The island of Puerto Rico continues to rebuild after being devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, with tourism being imperative to the process. And there’s plenty for travellers to enjoy and experience, REBECCA FIELD JAGER discovers: beauty, bliss and communities of determined people who persevere in the name of protecting the home they love.
Fort San Felipe del Morro, old San Juan
THEY CAME ON FOOT or by car; neighbours and natives; alone, in couples, as families or groups of friends. This was, after all, a big day in Puerto Rico. Aguadilla, a town hugging the tip of the northwestern shore, was celebrating the grand opening of the Island’s newest tourist attraction: a massive mural covering an entire section of hillside homes overlooking the sea.
By chance, my rented homeshare sat smack-dab in the middle of it, and I had a front-row seat from my balcony perch situated about halfway up the incline.
Throughout the festivities, politicians thanked the sponsors who had made this community beautification project possible; organizers sang the praises of the architect, Samuel Gonzalez Rodriguez, and his team of volunteers; vendors served up grilled pinchos de pollos (Puerto Rican chicken skewers) and cans of cold Medalla Light; and bands played long after a canopy of fireworks lit the sky.
And yet, the biggest draw was the way folks could actually immerse themselves in the mammoth masterpiece by climbing the steep and uneven staircase that runs up through the middle of it, past balconies and rooftops, and all the way to the top. There, climbers could make their way along a narrow walkway lined with more artists’ works.
Marvelling at the fortitude of the steady parade of people passing by, at one point, I locked eyes with an elderly lady using a cane and offered her a sympathetic smile. I was a bit taken aback when she returned my gaze with a quizzical look, as if to say, ‘What are you grinning at?’When the woman descends, don’t condescend, I told myself.
To many Puerto Ricans, this uphill climb is a walk in the park – relatively speaking, that is. The island was devastated by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, which resulted in an approximate $80 billion USD in damages and left more than one million people without power. For an island so dependent on tourism, the road to recovery has been a long one and although for many life has not returned to its pre-Maria days, Puerto Rico is now open for business. Almost 200 attractions are up and operating and more than 4,000 restaurants are open island-wide. Several hotels and resorts managed to re-open by the end of last year so by mid-2019, total room inventory is expected to be fully restored. Keep in mind, however, that each community is unique and recovering at its own pace.
When I first arrived in Aguadilla, which served as my home base, I was shocked by the abandoned houses and shuttered businesses dotting – or lining – some of its streets. Many of the structures were so dilapidated that only the faded sign of a beauty shop, say, gave any clue as to what type of commerce once took place inside. Clearly, these ruins were the result of the years of economic hardship that had plagued the Island before the hurricane hit. The wounds Maria inflicted were fresher: boarded-up beach houses, dusty storefront-windows, chained and padlocked doors, and the eerily apocalyptic look of larger vacant structures such as the town’s entertainment complex which used to house a skating rink.
“After the hurricane, no electricity, no ice,” a local told me.
Sadly, even with the electricity long since back on, the drop in tourism and mass exodus of locals following Maria has rendered many ventures unviable.
Here’s the thing: during my walkabouts, I soon discovered businesses – old, new, or newly re-opened – bustling with activity. Finding them, and then, frequenting them – a small department store, a pharmacy, a clothing retailer – became the favourite part of my days. In the mornings, I looked forward to joining the line-up at Panaderia La Marina, a bakery with pastries so good nothing could keep customers away; and I made afternoon pit-stops at Tu Mojito, a seaside oasis offering every version of mojito imaginable; and once in a while, I opted to hang out for happy hour with the local gang at Rompeolas, a beach bar and casual eatery.
At Espinar Beach, on the outskirts of town, I met a young woman who lives in Minnesota but grew up in Aguadilla. A few years ago, Melisa Lopez Franzen and her husband purchased a three-storey beachfront house as a vacation home and income property. Incredibly, the closing date was the very day Maria struck, and after dealing with red tape and damages, the couple’s first renters were linesmen working to restore the Island’s electricity.
“Now, of course, we have other guests booking. And everywhere you look, people are opening new businesses and restaurants. Puerto Ricans, you know, are very resilient.”
Melisa’s tone was not defensive, but her chin jutted out a little when she spoke.
Let's go surfing now, everybody's learning how...
