The Hurricane Maria relief effort in Puerto Rico has been arduous. After the storm hit the island in September 2017 with winds up to 155 miles per hour, residents across the island lost power and access to clean water. More than six months later, utility crews continued to work in “emergency restoration mode.”
Today, nearly a year after the storm made landfall, recovery efforts continue. But for tourists, the island is largely back in business. Air and ground travel are operating normally, 92.5 percent of residents have electricity, and the majority of hotels are open as of this spring, with several new hotels slated to open in 2019, according to Travel Weekly. In addition to some opportunities to travel to Puerto Rico as a volunteer, you can make a positive impact by planning a Puerto Rico vacation and supporting the island’s economy — shopping for souvenirs, dining at local restaurants and staying in hotels are all ways you can help Puerto Rico recover. Talk about a win-win.
Check out the following tips on where to stay, eat and play as the island re-welcomes tourists eager for a Caribbean getaway.
Volunteer to Help the Locals
There are still ways to plan a "voluntourism" trip to Puerto Rico if you’re looking to plan a trip with a service component. Groups like All Hands and Hearts offer programs in Puerto Rico to help repair and rebuild roofs, homes and community infrastructure. Check out the group’s website to see which opportunities are available.
Other organizations like World Central Kitchen have sent chefs to Puerto Rico to serve meals, and the local group Fundación el Plato Caliente delivers hot meals to the needy and the homeless around the island.
If you’re affiliated with a church or religious group, you may be able to find additional opportunities to volunteer on the island through local land national organizations. Groups including the United Church of Christ Disaster Ministries, NECHAMA – Jewish Response to Disaster and the Mennonite Disaster Service have brought volunteers to Puerto Rico to lend a hand in the wake of the hurricane.
Explore Old San Juan
Old San Juan is the historic heart of Puerto Rico’s capital city, and as of April 2018, the district was not only open to tourists but was “just as crowded as before the storms,” according to reports from CNN. There are endless ways to explore Old San Juan’s history as you walk along its cobblestone streets.
Tour operators offer activities catered to all interests and activity levels, from bike tours to food tours. Set out on a three-hour walking foodie experience, complete with a local guide and a menu that will not only fill your stomach but leave you with a new understanding of the island’s history and culture.
For an additional cultural experience rolled in with a history lesson, check out the Museum of African Roots or the Museum of the Americas. A trip to Old San Juan is also the perfect time to pick up souvenirs, with a variety of gift shops, art galleries and artisans selling unique local goods.
Enjoy a Taste of History at Hotel El Convento
If you want to stay in San Juan and fancy yourself a history buff, rejoice: Hotel El Convento was once a Carmelite convent, dating back to 1646. It’s the oldest member of the Historic Hotels of America, a division of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and is located across from the Cathedral of San Juan, right in the heart of the old colonial city — an area you can’t help but fall in love with as you walk along its cobblestone streets.
Like most places in the city, the hotel lost consistent access to water and electricity in the wake of the storm, but today it’s fully operational. As the property’s general manager put it earlier this year in an interview with Travel Agent Central, “We want people to know we are back on track.”
Hotel El Convento’s guest rooms combine modern comfort with historic charm, complete with marble bathrooms, tile floors from Spain and a penchant for dramatic, historic details, like wrought-iron finishes. Dine at the hotel restaurant or walk just a few steps outside to the nearby restaurants and nightlife.
Stay in Revamped Rooms at Condado Vanderbuilt Hotel
This luxe San Juan Hotel dating back to 1919 was recently renovated and restored. Once the favored stomping ground of European and Hollywood elite, it welcomes all those eager for a taste of the good life.
A stately example of Spanish Revival architecture, the Condado Vanderbilt invites guests to step back in time when it comes to stellar service — you’ll still find luggage porters and butlers, and the hotel goes as far as to claim that its service “is the stuff of legend.”
Book a room with views of both the city and the ocean for a home base in San Juan that provides all the best parts of a Caribbean vacation in one central location.
Eat Farm-to-Table at Marmalade Restaurant
Celebrating a special occasion? Be sure to book a table at Marmalade Restaurant & Wine Bar in the historic heart of Old San Juan, which reopened last November and has been satisfying diners since.
In the aftermath of the storm, when there were offers to help send resources, the restaurant’s owner and renowned chef, Peter Schintler, encouraged people to visit instead in an interview with NBC: “We can grow food and we will not run out of rum or wine,” he said. “But we need people to come visit and to share stories and to leave money.”
Marmalade serves farm-to-table delicacies like white bean soup, a TripAdvisor favorite made with scallions, black truffle oil and pancetta dust. Marmalade’s menu is vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, with tasting menus that appeal to carnivores and raw-food fanatics alike.
Wash down your meal with a bottle of wine chosen from Marmalade’s pages-long wine list, or satisfy your sweet tooth with an original cocktail like the Cereal Killer, a mix of rye, bourbon, granola, almond milk, lavender honey and local oranges.
Meet Locals at Lote 23
In San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood, Lote 23 is a trendy outdoor food-truck park that had been opened for just a year when Hurricane Maria struck. Luckily, it endured only landscape damage and was able to reopen just two weeks later. Since then, it’s become a valuable resource for the community, offering locals respite through yoga classes, concerts and more.
