What It’s Like to Visit San Juan Now
Posted February 6, 2018 5:12 p.m. EST
Hurricane Maria’s devastating effects on Puerto Rico, along with the political faceoffs and logistical problems that ensued, have been widely reported. There are still important problems to address. But it seems that San Juan, the capital, is starting to regain its stride as a travel destination.
I first came to San Juan in the late ‘80s, when my stepfather was transferred here for work. My most vivid memories of that time include swimming in the ocean at night during St. John’s Eve (one of Puerto Rico’s biggest festivals), developing a serious crush on the shaggy-haired members of the band Poison and experiencing Hurricane Hugo, which ripped into the island Sept. 19, 1989, and was considered the worst disaster in 50 years.
We spent the night of the storm with a family that lived in a sturdy old house about a mile from the coast (our apartment was practically on the sand). While I realized we were properly sheltered, the furious rattle of the wind against the home’s metal shutters left me cold with fear. I didn’t know that surviving the brunt of a hurricane is only part of the ordeal, and the days that followed were not difficult enough to make me think otherwise. Brushing my teeth with bottled water and reading magazines by flashlight for a couple of weeks felt more like an adventure than a hardship. I was just a kid — and so, it turns out, was Hugo.
I left San Juan after graduating from high school, but I come back every year to visit my mother and stepfather, who are still living here as retirees. When I learned that Maria would make landfall as a possible Category 5 hurricane, memories of Hugo came flooding back, especially the eerie rattle of those shutters. Texting with my mother on the evening of Sept. 20, I felt irrationally worried that she would be scared during the storm, not guessing that the scariest part would come later.
Maria’s impact was brutal: Bridges crumbled, street signs toppled over, trees were stripped bare, and practically every building suffered some sort of damage, from minor flooding to structural deterioration. Worst of all, the island’s aging power grid was wrecked, causing prolonged blackouts. Recent reports indicate that about 1.5 million Puerto Ricans, particularly those living in small towns and rural areas, are still without electricity. I booked a flight to San Juan last month, somewhat unsure of what to expect.
As the airplane began its descent, the city looked unchanged, its odd mix of high-rises and strip malls still surrounded by emerald-green vegetation and turquoise waters. And on the ground, I saw bruises, but mostly recovery and a strong willingness to get on with life.
San Juan’s hotels, which were largely occupied by military and Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel after the hurricane, are welcoming travelers again.
On a recent afternoon, the beachfront Condado Vanderbilt, an art deco-style hotel founded by Frederick William Vanderbilt in 1919 and fully renovated in 2014, hummed with activity. A quartet was getting ready to play Latin jazz by the lobby’s Martini Bar, and dinner service was underway at the elegant 1919 Restaurant, whose chef, Juan José Cuevas, is helping local farmers restore their crops.
La Concha Resort and San Juan Marriott Resort, also perched on the beaches of tourist-friendly Condado, are operating as usual. In Isla Verde, another popular oceanfront neighborhood, choices include the Intercontinental San Juan and the Water Beach Club Hotel. And in cobblestoned Old San Juan, Hotel El Convento, a boutique lodging set in a refurbished 17th-century convent, is looking as picturesque as ever. Only a handful of properties remain closed.
“I believe San Juan has a bright outlook as a destination, especially as we continue to make it known that we’re back and ready to welcome tourists,” said Peter Hopgood, the vice president of sales and marketing for International Hospitality Enterprises, which manages six hotels in the metro area.
As for restaurants, closures seem to be the exception rather than the rule, although many establishments are dealing with issues like disrupted food supplies and diminished activity. “We’re not yet seeing the same number of travelers as before Maria,” said Martín Louzao, a chef and an owner of Cincosentidos, a hospitality group that runs four restaurants. “Almost 70 percent of our business depended on them, so we’ve had to be nimble and adapt.”
For now, the industry is sustained by Puerto Ricans, who may have limited spending power but are exceptionally fond of eating out. Their gregarious spirit is palpable in Santurce, a laid-back dining district anchored by a square known as La Placita, where scores of small bars blasting salsa tunes draw nighttime crowds. The neighborhood is also home to one of San Juan’s best restaurants, Jose Enrique, run by the chef of the same name who pioneered the local farm-to-table movement. Another noteworthy destination in Santurce is Lote 23, an Instagram-ready, open-air food court that offers everything from locally sourced roasted pork to Asian noodles.
In Condado, Louzao’s Cocina Abierta, a casual restaurant with an eclectic menu of global staples, is still packed on weekend nights. And nearby Sabrina continues to serve a highly rated Sunday brunch.
“Tourism is vital to Puerto Rico’s full recovery, and the best way to support the island is by continuing to visit, stay at hotels, eat at restaurants, and buy from local businesses,” said Carla Campos Vida, the interim executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The agency’s website, See Puerto Rico, has updates on open attractions.