Insider Intel: Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is back. The island officially welcomed visitors again at the start of 2018, launching its #openforbusiness campaign to overcome the images of a hurricane-battered landscape. It’s working. Hurricane recovery is still a fact of life in Puerto Rico, but so are the gentle surf, old-world charm and Caribbean colors that make it so special.
For food and nightlife in Puerto Rico look to San Juan, where the most exciting chefs open their restaurants and the most creative bartenders mix until sunrise.
The Puerto Rican palate is one you won’t find anywhere else, mixing savory peppers and lime with sweet plantains and coconut. There’s no better introduction than Boronia, a close-knit spot with live music, steaming helpings of yellow rice and croquettes that alone will justify your trip. 205 Calle Capitol, Plaza de Santurce, San Juan, boroniarestaurante.com
Later, swing next door to Restaurant El Popular. A historic mainstay of San Juan, this is a gathering point for local politicians who come for conversation and mofongo, the island’s signature dish of fried plantain, served alongside stewed chicken in pepper sauce. 205 Calle Capitol, San Juan
Oceano, a chic restaurant in the popular Condado district, shines a light on the joys of the grill. Carnivores will delight in executive chef Ann Marie Antonetti’s churrasco, while her mainstay seafood dishes include swordfish with chimichurri and the namesake Oceano snapper. 2 Vendig St., San Juan, oceanopr.com
Hip and relaxed, Café Tresbe is a casual, open-air restaurant that serves its sushi alongside buckets of beer (to share, of course) and sizzling carne guisada or pollo asado empanadillas. 1765 Calle Loíza, San Juan
The neighborhood Piñones is a local favorite for Sunday lunches on the beach. Vast pots of oil bubble over fogón stoves fed with coconut shells while chefs dole out fritters, fried fish and crab. Be sure to try the alcapurria, a fried up mix of yucca and plantain wrapped around vegetables, fish or meat. Road 187, Piñones, San Juan
Start your night at La Placita. This plaza is a must-visit in the afternoon for its farmers market, lunch counters and cigars. Then come back after dark when traffic halts, the bars open and the plaza fills with music, dancing and cold Medalla beer. 154 Calle dos Hermanos, San Juan
Fans of the pop hit “Despacito” will recognize La Factoria, one of Old San Juan’s most clever, and most fun, night spots: a speakeasy set inside a speakeasy set inside a speakeasy that pours killer mojitos. 148 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan
For a more chill evening, there’s La Taberna Lúpulo, a meticulously re-created Caribbean dive bar — except this dive bar serves everything from Founders ales and Victory porters to imported Hefeweizens out of Germany. 151 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan, latabernalupulo.com
Experiences and Excursions
Take a long walk around Old San Juan to see the city’s historic blue cobblestone streets. As old as the colony itself, these stones were made from the iron slag that Spanish treasure ships once used as ballast. While on your tour, visit the Plaza Colón for its fountain and jewelry market, where local artists sell blown glass and cunning loops of silver.
Beyond its capital, though, Puerto Rico has a world of delights. There are only a handful of bioluminescent bays on Earth, and the brightest is on the island of Vieques. A nomad’s quiet treasure all on its own, when the living lights are in bloom Vieques is a wonder of the world. vieques.com
Not far from San Juan is El Yunque National Forest (fs.usda.gov/main/elyunque) and the Carabalí Rainforest Adventure Park (carabalirainforestpark.com), where thrill seekers can hike, ride ATVs and even climb to the legendary haunted top of El Yunque Mountain.
The second oldest settlement on the island and home to Convento de Porta Coeli, the town of San Germán offers a chance to explore Puerto Rico’s history. Vacationers looking for a quiet afternoon of broad boulevards, Spanish architecture and excellent museums will find much to love. nps.gov/nr/travel/prvi/pr19.htm
In the south, the coastal city of Ponce features colonial mansions on a quieter seaside than San Juan’s. It’s also just a short boat ride away from Isla Caja de Muertos, a nature reserve and Blue Flag conservation beach known as one of Puerto Rico’s best-kept secrets.
It has been a year since Hurricane María, and to this day Puerto Rico has not fully recovered. This is especially true in the interior, where dense rain forest, mountainous terrain and poor roads have made reconstruction difficult.
Puerto Rico still needs attention and support, and simply visiting will help. Every dollar you spend serves to employ, rehire and rebuild.
Those travelers who would like to do more can start local. Island organizations like United for Puerto Rico (unidosporpuertorico.com) and Cosa Nuestra (mecff.org/cosa-nuestra) are always happy to take calls. You can make a donation, talk about giving back or even just learn about life in the wake of the hurricane.
Hands-on opportunities are generally more limited. Most organizations need resources more than people, and others typically require professional skills and a long-term commitment. However, some organizations like All Hands and Hearts (allhandsandhearts.org), Para la Naturaleza (reservaciones.paralanaturaleza.org) and Amigos de los Animales (amigosdelosanimalespr.org) may take short-term volunteers based on need.
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