On the morning of Wednesday, September 20, 2017, the worst storm in over 80 years struck Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria devastated everything in its path and left 3.4 million residents without electricity or clean water. Around 250,00 Puerto Ricans fled to the continental U.S. since the storm. However, many stayed to help rebuild their home.
So what can you do to help?
You can always donate to relief fund organization like Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF, United For Puerto Rico, All Hands Volunteer, Hispanic Federation, and many more. Every single contribution helps provide support to Puerto Rican residents and others recovering from disaster around the world.
Another way you can help is by simply visiting Puerto Rico as a tourist.
In December 2017, only three months after Hurrican Maria, the island announced it was once again open for tourism and in fact, desperate for tourist to help rebuild the economy and support local businesses.
I know it may seem a little ridiculous. How can I enjoy staying in a nice hotel, relax on white sand beaches, and enjoy a pina colada while there are so many locals recovering from the hurricane? Just thinking about it makes me feel a little guilty.
However, according to Jose Izquierdo, the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, you shouldn’t. “As a matter of fact, feel like you’re doing your part in helping our recovery.” (NPR Interview with Jeff Cohen)
His sentiment is shared by a local restaurant owner, Victor Santiago. “They give me work (laughter). And I can convince them to go to my restaurant (Cafe Fortaleza), taste the coffee and taste the delicious food we serve. We crumbled a little bit with the hurricane, but we’re standing back up to receive you and give you a great treat.” – (NPR Interview with Jeff Cohen)
Currently, 89% of the island’s electricity has been restored with the remaining located in remote, mountainous areas. San Juan is operating as usual – in fact, you would have never guessed the city was hit by a hurricane.
If you’re hesitant to visit, keep on reading! My guide to San Juan, Puerto Rico is filled with information about the best sites to see, places to stay, and things to do during your trip. By the end, I’m sure you’ll be anxious to book your flights to Caribbean’s ‘The Enchanted Island.’
What to Do and See
- Wander the pastel streets of Old San Juan. Founded in 1508 by Ponce de Leon, this city is rich with history, culture, food, and colonial architecture. It is easily the prettiest part of San Juan, so don’t forget your camera!
- Visit Save A Gato. Save A Gato (gato is Spanish for cat) is a volunteer organization that cares for and feeds the colonial cats of Old San Juan. If you’ve dreamed of being surrounded by dozens of cats at one time, then you can’t miss this hidden gem. Say hello to these furry friends by walking along the Paseo del Morro Recreation Trail (north of the San Juan Gate).
- Explore the Spanish fortresses of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal. Learn about the unique designs of each fort and how Spain kept Puerto Rico under its control for nearly 400 years! I promise it’s definitely worth paying the small fee of $7 (valid for both fortresses).
- Go on a mixology tour at the Bacardi Distillery. Learn everything from the history of Bacardi to how to make the perfect mojito. Need a preview? Check out this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hyZr2xFy-A.
- Take a day trip to a neighboring island. Go on a catamaran tour with East Island Excursions to Culebra, ferry over to Vieques or take a water taxi to Icacos and Palomino. Every island has incredible beaches and clear waters, so whichever one you choose, you can’t go wrong.
- Tour the El Yunque rainforest. While the hurricane damaged the rainforest, it is quickly recovering! In fact, the lower section of the main road has opened so you can now explore certain areas – some even include waterfalls! For more information on what to see in the El Yunque rainforest, check out my blog “A Guide To Exploring El Yunque National Rainforest | Waterfall Edition“.
- Head West with a private guide. Exploring the whole island is accessible from San Juan, and I highly recommend seeing the Cueva de Indio (Cave of the Indian) of Arecibo, the black sand beaches at Playa Boca in Barcelonetta, and the San Sebastian Waterfalls. For all private tours, contact Mario at 787-547-6941 on WhatsApp. Mario was recommended to us by the AC Hotel San Juan Condado and is seriously impressive! He created a killer itinerary and is very friendly, knowledgeable about the island and a safe driver. If you’re looking to experience more than just the city, I suggest going on a private tour with Mario.
Where to Stay
Located next to the Puerto Rico Convention Center and only a 5-minute drive to the Condado beach or 10-minute drive to historic Old San Juan, the Sheraton Puerto Rico is the ideal home base for those visiting Puerto Rico for both business and pleasure. What makes this hotel unique is that guests will find every sort of comfort and entertainment on the property. The Sheraton has a large casino with 400 slot machines and 18 game tables, the Zen Spa Retreat, The District Lounge & Sushi Bar, a club lounge, and an infinity pool. It’s tempting to simply stay on the property while enjoying all the amenities. You can read more about my stay at The Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino here.
