Following hurricane recovery, this Caribbean island is firmly back on the map as a destination that meets all the criteria, writes Anthony Pearce
At the beginning of the year, The New York Times put Puerto Rico at the top of its list of destinations to visit in 2019, providing a major boost to the island a year and a half after the destruction wreaked by Hurricane Maria. “It was a big coup for us,” says Leah Chandler, chief marketing officer of Discover Puerto Rico, the newly formed destination marketing organisation, which was set up to ‘unify the tourism message across the island’. Chandler, like The New York Times, is excited about new projects, particularly in the capital, San Juan. She lists the brand-new District San Juan, which features cinemas, restaurants, a zip-line tower and a 6,000-seat entertainment venue, as one of most exciting developments, and notes that the forthcoming remake of West Side Story, both as a movie and on Broadway (the Sharks, one of the gangs in the legendary production, are from Puerto Rico), will turn even more attention to the Caribbean nation. “It’s a pop culture moment for the island,” says Chandler. “These moments are building up for Puerto Rico, so all eyes are on us. It’s a really exciting time to be here.”
And yet, Puerto Rico has always been a fascinating destination. The second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas, San Juan is a great introduction to the Caribbean for those who are using it as a springboard (cruise lines such as Viking Cruises homeport here in winter), or as a destination on its own. In the city’s charming Old Town, Spanish influence remains: cobblestone streets and colourful colonial buildings – reds, blues and greens – are guarded by a 16th-century fort, the imposing Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Simply wandering through San Juan’s pretty streets is entertainment enough, but the city’s nightlife is also legendary, whether you’re looking for jazz bars (try Carli’s Fine Bistro & Piano for dinner and music), speakeasies (drop into La Factoría, named among the world’s 50 best bars)
There is an endless supply of great places to eat. Puerto Rican cuisine, which has its roots in Spanish, African and the native Taínos traditions, may not be as well known as Jamaican or Cuban food (see p17), but is no less delicious. El Jibarito (Calle Sol 280) serves cheap Puerto Rican comfort food such as mofongo (mashed plantain) with camarones al ajillo (shrimps in garlic sauce) and chicken fricassee. Café Manolín (251 Calle San Justo), which dates back to the 1940s, is an institution, serving classics such as serenata de bacalao con viandas (codfish and root vegetables). Marmalade (317 Calle Fortaleza), the superb fine-dining restaurant helmed by chef Peter Schintler, an Iowa native, is perhaps the capital’s most celebrated restaurant.
Getting there is easy – the city is connected to the UK via Miami, New York or Charlotte Douglas in North Carolina (the latter proving less stressful than the sprawling Miami International Airport).
Outside of the capital, Ponce, which Chandler calls “the cultural heart of the island,” is one of the most popular tourist destinations. The country’s second-largest city is home to Plaza de las Delicias, a town square adorned by fountains and home to the city’s cathedral, the Catedral de la Guadalupe, built in the late 1800s. The Casa Armstrong-Poventud is a fine example of the neoclassical architectural heritage of the island and houses the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture, while there is also the Museum of Puerto Rican Music, Art Museum of Frame Masters, Ponce School of Fine Arts and the Ponce Art Museum. Of great interest is the House of the Ponce Massacre, build in recognition of one of the bloodiest events in Puerto Rico’s political history, when 19 civilians were murdered and 200 injured by police in 1937.
Rincón on the west of island offers a totally different experience to San Juan or Ponce, far smaller and more relaxed. It’s home to many of the surfing beaches in Puerto Rico, including Domes, Maria’s, Tres Palmas and Sandy Beach. The Rincón Lighthouse, also known as El Faro de Punta Higuero, which overlooks the Domes beach, was built in 1892 and offers some of the best views of the west coast.
Culebra and Vieques, off the east coast of the main island, Chandler describes as “our island islands,” offering a true Caribbean experience. The former is home to the white-sand, turquoise-water Flamenco Beach, which was ranked third best beach in the world and is home an incredible array of wildlife, including species of parrotfish, blue tang, wrasse and 50,000 seabirds. Vieques, aside from being an island paradise and home to some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches, also has a fascinating history. It was the site of a series of protests against the United States Navy’s use of the island as a bombing range and testing ground, which led to the Navy’s eventual departure in 2003; today the former navy land is a national wildlife refuge.
It has not been an easy few years for Puerto Rico, parts of which remained without electricity months after the hurricane, while the Maria Fund and DonatePuertoRico are still accepting donations, buying solar panels, generators, mosquito nets and food. Tourism remains an important part of the country’s economy, and returning cruise ships were greeted with cheers when they first arrived in January 2017. “Cruise is huge for us,” says Chandler. “We had a record number of passengers in 2018 and we’re going to break that again in 2019.” So the future looks positive. As Chandler puts it: “Puerto Rico is hopping right now!”