The surf at Rincon
Rincon, a.k.a. “The Caribbean’s Hawai’i” lies just southwest of Aguadilla. Two things put it on the map as a global surf destination. One, in 1962, lyrics to the Beach Boys’ hit, Surfin’ Safari, made mention of the town; and two, the televised 1968 World Surfing Championship was held here. Driving in, it’s all you imagine a surf town to be, its main drag lined with bistros, bars and beach-related boutiques. The place appeared to be in such good shape, and I wondered if Maria, perhaps catching the vibe, had mellowed when she arrived.
“No,” a local beachside shop owner told me emphatically. “The whole island got hit hard. We didn’t have electricity here for four months so you had to line up at the bank and the grocery store for hours.”
His buddy standing next to him piped in, “Yeah, but we did a lot of partying.”
Isabela, a city famed for its Guajataca Forest walking trails, rivers and caves, arguably offers a more authentic surf scene. At Jobos Beach, expert locals ride the waves seemingly oblivious to the dangerous riptide and currents that on occasion, drown or pull the unlucky out to sea. No barricades line the massive rock that folks like me climb for a peek at the enormous blowhole and churning waters. Risk, it seems, is just part of the Puerto Rican way of life. In fact, in a flurry of cautionary online reviews of the beach, one critique suggests that a local surfer’s biggest worry is whether he or she will have to take a break from the fun to pull some hapless tourist to safety.
Recovery & Rediscovery
Old San Juan
I’ve never been a big fan of history or even antiques, but lately, I’ve developed an appreciation for old things (projection!) so I chose to spend my last day and night in Old San Juan. I doubled down by selecting a homeshare in a beautiful three-storey guest home built in the early 1800s, and steps from Castillo San Cristobal, one of two massive fortifications that for centuries defended the city.
My host, Daniel del Valle, an art collector, told me that in the days following the hurricane, he rediscovered what it means to be a Puerto Rican.
“I found beauty in the people’s willingness to help each other and contribute to the extent they could to the recovery of our country.”
Me, I found beauty in the teams of tourists disembarking the cruise ships, the scores of locals out with their families, the laughter floating up from packed restaurants and nightclubs, and the comfort of being in a 500-year-old city that has survived invasions, economic and political strife, and yes, multiple natural disasters.
Recently, The New York Times named Puerto Rico as number one on its 52 Places to Go in 2019 list. Accolades such as this will undoubtedly help propel the Island to a full recovery. But so too will road trips to smaller communities where the only “hardship” I experienced during my journey was an ache, like a phantom pain stemming from the loss of something that should be there. I felt it when strolling along a stretch of deserted boardwalk, or when I was walking along a ribbon of sandy beach and looked back to see the only footprints were my own.
But don’t go for the boardwalks and beaches – go for the people.
The day after Aguadilla’s grand opening celebration, from my balcony perch, I spotted Othoniel Acevedo who lives in one of the adjacent hillside units, carrying a pail of soapy water and heading towards one of the ground-level buildings, in front of which many folks had posed for selfies.
“People put their foot on the wall and left scuff marks all over the place! Can you believe it?” he called up to me, seemingly indignant but his voice carried more than a tinge of pride.
I wanted to tell him that with tens of thousands of visitors expected to pass through in the coming months, his mini restoration attempts would prove futile, but I held my tongue.
Instead, I watched a man who’d confessed to me that he had sat in the darkness crying like a baby as Maria shook his home, lift a sponge, and tenderly wash the dirt away.
When You Go
Crash Boat Beach | Discover Puerto Rico
What to do:
Which way to the beach?Pretty much every way, and each with an ambiance and best-place-to activity of its own. Surfing, snorkelling and diving are big at Steps (Rincon) and Crash Boat (Aguadilla); go paddle-boarding at Sandy (Rincon); kayakers and nature lovers should head to La Parguera, one of three bioluminescent bays.
Where to eat:
Two recently opened spots that stand out: Casa Del Dorado, a laid-back, open-air restaurant located on Espinar Beach in Aguada serves up yummy local dishes such as mofongo, churrasco, and the freshest seafood around. In Old San Juan, the family owned-and-operated, La Carreta, on Calle Luna, wowed me with its big authentic brunch and personable stellar service. Bar bites and bevvies available at night – a full dinner menu is expected to be rolled out shortly.
If you want to explore the Island, you need to rent a car. No bus system connects the communities and many places are only one-or-two taxi towns. Rates in Puerto Rico fluctuate according to the season but for the most part are reasonably affordable especially along the airport strip in San Juan. Availability fluctuates as well, so book ahead.