In the heart of the vibrant Condado District, you will find a hotel so wonderful, you may never leave. That would be the AC Hotel San Juan by Marriott. This modern hotel is perfect for those looking for luxury accommodation and a central location. Enjoy the most incredible city views from the AC Hotel’s rooftop pool, discover Caribbean flavors at local restaurants, relax at the beautiful Condado beach, or drive 5-minutes to Old San Juan. You really can’t go wrong when you stay at the AC Hotel. Read more about my stay at the AC Hotel San Juan Condado here.
Also located in the Condado District is the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino. I promise if you stay here, you will have the time of your life. Try your luck at the Stellaris Casino, relax by the pool, experience the incredible nightlife in Condado, or walk the streets of Old San Juan (only a 5-minute drive away). There is something for everyone. What especially makes the San Juan Marriot special is the beach! Only 20-feet away from the pool is soft sand, turquoise water, and unlimited fun. For those of you wanting to be close to all the action in the city while also enjoying the beautiful Condado beach, the San Juan Marriott is the perfect place for you!
Where to Eat
Crush Juice Bar – If you love acai bowls and you want to taste the most delicious peanut butter acai bowl in the world, then go to Crush. They also have an amazing selection of smoothers and juices! I went here every day during my trip and to this day, it’s still my favorite juice bar! Crush is conveniently located across the street from the AC Hotel San Juan Condado, so it’s easy to grab something on your way out to the beach or to Old San Juan.
La Bombonera – La Bombonera is the oldest restaurant in Old San Juan. Known for its coffee and “Mallorca” pastries, it’s the hottest breakfast spot in town. So popular in fact, that you will need to make a reservation most days to get a seat. Once you get inside, you’ll notice something special. Little glimpses of the La Bombonera’s past can be clearly seen by several vintage photographs hanging on the restaurant walls. It’s wonderful not only to taste the incredible food whose recipes have been passed down for generations but also experience history.
El Jibarito – If you visit Old San Juan, you must eat lunch at El Jibarito!!!! After asking many people where we could find the best local food, they all said EL Jibarito. Of course, they were right. The food was authentic and delicious! Plus, it was all very reasonably priced. I highly recommend trying white rice and red beans, chicken empanadas, and mofongo, which is a Puerto Rican dish made from mashed plantains. Seriously, if you want to try real Puerto Rico food, just head to El Jibarito.
Santaella – Enjoy a modern Puerto Rican dining experience presented by Chef Jose Santaella. The menu is full of authentic dishes and local ingredients used to showcase the flavors and vibrant energy of Puerto Rico. The restaurant is the perfect place for many different occasions. Take a seat at the bar and socialize while sipping on cocktails, listen to music and chat with friends over an excellent meal, or sneak to a corner table to enjoy a romantic evening with your loved one. For an evening to remember, make your reservations at Santaella.
How to Get Around
If you plan on staying in the San Juan area, I highly recommend using Uber. Everything in San Juan is about a 10-minute car ride away, and sometimes parking can be a nightmare, so save yourself some time, money, and stress, and grab an Uber. For those who like Lyft over Uber, unfortunately, Lyft does not exist in Puerto Rico. If you’re wondering about Taxi services, they are available. However, it is possible to have a taxi driver that takes you to your destination and tries to charge you a fee that is unfair. To avoid this situation, I always choose Uber.
If you are up for renting a car, it gives you more flexibility! You can easily take a quick road trip outside the city or get a better feel for San Juan as you explore the streets behind the wheel yourself. Rental cars tend to be low cost and pretty easy to use. All you need is a drivers license and a credit card. The easiest place to get the rental car is at the airport, but there are a few other locations around town you can get them as well.
FOR A SNEAK PEAK OF MY ADVENTURES IN PUERTO RICO, CHECK OUT THIS VIDEO:
This post is written in partnership with Marriott Hotels. As always, my thoughts and opinions are my own. Thank you to Sheraton Puerto Rico for the private tour of Old San Juan, to AC Hotel San Juan Condado for booking the Bicardi mixology tour, and to San Juan Marriott for the catamaran tour with East Island Excursions.