Puerto Rico tourism coming back gradually

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Most of Old San Juan is as colorful and vibrant as ever.
Most of Old San Juan is as colorful and vibrant as ever. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

SAN JUAN -- Saturday evening was lively in Old San Juan.

Restaurants in its narrow alleys were packed with locals listening to salsa. The main square was a mix of tourists and families. The silhouettes of dozens of kites against the sunset flew over the lawn in front of El Morro, San Juan's famous fort.

On the beach, the upscale Vanderbilt Condado hotel was hosting a holiday party, its second in as many nights, and people stayed at Isla Verde's beach late into the afternoon.

Mi Pequeno San Juan in the Old City has no power and can only accept cash.
Mi Pequeno San Juan in the Old City has no power and can only accept cash. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

To people who know San Juan, this will seem like a normal weekend. But the Puerto Rico that was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September is far from normal. The island is coming back slowly and, in many cases, painfully. Only 65% of the island has power restored and many residents have left in a mass exodus to the mainland United States.

For the average tourist, however, visiting Puerto Rico will feel familiar. There are clear signs of Maria's destruction: many traffic lights still don't work, detritus still lines some roadsides, there are many damaged buildings.

Conversations with smiling restaurant workers reveal that their homes have no electricity or WiFi, almost 80 days after the storm passed. Some stores have reopened without power and accept only cash. Personnel from FEMA and Con Edison and other recovery workers are working on power lines and spending evenings at bars and restaurants.

Old City hotels like El Convento and the boutique Villa Herencia, where I stayed, are open and have no signs of damage. There are plenty of places to eat and souvenirs to buy. The beaches are mostly cleaned up and the water quality is back to normal. Some of the largest hotels are still closed, especially those on San Juan's beach, like Hilton's El San Juan, the Ritz Carlton and the Marriott. But more than 100 hotels are open and taking reservations.

Guillermo Cristian Jeffs, owner of Ole Curiosidades, a maker of customized Panama hats.
Guillermo Cristian Jeffs, owner of Ole Curiosidades, a maker of customized Panama hats. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

How San Juan got to this point, in spite of what most people say was a slow government response, for many reasons, is a testament to the resiliency of the Puerto Ricans and desire to move forward.

Every store in the Old City has a story: Without power, the Casa Cortes chocolate cafe and restaurant served food from a window two days after the storm and delivered meals to the community. The El Patio de Ana restaurant opened with candlelight and bags of ice two weeks after the storm. Ole Curiosidades, a seller of customized Panama hats, reopened just two days after Maria struck, working off the sidewalk and sometimes making only $10 per day, just to have a presence. 

Taking matters into their own hands

That spirit of resiliency was alive in Aguadilla, where locals, including many that work in tourism, were out Saturday morning cleaning up Crash Boat Beach, one of western region's nicest beaches where even now, the water is so clear you can see straight down to the sandy bottom 20 feet below at the end of the pier.

"Se levanta," rise up, is the post-hurricane rallying cry throughout Puerto Rico, including on Crash Boat Beach.
"Se levanta," rise up, is the post-hurricane rallying cry throughout Puerto Rico, including on Crash Boat Beach. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

That pier, a popular spot for both locals and tourists to jump in the crystal waters, is considerably shorter than what visitors will remember. Maria knocked about half of it into the sea. The storm surge also swallowed about 100 feet of the sand, making the strip of beach much smaller than it used to be. Until about a week ago, the parking lot was covered with sand, which the city finally pushed back onto the beach to give food trucks and tour operators a place to set up shop.

Locals say there is still far less vegetation around, and many fewer palm trees, but it's still a beautiful beach. On Saturday afternoon, with the parking attendant on duty for the first time since the storm, a smattering of paddleboarders, scuba divers, and beach loungers came to enjoy the beach's reopening. It was also the first weekend since Maria that the food trucks were there, selling fresh coconut water, pizza, pina coladas and daiquiris.

Crash Boat's iconic fish market, which fisherman stocked with fresh catches from the colorful yolo boats, was destroyed, along with its adjacent restaurant and bar. But its operator pledged to be back up and running in some capacity in the next few weeks, occupying a building on the beach he had used as an office.

 The beach cleanup, which included painting the pier, picking up trash, and cutting the fallen palm trees, was organized by the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. (PRTC), which has been helping to get Puerto Rico's tourism sector back on its feet.

"Getting the beach ready wasn't the first priority for the government," said Juan Carlos Rosario, owner of Paradise West Tours, which operates snorkeling tours, fishing charters and boat cruises, and rents out jet skis from Crash Boat. "The PRTC approached me and said, 'How can we help?'" 

Juan Carlos Rosario, owner of Paradise West Tours, cuts a fallen palm tree during the Crash Boat Beach cleanup.
Juan Carlos Rosario, owner of Paradise West Tours, cuts a fallen palm tree during the Crash Boat Beach cleanup. Photo Credit: Johanna Jainchill

Rosario told them they needed equipment and manpower, and the PRTC helped on both fronts, supplying paint, tools and volunteers. Even Aguadilla's mayor joined in for a little while. Until Saturday, Rosario and other locals had been handling most of the cleanup on their own. "It was a disaster in the beginning," he said. 

Rosario would normally be busy already this season, but he has shifted his focus to helping the region come back, understanding that without tourists, he can't run tours.

"First, we need to help Puerto Rico get back on its feet, and when Crash Beach is ready, we'll set up again," he said.

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