As I shared a few weeks ago, my family kicked off the summer with a much-anticipated Puerto Rico vacation.
When we talked about our travel plans, we were often met with qualms and concerns about visiting PR in the wake of Hurricane Maria: Is it safe to travel there? Do they have electricity? Are the hotels even open?
Some people assumed that we were going there to do some sort of volunteer or recovery work. But nope. We were simply going to enjoy a fun family vacation on a beautiful island while happily supporting the recovering tourism industry. Tourism is a huge source of revenue for Puerto Rico, and naturally it’s suffered in the months following Hurricane Maria:
“One of the biggest challenges for the tourism industry right now is convincing tourists on the mainland US that it’s alright to come back to Puerto Rico… Though some parts of the US territory are still badly damaged, San Juan and other parts of the island have a functional infrastructure. In San Juan many hotels are at full capacity, bolstered not only by tourists, but by contractors who are rebuilding the island.” source
The great news is that tourism is well on its way to recovery in Puerto Rico, and it has been for some time. San Juan Port opened for cruises just two weeks after Hurricane Maria, and many other popular vacation spots all over the island are back to business as usual. Indeed, “the best way to support Puerto Rico is to continue visiting, staying at our hotels, eating at our restaurants, enjoying our activities, and shopping.” source
So that’s what we did!
Our Puerto Rico Vacation and Trip Highlights
While I certainly can’t tell you about the entire island, I CAN tell you that the areas we visited were very much up and running. Eight months after Hurricane Maria, the major tourist areas show no major signs of the widespread devastation caused by the 2017 hurricane season. The only obvious clues that something was amiss were the blue tarps on roofs (visible from the airplane) and the nonfunctional traffic lights throughout parts of San Juan. (There was evidence of of the storms’ destruction in El Yunque National Forest, which I’ll describe below.)
But other than that? Everywhere we went had power and water. Hotels and restaurants were open and bustling with customers. Tourist attractions were up and running. Luxury cruise ships lined the San Juan Port, and cruise passengers (and other tourists) filled the streets, cafes, and gift shops.
We had so many wonderful experiences in PR. And while I wish I could list them all here, Vic and I have narrowed it down to a few of our favorites. If you’re ever in Puerto Rico, these are some of the places that you don’t want to miss.
El Yunque National Forest: This was the place Vic was most looking forward to showing us, and it’s easy to see why. The views are simply spectacular. Unfortunately, El Yunque was a casualty of Hurricanes Irma and Maria in September 2017, and most of it is closed indefinitely. According to the USDA Forest Service, most of the area is “unsafe for public access due to hazardous trees and unstable landslides.”
The good news is that La Coca Falls and a portion of Angelito trail are still open. We didn’t check out the trail, but we did spend some time climbing and taking in the view at La Coca Falls. The parking area is open, so it’s easy to access – from the parking lot, it’s just a short walk uphill. It’s still worth a visit in its current state, but I do hope that more of it can eventually be restored and open to the public.
El Meson Sandwiches: This was our go-to restaurant during our time in Ponce. Although technically a sandwich shop, it offers a full breakfast menu, which is available all day. The food was great, everything was fresh, and the prices were hard to beat. I don’t remember exactly what we paid, but I know that a breakfast combo with eggs, bacon, and toast was under $5. Bonus: it shares a building with Baskin Robbins, so there’s your dessert too!
They don’t speak much English here, so make sure your charades game is on point. The staff is super friendly and was very patient with us as we attempted to order in our poquito Español.
Kayaking Puerto Rico: We knew we wanted to do some snorkeling, maybe rent a boat, spend a day on the water. After a bunch of research, we decided on a “Mini Boat Tour” in Fajardo with a company called Kayaking Puerto Rico. We got our own little speed boat, and the tour guides led us out in the water to an amazing snorkeling spot and a tiny little beach (more like a sandbar) to explore.
The guides were knowledgeable, fun, and professional, and they all spoke English (which, I must admit, was a bit of a relief). One of the guides was super sweet to Amelia when she was afraid to get in the water. He hung back at the boats with her and gave her snacks.
Kayaking Puerto Rico offers several tours and experiences. The most popular one seems to be the Bioluminescence Kayak Tour, which sounds awesome but we were hesitant to schedule a nighttime activity with the kids in tow. Maybe next time. The Mini Boat Tour was $65/person plus tax for our party of 4. Prices vary depending on the number of people in your boat.
Panadería España (La España): After a long day out on the water, we were hungry and not in the mood to squabble over dinner. Vic thought a bakery would be a good compromise, with something for everyone. He had one in mind, but then we spotted La España and decided to give it a try instead.
