A year and a few months after hurricanes Irma and Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, I wondered if the time was right to visit. I knew my tourist dollars would go toward a good cause and help with recovery, but questions about safety, electricity and accessibility made me hesitant to book what is one of the easiest Caribbean islands to travel to.
With a little bit of research, I gathered that most of the capital, San Juan, and other oft-frequented parts of the U.S. territory have been set to welcome tourists for a while. I packed my American dollars and left my passport at home.
Old San Juan, the historic colonial barrio of the capital, on first stroll looked untouched by Maria. The cobblestone streets were spotless, the Spanish colonial buildings bright and colorful, and visitors flocked to the hundreds of pink, purple, yellow, green and blue umbrellas on Fortaleza Street leading to the governor’s mansion.
On Fortaleza Street, I stopped at Barrachina Restaurant, which has a marble plaque boasting it is the house where the piña colada was first concocted in 1963. The pineapple, coconut and Puerto Rican rum drink was so fresh and delightful that I understood why the place didn’t offer a drink menu, and why it became the island’s national drink.
Next I ventured to the two fortresses, San Cristóbal Castle on the east end of Old San Juan and San Felipe del Morro Castle on the northwest tip of the islet. Both had majestic tunnels, sentry boxes and sprawling views of the city and sea.
It wasn’t until I stepped down into the La Perla community between the two fortresses that I got a glimpse of Irma and Maria’s wrath. Some buildings in the shanty town were shells of their former states. A minivan with a concrete slab above its broken windshield sat idle. I didn’t have to wander far, and it wasn’t advised, to see that hurricane recovery efforts to La Perla came “Despacito” — slowly, like the Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee song whose video was filmed there.
I got out to exploring the eastern part of the island via a full-day group tour with Yokahu Kayak Trips. A friendly driver picked me and other guests up in San Juan and drove us an hour to El Yunque National Forest, which is the only tropical rain forest that belongs to the U.S. Forest Service. Our driver and guide Ramón González pointed out how much lusher the landscape in this region was, but that it wasn’t always like that.
“After Maria, it was all dried up. Never seen something like that in Puerto Rico. Seeing it like it was fall was quite amazing,” González said. “Still in recovery process but for the most part everything is back to normal.”
Inside El Yunque, we walked to the top of Yokahu Tower and saw green for acres. Though it appears back to normal, many trails are still closed to the public. But after climbing up the side of the La Coca Falls waterfall, I felt I got to take in the essence of the rain forest.
We stopped for lunch at nearby Luquillo Beach, which is known for having a strip of exactly 60 food kiosks, numbered accordingly. At No. 20, I ate mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish of mashed plantains stuffed with chicken, pork, seafood, or other filling.
A magical experience awaited us farther east in Fajardo. At sunset, we put on life jackets and began a night kayaking journey through a red mangrove channel into Laguna Grande. The lagoon has one of the world’s five bioluminescent bays, three of which are in Puerto Rico. As I paddled to the middle of the lagoon, I noticed flickers of light with every splash. Dipping my hand in the water, I got sparkles at my fingertips. The single-celled plankton that light up when disturbed were back after Maria.
“We helped to take trees out of the way and then it was amazing bioluminescence,” out kayaking guide Luis Mendez said.
Another day was well spent relaxing on San Juan’s beaches. I walked along El Condado, which has many high-rise hotels, restaurants and bars, and Ocean Park Beach, an upscale beachfront community. At scenic Isla Verde Beach, I met Desiree Rivera, who told me she met a woman who lost the roof of her house and still greeted her by offering coffee — and her “panoramic view.”
“Maria taught us to be resilient, to not stay quiet, to fight for our rights, for the things that we want and the things that we need,” Rivera said in Spanish. “We reinvented ourselves strongly.”