In August 2017, Vic and I had an unbelievable travel opportunity. He had a work assignment that would take him to the Caribbean, and I was able to travel with him! The first part of the job was in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, and the second part was in Puerto Rico. We decided that Vic would extend his trip by a couple of days and that I would join him for the St. Thomas portion of his trip. We would explore the island together on his downtime from work, and when he was busy, I would spend time with his co-worker’s wife, a good friend who was also able to tag along for this part of the trip.
Little did we know that this would quite literally be the trip of a lifetime. I flew to St. Thomas on Sunday, August 27 and returned home to Florida on Wednesday, August 30. On the 30th, Vic and his team left St. Thomas and flew to Puerto Rico. On the 31st, Hurricane Irma developed in the tropics. Six days later, a Category 5 Hurricane Irma decimated the US Virgin Islands.
Widespread destruction was feared in Puerto Rico as well (keep reading to hear about Vic’s narrow escape from PR), but it was seemingly spared. Unfortunately, just two weeks later, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, killing 55 people and wiping out much of the island. Sadly, the already destroyed US Virgin Islands were battered by a second major hurricane.
As (nearly) lifelong Floridians, Vic and I have lived through a number of hurricanes. We’re accustomed to seeing photographic and firsthand evidence of hurricane aftermath. But something about seeing these idyllic islands in utter shambles really hit us hard. We saw the resort where we’d stayed on the Weather Channel. The restaurants, the beaches, the grocery store – all wiped out. The stories coming out of the USVI and, later, Puerto Rico, were heartbreaking.
Vic and I absolutely fell in love with the US Virgin Islands. And Vic was already enamored by Puerto Rico, where he’s done quite a bit of work over the years. During our trip, we decided that we would return to St. Thomas and/or Puerto Rico with our kids the following year, and we immediately began making plans.
For a while, after Mother Nature had her way with the Caribbean, it looked like those plans would have to be placed on hold indefinitely. But I’m happy to report that we’re actually taking that family trip to Puerto Rico later this month! While Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands may take years to return to their pre-hurricane state, the residents & supporters have made phenomenal progress in their recovery efforts.
Vic wrote most of this post about visiting Puerto Rico before Hurricanes Irma and Maria. It will be interesting to see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. We will update you about post-hurricane Puerto Rico in part two of this post, so stay tuned!
The rest of this post is in Vic’s words. (NOTE: He’s listed some of his favorite spots in & near San Juan, but remember that his recommendations are based on his pre-hurricane travels.)
Visiting Puerto Rico vs. the US Virgin Islands
As Sharon mentioned, we couldn’t wait to experience the Caribbean with our kids. We debated bringing them to St. Thomas or Puerto Rico, and while both destinations have lots of pros, we ultimately decided that Puerto Rico would be a better place for our family vacation. (Keep in mind, we made this decision before the 2017 hurricanes).
Here’s why: Puerto Rico is a much larger island with more to explore, more abundant food/coffee, and more budget-friendly options for traveling mortals. I’ve found that everything in Puerto Rico is more affordable than in the USVI: lodging, food, transportation, attractions, etc. If you know me, you know that food & coffee is essential to my travel experience. And in Puerto Rico, it was a lot easier for me to find memorable meals at prices I didn’t regret paying.
The only downside is that the beaches are not as pristine as they are in the Virgin Islands. Don’t get me wrong – Puerto Rico has some glorious places to explore in the water; but in the Virgin Islands, nearly every accessible beach that we saw was calm, with stunningly clear water.
The food in Puerto Rico is off the chain. It’s excellent and doesn’t cost a fortune. If Latin food is not your fare, then you’re going to miss half the experience – but don’t worry, there are plenty of familiar franchises to sustain the picky eaters in your family. (This is not at all the case in the USVI.) However, please take my word for it that you’d be doing yourself a huge disservice. The food is an adventure for your taste buds, both in the touristy areas as well as in the barrios. Outside of the predominantly tourist areas in San Juan, most price points are where us “mortals” can afford to eat without regret. You’re going to have to venture away from the hotel to find the real culinary treasures, but Puerto Rico is not unique in this respect.
Puerta Del Mar, La Torre (try the mofongo!)
Coffee is an ingrained part of the Puerto Rican culture. The coffee is outstanding and affordable. One exception: oddly enough, the hotels where I’ve stayed in Puerto Rico don’t seem to get the experience right. Stick with local coffee shops, or even a Starbucks, where they can whip out a memorable cortadito that won’t leave your wallet bruised.
El Yungue Rain Forest is like something out of Tolkien’s Similirian. Feast your eyes on lush, thick canopies, expansive views, and waterfalls. I’ve been to El Yunque three times and each trip was a treasure. In fact, it was during my first visit to El Yunque that I became inspired to make family travel a priority. I knew I had to find a way to share this magical place with my family.
