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In September, then-Category 4 Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico with 155-mph winds in what was the worst storm to hit the island in 85 years. In the month following the storm, tourism — along with the island’s entire power grid — was wiped out, and floods transformed San Juan’s streets into rivers.
An influx of relief efforts from volunteer pilots and celebrity chefs like José Andrés have helped revive the island as it struggles to get above water. While power may not be fully on until May, Puerto Rico is still gearing up for high season with the help of resurgent tourism efforts as cruise ships return to the bustling port and hotels and restaurants open up their doors. Below we’ve pulled together just eight of the many reasons Puerto Rico is worth visiting now more than ever. Hint: Mofongo is involved.
1. Your Dollars Help Rebuild the Island
More than 5 million travelers visit Puerto Rico each year, spending nearly $4 billion and providing jobs for over 80,000 people. According to the executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, the storm “undoubtedly cost billions in lost revenue,” putting hotels out of business and guides out of work. Just three months after the storm — which knocked down nearly 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s utility poles — 70 percent of the island’s power is already back on. While power is mostly centered around the capital city of San Juan, it’s expected to return to inland towns by May. And since these are the spots that rely heavily on tourism, the more people who visit, the quicker they’ll be rebuilt.
2. Mofongo. Need We Say More?
If you haven’t discovered one of Puerto Rico’s most famous dishes, you’ll be hooked from the first bite. You’ll find this mound of mashed fried plantains on almost any menu on the island, with some of the more upscale spots adding a gourmet spin to the traditional dish. The restaurant industry was hit hard after the hurricane, with many eateries shuttering or struggling to survive given the lack of electricity and running water.
But now 4,000 restaurants have reopened their kitchens for tourists (and locals) to eat their way across the island (and support the economy in the process!), sampling specialties like bacalaitos and frijoles negros. Puerto Rico is also the birthplace of the piña colada and known for its nightlife-heavy capital, whose streets are lined with bars beckoning travelers with some of the best rum in the world. In addition to bars reopening, if you happen to be in the mood to hit the slots, 15 casinos are also open for business.
3. No Passport Required
Since PR is a US territory, Americans don’t need to flash their passports when arriving (or go through customs and immigration, for that matter). Even better, travelers don’t need to exchange currency.
4. 107 Open Attractions
Puerto Rico is home to 20 state forests and three bioluminescent bays where you can kayak along glowing waters. While the US’s only subtropical rainforest, El Yunque National Forest, still needs time to recover from the storm, plenty of other natural attractions await, from catamaran rides in Fajardo to trail rides along the northwestern coast in Isabela and rainforest ziplining in Rio Grande. One don’t-miss attraction: cruising the waters of Vieques Bioluminescent Bay.
5. Tons of Points Hotels Have Reopened
At the moment, there are 122 hotels open and accepting reservations, including a number of points hotels like the new AC Hotel San Juan Condado, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel San Juan, San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and the InterContinental San Juan.
A few other major resorts have announced their reopening dates for later this year, such as Las Casitas Village (a Waldorf Astoria resort), which is reopening May 22; the Condado Plaza Hilton, slated to open July 1; and W Retreat & Spa–Vieques Island, reopening Jan. 1, 2018. For more points hotel options, see Which Starwood Hotel Should I Stay at in Puerto Rico?
6. Cruise Ships Are Back
This cruise hub hosts an average of 500 ships from nearly 18 different lines each year, bringing around 2 million passengers to port in Old San Juan. A sign that the island is getting back on its feet: The first cruise ship since the storm arrived in San Juan on Nov. 30. In January alone, 27 ships are expected to stop in San Juan, bringing a total of 85,000 passengers who help fund the portside food stands.
With a single cruise visit generating a half million dollars for the island, this is one way tourism bolsters Puerto Rico’s struggling economy. And don’t think you won’t be able to see some of the best sights on the island if you’re only coming for the day. You’ll easily be able to whisk around Old San Juan on a historical walk and coffee tasting, one of 60 possible shore excursions with lines like MSC and Carnival.
7. Airports Are Up and Running
San Juan Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport (SJU) serves as a hub connecting the Caribbean with Latin America, offering 30 flights to the Caribbean and 28 to Central and South America each week, in addition to 588 nonstop flights to major cities across the US. Hurricane Maria significantly damaged Puerto Rico’s main airport, flooding the terminal and knocking out windowpanes and power, with water just as limited as in the rest of the island. In the days following the storm, hundreds of passengers were stranded as the airport struggled to get damaged radar and navigation equipment repaired. Now all of Puerto Rico’s major airports — including Rafael Hernández Airport (BQN) and Ponce (PSE) — are fully open, with 70 daily flights from 27 major and budget carriers like American Airlines, Allegiant, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest and United.
8. Year-Round Beach Weather
Miami seems like the perfect place for snowbirds to escape, but just a few weeks ago the beach locale was a chilly 45 degrees. The nearby island of Puerto Rico, however, averages in the 80s throughout the year (although higher elevations are slightly cooler). Even when it’s rainy season — from April to November — storms tend to hit during the afternoon and don’t last very long. If you happen to be worried about mosquitos, you’re in luck; last year the Puerto Rico Department of Health declared Puerto Rico to be Zika-free.
For more ideas on how to help Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria, see our post A Look at Team TPG’s Weekend to Help Rebuild Puerto Rico.
Featured image of Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery in old San Juan by mikolajn/Getty Images
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