to have your dollars exchanged for other forms. That, in itself, is a money saver, allowing your money to be spent touring the island instead.

Securing a cab or tour guide is the best way to explore Old San Juan and its Castillo San Felipe del Morro - a fortress and U.S. National Park built by the Spanish in the 1500s.

It was, Sanders says, "Absolutely stunning. From there, we got adventurous and walked around Old San Juan - the Santa Maria Cemetery, the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. I highly recommend that. It's breathtaking. And the government buildings, all the shops and everything. Everyone was courteous and nice.

"Old San Juan is such a beautiful city. I've never been anywhere like it in the States. We ate at La Madre. Fantastic food!"

The island of Puerto Rico is roughly 35 miles from north to south and 100 miles wide. Stick to the main roads, and you'll have no problem driving to the east coast for a memorable snorkeling adventure in Fajardo - one of the best places for diving in the Caribbean.

"It took us about an hour to get there, but that's where all the snorkeling adventures are. Heading out that way you could really see the effects of the hurricane. Many places still did not have electricity. Not all the stoplights were working. Some of the communities and housing looked like Third World countries. It was amazing yet horrifying to see how people could live there. We are extremely spoiled here compared to those conditions.

"With that being said, this was the absolute best part of the trip. The water was amazing. We snorkeled through one of the reefs off an island for two hours. Granted I am a little scared of open waters, but I stayed out there the whole time in the water with my snorkel and fins and took it all in. It's one of the greatest memories of my life. The crew members were awesome. Just down-to-earth locals who treated everyone like family."

On the west coast, you'll find another kind of adventure, spelunking through several of the caves open to the public. Puerto Rico has a tremendous network of more than 2,000 caves filled with impressive rock formations, stalactites, stalagmites and, in some cases, petroglyphs showing the art of ancient Indians who once inhabited the island. Only 10 percent of the caves have been surveyed, several of which are open to the public with guided tours.

* Cueva del Indio cave, perched on a breathtaking strip of beach near Arecibo, about an hour west of San Juan, is a good example of the Taino Indian culture. The ocean floor is rocky, so the beach is best left for sunbathing and walking. The self-guided tour, which you'll pay $5 for before leaving the parking area, takes about 45 minutes over rocky terrain - so wear sturdy shoes. There is no longer a ladder to descend into the cave, so you stand and look down into an open room where the Taino people held meetings and made numerous carvings on its walls. Petroglyphs pre-date Columbus' arrival to the island in 1493.

* Cueva Ventana offers a window to the world. Translated as "window cave," the guided tour ($19) takes helmeted spelunkers through two caves, the first of which is a flat, easy walk with interesting rock formations. The second cave is connected to the first and takes a little more muscle to maneuver around boulders and archways. It ends in a magnificent opening that overlooks Arecibo and the canyon below. "Slippery when wet" is something to remember, so wear boots or tennis shoes.

Getting there

Though the island is still recovering from Maria, "the hurricane opened a new chapter for us," says Marrero from Hyatt. "The recovery of the island has been amazing."

The farm-to-table movement is alive and growing in Puerto Rico restaurants. Many of the hotels that were damaged are coming back to life. The Airbnb business is booming. Tour companies are experiencing increased bookings.

"You can do and see so much over here in just one day," says tour operator Carlos Andino, owner of My Puerto Rico Tours.

Direct flights from Atlanta to San Juan on major carriers, including American and Delta, take just over three hours.

"Our time there was short, but it was a trip our family will never forget," Sanders says. "Old San Juan is one of the most beautiful cities we have ever seen, and the people of Puerto Rico we came across were extremely nice and thankful. I hope we're able to go back and visit very soon."

Email Anne Braly at abraly@timesfreepress.com.

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