Not surprisingly, the revitalized park is also a big hit with visitors. There’s a variety of cuisine to please every palate — from fresh seafood to fried chicken to authentic Puerto Rican croquetas —making this an ideal destination for large groups or families that can’t quite agree on where to eat.
And out-of-towners, too, can enjoy Lote 23’s yoga sessions and concerts, as well as drinks and dancing on Friday nights.
Embrace the New at Serafina Beach Hotel
This May, Puerto Rico welcomed its first new hotel since the storm: the boutique Serafina Beach Hotel in Condado, a stylish enclave across the bridge from Old San Juan.
The property epitomizes the word “chic,” with an infinity-edged pool overlooking the Atlantic Ocean that provides the perfect backdrop for sipping a craft cocktail and soaking up the sun. Serafina’s on-site bar and restaurant serve up local seafood, signature pina coladas and fresh-pressed juices.
The atrium lobby and plush accommodations shine with a bright, modern aesthetic, perfect for a getaway that’s equal parts sexy and relaxing. For a no-holds-barred luxury experience, book the Positano Ocean Terrace Room that comes complete with a 282-square-foot oceanfront terrace, master bedroom and bottle of bubbly upon your arrival.
The hotel even has a limited number of pet-friendly rooms available for guests who can’t imagine traveling without Fido in tow.
La Concha Resort
Also located in Condado, La Concha Resort appeals to a young, active crowd in the heart of the city’s nightlife district.
You’re always certain to find a party in the hotel’s lively pool and lounge areas, and the resort also offers an array of accommodations that active travelers will love, including complimentary bicycles loaned out to guests. Explore nearby neighborhoods on two wheels, or pedal just a couple of miles into Old San Juan for a historic day trip.
La Concha also boats a fitness center, spa, casino and on-site restaurants and bars that serve everything from sushi to sangria. Guests can also take advantage of a designer golf course located at La Concha’s sister property in Bahia Beach.
Hit the Water
Puerto Rico is perhaps best known for its stunning beaches, all of which are open and ready for visitors to enjoy. For travelers with a need for speed, jet ski tours offer an exhilarating ride through the island’s nature and marine wildlife, including up-close views of dolphins and birds and stunning vistas of the surrounding mountains and rainforests.
A vacation in Puerto Rico is also the perfect time to learn a new sport and try your hand at surfing in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea. You can book your own on-water jet ski or surfing experience through outfitters like WOW Surfing School & Jet Ski Adventures.
For a truly one-of-a-kind aquatic experience, book a kayaking tour of a bioluminescent bay at night. After dusk, single-celled organisms known as dinoflagellates light up the bio bays, creating a majestic vista that you have to see to believe. There are only five bioluminescent bays in the world, and you can find three in Puerto Rico. All three bio bays are open again after the hurricane, but for the best views, try to plan your trip around a new moon.
Support an Amazing Chef at Santaella
After Maria, Chef Jose Santaella was one of several chefs who participated in efforts to deliver freshly cooked meals to local victims of the storm. In the end, more than 2 million hot, high-quality meals were served.
Today, Santaella’s namesake restaurant in San Juan is open for business and welcoming guests. Committed to showcasing the island’s cocina criolla (traditional Puerto Rican food), Santaella has the resume to back up his work; the prodigal Puerto Rican chef and cookbook author has worked alongside such culinary greats as Ferran Adria, Eric Ripert and Gary Danko.
His restaurant puts a modern twist on authentic Puerto Rican dishes made with local ingredients. The menu includes appetizers like a Puerto Rican pique dip made with blood sausage, fried red snapper and caramelized braised pork shank. Professional and wannabe mixologists will appreciate Santaella’s locally renowned bar and cocktail list — the restaurant’s bartenders have won the local World Class competition four years in a row since 2012.
Tour the Historic El Morro Fortress
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, known locally as “El Morro,” is a castle that dates back to the 16th century. The fortress overlooks the San Juan Bay and represents the culmination of more than 250 years’ worth of work by Spanish engineers; it’s one of the largest fortifications built by the Spanish in the Caribbean, according to the National Park Service.
Last November, the castle reopened to the public, and it has since re-established itself as one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, with a fascinating military history and unbeatable views of Old San Juan and the sea.
The castle is part of the San Juan National Historic Site and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983. Admission is $7 or free for visitors under the age of 15.
Cool Down at Señor Paleta
If you walk past Señor Paleta on a hot day, there’s a good chance you’ll find a long line spilling out the door. But don’t let the crowds deter you. Señor Paleta’s ice-cold paletas, or popsicles, are well worth the wait.
This ice cream and paleta shop first began operating as a traveling tricycle shop and now has four, fully functional brick-and-mortar locations in San Juan. Pick from fresh local paleta flavors like passionfruit, coconut-pineapple and mango-strawberry.
Don’t forget to scope out the shop’s limited-time flavors and flavors of the month, too — past special flavors have included horchata, mango chili and peanut butter & jelly.