San Juan, Puerto Rico, captured my heart about two years ago. One of the most charming cities I’d ever visited, I vowed to return. Maybe rent an apartment and stay for a month or so, hanging out at the local Starbucks. Learning Spanish and eating the fabulous pastries. Bonus: No U.S. passport is needed to enter Puerto Rico.
Then came Hurricane Maria.
Today, it struggles to rebuild, let alone begin to welcome visitors. The tourist high season begins in October, but is at a standstill. Restaurants, bars, shops–any endeavor that relies on tourism–are suffering. Puerto Rico had another setback in 2016, with the Zika virus scare and was just coming back. But the hurricane damage will likely be too much for small businesses to recover from.
El Convento, a luxury hotel in Old San Juan, has guests…but they’re federal employees, dispatched to help with the clean-up. No one knows how long they will stay. And like everywhere else on the island, water and electricity are erratic. The hotel, listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has rooms for $205 a night, starting November 1. Rooms are normally in the $400 range. Of course, to take advantage of this price, one must be able to get to the island. Good luck with that.
All so heartbreaking, because San Juan and Puerto Rico have a proud history:
- Columbus stumbled upon Puerto Rico in 1493, claiming it for Spain. Yes, we know today that he wasn’t the hero we thought…but it was an accomplishment back then.
- Although St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest continuously occupied city in the continental United States (1565), San Juan beats it by 57 years. Founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de León–the Fountain of Youth seeker–it’s the oldest city under U.S. jurisdiction.
- The Spanish influence is undeniable. Except for a few temporary takeovers by the British and Dutch, San Juan remained protected by fortifications that were started in 1533. Today, the city extends beyond the walls, yet Old San Juan maintains the look and feel of Spain.
- In 1898, Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory under the Treaty of Paris. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Spanish has been the first language since its founding, but English is an official language and compulsory subject at all school levels. Puerto Rico aims to be fully bilingual by 2020.
To remind us all of the island’s beauty and potential, I’m posting some photos from my visit. Maybe you’ll be inspired to contribute to the disaster relief. Logistics–physical and political–make Puerto Rico especially vulnerable now. My post has some suggestions.
San Juan, Puerto Rico has brave and determined people. Already, there are signs of hope:
- Old San Juan, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was built to last. This area was not as damaged as other parts of the island. Some of the museums, including the Puerto Rico Museum of Art in Santurce and the Ponce Museum of Art, are open.
- Cruise ships are returning to the San Juan Harbor. Over 45 cruise departures are scheduled for the rest of the year.
- The Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in San Juan is becoming operational. Other small airports around the island have limited service, but do have some capabilities.
- Puerto Rico Tourism is moving ahead with Christmas celebration plans! It may be optimistic, but as Jose Izquierdo, executive director of the company states, “Our message will be more about our resilience, that tourism is up and running.”
We’re cheering for you, San Juan! We love you, Puerto Rico! Heal quickly and let us know when we can return. As soon as we’re able, we’ll be back.