The El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system. It’s located about an hour east of San Juan, and the rain forest itself is at the top of the El Yunque Mountains. According to ancient Taino Indian legend, “the spirit Yuquiyu reigns from his mighty mountaintop throne, protecting Puerto Rico and its people.” (source)
Post-hurricane recovery efforts are still underway in El Yunque, including continued road work, debris removal, and power grid repairs. Visitors should expect traffic delays and temporary closures. As of May 2018, the following areas are accessible (on a limited basis):
La Coca Falls – viewing area is open but the trail remains closed; parking area is open
Puente Roto – scenic picnic and water play area along the Mameyes River (Rio Mameyes)
Angelito Trailhead – a portion of the trail is currently open
Beaches, Snorkeling, and Diving
Sure, the beaches in the USVI are beyond compare. But that doesn’t mean that the beaches in Puerto Rico aren’t worth your time. In fact, that’s the part of our upcoming trip that Sharon’s looking forward to the most.
The northern shores of Puerto Rico (near San Juan) are very rough and turbulent, so you won’t find the crystal aquarium clear water at most of the northern beaches. From what I’ve seen, the beaches on the north shore can be treacherous, with reefs and rocks nearly everywhere. If you don’t see people in the water, there’s probably a good reason for it. Still, they tend to be full of tourists/visitors and are great for non-water activities, like beachcombing and sunbathing.
If you stay in San Juan, we hear that there’s great snorkeling at Balneario El Escambron, a beautiful beach near the Caribe Hilton. But the top recommended snorkeling spots in Puerto Rico are actually the offshore islands of Culebra and Vieques, If we have the opportunity to visit any of these spots, we’ll be sure to tell you all about them!
The Narrow Escape from the Island
This is where I get to tell the story of flying on a Gulfstream III, which made this one of my most memorable work trips. As Sharon mentioned, my team and I traveled to Puerto Rico just before Hurricane Irma formed in the tropics.
We began monitoring Irma, and by August 31 we were contemplating an early exit from the island. By Friday, September 1st, we were on the phone trying to book our departure. We’d been told that the storm could begin affecting flights on Wednesday, September 6th, so our goal was to leave no later than Tuesday the 5th.
We were able to get departing flights for most the team by Tuesday; however, three of us (me included) had flights out Wednesday morning. This seemed very reasonable at the time. But as the weekend passed and Memorial Day come upon us, Irma strengthened into a major hurricane, a Category 5 with 185+mph sustained winds at one point. As I saw the residents of Arecibo and Aguadilla boarding up their windows and stockpiling fuel, I knew the situation might get serious. It also began to look like Wednesday morning might be too late to fly home, with models predicting tropical storm force winds in northern Puerto Rico as early as Wednesday.
By Tuesday afternoon, we judged that it was too risky to stay in San Juan to catch our Wednesday morning flight. If the morning flight were to be canceled, we would be stuck on the island indefinitely. We were also faced with the prospect of evacuating to the south side of the island (Ponce) in the middle of tropical storm force winds, along with thousands of other people trying to escape the brunt of the storm. We would be marooned in Puerto Rico until flights become operational again (after Maria this was a HUGE problem since the radar systems were destroyed, forcing visual flight rules into and out of the island).
This was compounded by the fact that Irma was projected to affect Northeast Florida. If we didn’t make it out of Puerto Rico in time, our families would have to prepare for and ride out the hurricane without us. And if San Juan and/or Jacksonville were hit hard, there’s no telling when we might be able to return home. It was a tense time for our team.
Then just in the nick of time, on Tuesday evening my employer sent one of their aircraft to transport me and the two other members of the team home. As I sat in the terminal I realized how fortunate we were to be in a position to leave early. The weather reports become more dire as we waited for our flight to come and rescue us from the island. Part of my heart was left behind with the people left to their own resources. I asked a few airport employees what their plans were. Some were leaving the area for the south of the island. Some were coming in to work.
Post-Hurricane Puerto Rico
Hurricane Irma passed north of San Juan the evening of Wednesday September 6th. The destruction was relatively minimal, and it seemed as though Puerto Rico had been spared. But just one week later, Hurricane Maria ripped the the island apart. Much of Puerto Rico was destroyed; and today, nearly nine months later, the island is still struggling to rebuild.
I’m looking forward to finally bringing my family on our long-anticipated trip to Puerto Rico! I can’t wait to share it with them, with the added benefit of supporting the island’s tourism industry. Stay tuned for a recap of our trip to post-hurricane Puerto Rico later this year!