First, let me explain. A bakery, or panadería, in Puerto Rico has way more than just coffee and baked goods. They also have everything from paella to empanaditas (turnovers filled with meat) to a cafeteria style selection of entrees and side dishes. There’s also an extensive wine menu. And there’s more – so much more. I guess you could describe it as part coffee shop, part casual dining, part bar.
Anyway, it was immediately apparent that we were tourists who didn’t speak Spanish and had no clue where to begin. That’s when Sammy came out to help us. Not only did he speak fluent English, but he was incredibly friendly and kind. He patiently described the various dishes, answered all of our questions, and let us sample some local delicacies (like octopus, OMG). This guy was one in a million. Our food was delicious and the prices were reasonable. Caution: when you see the dessert options, you’ll want to try one of everything.
Playa El Escambron (Escambron Beach): If you know me, I’m sure it’s no surprise that I couldn’t wait to get my toes in the sand. Puerto Rico is said to have some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. But where to begin?
The first thing you need to know is that the beaches vary a great deal, depending on where you are on the island. If you look at a map, you’ll see that Puerto Rico is sandwiched in between the Atlantic Ocean on the north and the Caribbean Sea on the south. The Atlantic is rough with huge waves and a potentially strong undertow. This makes the northern coast a hot spot for surfing; for swimming, not so much. The Caribbean Sea, on the other hand, is tranquil and crystal clear, making the southern shore perfect for snorkeling, diving, and even just floating.
Personally, I’m partial to the northern beaches near San Juan. The southern beaches (at least the ones we visited) are not good beachcombing spots, so if it’s treasures that you’re after, prepare to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking to swim and play in shallow water, you may love it there. The water was clear and warm and perfect for swimming.
We checked out a couple of spots, including Caña Gorda Beach and Playa Santa. Caña Gorda was a nice family spot, with showers, restrooms, and even a small store. There were plenty of shady spots, and when we ventured away from the crowds, we saw lots of fish and sea urchins in the shallow water – no snorkel or goggles required. Admission here cost $3.
We also stopped by Playa Santa, which seemed to be a popular spot with the locals, particularly college students. The water was clear and pretty, but we couldn’t get past all the litter. There was no charge for entry, but there were no facilities here either. Our stay here was brief.
The beaches on the northern coast were completely different. I’d seen Old San Juan mentioned as a must-see in more than one sea glass forum, so I was hoping we would be in for a treat. Some of the spots I’d read about were pretty remote or came with a warning not to go alone, so those didn’t seem like the best choice for our family.
The beach that seemed to have it all (sea glass, safe spots for swimming, restrooms & facilities) was Balneario El Escambron or Escambron Beach. In Puerto Rico, beaches designated as “Balneario” are public beaches that are maintained and managed by the Puerto Rico National Parks Company or by the local town government. While all beaches in Puerto Rico are technically public, the balnearios will have lifeguards and facilities, and as a general rule they will be clean and well-maintained.
Escambron Beach was basically my dream beach. The water was gorgeous – clear, calm, and unbelievably blue. It wasn’t too crowded (we were there on a weekday), there were plenty of shady spots, and there were lots of kids and families. And, most importantly (to me), there was sea glass EVERYWHERE!!! Beautiful frosted glass – we’re talking dozens of pieces in every square foot in some spots. It was heavenly. We spent several hours there, but I could’ve stayed all day.
There were some shallow spots that were great for snorkeling too. Generally speaking, the water on the north side of the island is too rough for swimming. But Escambron Beach was an exception.
One note: when I inquired about this beach at our hotel, we were told that it was still closed for repair since Hurricane Maria. We stopped by to see for ourselves, since I’d read conflicting information online. Just to clarify: Escambron Beach is very much open as of May 2018.
Don Ruiz Coffee Shop: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this hidden treasure. We spent our last day in Puerto Rico exploring Old San Juan on foot. (Public parking is extremely reasonable, so don’t stress about finding street parking – just park in the garage.) We were tired and hungry and a little grouchy, and we needed reinforcement stat.
Don Ruiz is about 2 blocks from the Fort, and we found it just in the nick of time. It’s located inside Ballaja, which is a building that was built from 1854 to 1864 for the Spanish troops on the island. It’s part cozy coffee shop, part coffee museum, part brewing lab…you really have to visit to get the full experience.
I had a fabulous sandwich (and I’m not really a sandwich person). Sophia had a smoothie, Amelia had a mini pizza, and Vic had some fancily prepared espresso-type beverage. The staff was incredibly friendly and welcoming. It’s about a 1.5 mile walk from the cruise port, but if you’re up for it, it’s well worth the walk.
Until Next Time…
Puerto Rico, thank you for having us. All four of us fell for you hard, and we WILL be back to explore more of your beauty, culture, food, and spirit.