Floating in a tranquil sea of aqua water, my body raised to the sun, I knew I’d made the right choice. When my friend finally coaxed me to shore, I sat under the palms and watched 5-foot-long iguanas roam the park like pets while I sipped on a cold cocktail.
We were in Puerto Rico, a place my travel partner had fallen in love with just before Hurricane Maria’s devastating visit in 2017. He had been anxious to go back to see how the Caribbean island was doing. Ever frugal, I could not resist the $350 airfare from Minneapolis-St. Paul, picturing myself on a beach just as snow flurries would be landing on my balcony back home.
Making our way to the island, we felt a twinge of guilt and relief as we flew in and out of Atlanta, where just days before the airport had canceled hundreds of flights in response to Hurricane Florence’s devastating sweep through the Carolinas. Heading to San Juan, we had hopes for a little sun on clean beaches and no stormy surprises.
Our timing couldn’t have been better, with summer visitors having returned home and others fearing travel during the risky storm season. We ended up alone on white-sand beaches under cloudless blue skies, feeling that we had cheated the weather and the tourism gods.
The island is so casual that you can get by with just a few changes of clothes. Pride and resilience were on display everywhere on this first anniversary of Maria’s punishing visit. Enormous banners proclaiming “Puerto Rico Fuerza” (Strong) hung from buildings in modern downtown San Juan.
We opted to stay in the old city, just to the east. That was the magic choice for our tastes. Old San Juan has cobbled streets, picturesque plazas and narrow alleyways that form a grid between the port, where almost daily dockings of cruise ships drop off hundreds of passengers for shopping and sightseeing, and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the ancient castle and stone walls that protected Puerto Rico’s shores from pirates and conquistadors for centuries.
El Morro is a fascinating several-hour walking adventure around the border of Old San Juan. You’re greeted along the sea promenade by cats — hundreds of cats, feral but healthy, tended to by a nonprofit that maintains food stations and even arranges adoptions. These “gatos del Morro” nap under the shrubs and warm themselves in the sun, blending into the shoreline rocks in their coats of many colors. Along the walk, the history of the fort and its rising walls is palpable.
Tasting the tropical food was high on our list. First up: mofongo, an heirloom dish with African roots that the Puerto Ricans have adapted to be their own. Its base is cornmeal-like mashed green plantain, flavored with garlic and crowned with your choice of meats or seafood and a range of spicy sauces. Tostones, or fried plantains, come on the side like French fries, with tantalizing dipping sauces.
Our best meal was at the ultramodern restaurant Ladi’s in Old San Juan, famous for its seafood and pasta (yet priced under $20 an entree) and tucked into the cliffside overlooking the Atlantic. Outside Ladi’s is a captivating photo history of Puerto Rico, a wall display that can deliver centuries of information in a half-hour as it tells the island’s ancient story.
Beyond San Juan
Day trips abound, and you’ll have to make hard choices if you’re on a short trip, as we were. Our selection was an all-day excursion to Culebra Island (culebraislandadventures.com), a short ferry ride to the east, for an adventure of snorkeling with sea turtles on a once-plentiful coral reef. Maria’s powerful winds wreaked havoc on the islet, where signs of rebuilding are still everywhere, and the storm also swept away much of the fragile reefs below the sea surface. The turtles are now tagged and tracked for their protection.
Flamenco Beach is the jewel of Culebra, with sparkling turquoise water at chest-high depths for a hundred yards out. Barely a dozen people dotted the long beach during our visit. A wiry man scampered up coconut palms and fashioned drinks with his machete.
Back on the mainland
A popular destination on the mainland’s western end is Crash Boat Beach, named for the many rescues of pilots from now-closed Ramey Air Force Base. A solitary swimmer was our only company as we enjoyed the half-mile stretch of sand and calm waters.
We also hiked for several hours around Cueva del Indio, where a towering statue of Christopher Columbus gazes across the Atlantic over tidal pools, boulder fields and cavernous cutouts of ancient rock. An attendant at an informal tent collects $10 for as long as you want to explore the area. He even has a stash of sneakers for those who arrive in flip-flops ill-equipped for the hike.
As for lodging, it’s as plentiful as it is personal, ranging from the Ponce Hilton and other ritzy resorts to quaint and charming guesthouses in Old San Juan. We chose the Casablanca (hotelcasablancapr.com), a delightful, sunny, modernized place that’s been around for more than 100 years and offers oversized soaking tubs on the rooftop. Our concierge armed us with a week’s worth of eating, touring and shopping options, and all lived up to their promise.
All told, we spent about $700 each (airfare, lodging, car, meals, excursions) for four fall days in sunny Puerto Rico: the perfect antidote to coming back to that first dusting of Minnesota snow.