I just got back from Puerto Rico, where I got a firsthand look at the island’s inspiring recovery from Hurricane Maria last September. Power has been almost completely restored, most of the roads are drivable, more than 12,000 hotel rooms are ready for guests, and most people are back at work and in their homes. I experienced much of what makes Puerto Rico one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean: beautiful beaches, bioluminescent bays, great music, delicious food. But what made my trip so enriching was talking with people about how the storm had affected them.
I stayed at the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, which never closed during the storm or its aftermath, where I met Jose Gonzalez-Espinosa, the general manager. “One of the first things we did was open an internet café for locals,” he told me. “We offered free sandwiches, water, and connectivity. The internet was by far the most appreciated. People queued up and were so grateful for the chance to contact family and tell them they were OK.”
I met Kevin Ruiz while he was painting the exterior of a guesthouse near the town of Fajardo, on the coast east of San Juan. Kevin left Puerto Rico and moved to New Jersey with his mom when he was three. He went to college at Rutgers and had a good life and good job in New Jersey. But he returned to the island after the hurricane. “I spent the first three months helping my dad get his home and life back together. And now I’m helping my granddad get this place back up and running. This is just something I felt like I had to do. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been great.”
Patricio Schames is a co-owner of Cocina Abierta in San Juan, one of the few restaurants that had working generators right after the storm. Patricio gathered his management team and asked, “What should we do?” They extended their hours to offer three meals a day and dropped their prices significantly. Patricio told me he is earning less but that he has never felt so good, worked so hard, or slept so well. “You find out what is important in life,” he said. “We don’t want to completely go back to what we were before. We are more focused than ever on local ingredients and sustainable practices. The storm changed all of us, and we need to acknowledge and embrace that.”
Puerto Rico is an ideal destination right now for experiential travelers. We have the opportunity to support the people with our travel dollars, to enjoy much of what the island traditionally offers, and perhaps most important, to come away with stories of how people’s lives were transformed.