It was only September of 2017 when hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico leaving the island with some of the worst devastation it has ever seen. So just 6-months later when Devang suggested we make a trip down there, I was equal parts surprised and intrigued. Are things open there yet? was my first question.
Our research suggested that things were at least partially back to normal in the capital city of San Juan, and that a few days vacation there wasn’t such a crazy idea. So we booked, admittedly, with a very basic expectations of being in a warm place with plumbing and power.
In the airplane, when we were just about to land at the Luis Munoz Marin international airport, I was prepared to see grim reminders left behind by Maria. With my head pressed tight against the small airplane window however, what I saw was something rather surprising. Aside from a couple of structures without a roof, and some debris piled up here and there, nothing looked out of place. If I lived in a bubble, I would have assumed it was just some construction project in progress.
All my remaining reservations about our vacation soon melted away too, as we took the taxi from the airport into a bustling tropical city that pretty much seemed as pristine as ever. Then the hotel itself, oh boy, where do I start. Condado Vanderbilt satisfied my love for fancy hotels with a location that gave us heated pools, a beach, park, and tons of restaurants just steps away. Over the next few days, we would find out that in addition to being so beautiful and centrally located, the hospitality and service from all the people we encountered was phenomenal. I think that anytime you walk out of a hotel feeling it must be the best in the area, whether or not that’s true, it still says a lot about the people who work there. I also found out later after taking to a few of the staff members that the hotel never closed during the hurricane.
Our first day was spent relaxing at the pool and then ended with a stroll and dinner nearby. We were tired from being up since 4:00am that morning, and so we promptly passed out around 8:30pm. On the second day, in staying true to crazy things kids do, all three of them woke up at 6:00am, happy, excited, and ready to party. Instead of dragging my feet however, I gave into my love for the Nespresso machine in the room, and after a couple (or more, I’m not telling) of coffee drinks, I buckled the kids in the stroller and sling, and went out for a morning walk. We played in the park next door (which is also right along the ocean) and then picked up some fruit, milk, and cereal to eat back at the hotel. I wish I had a picture of myself wearing Ajay in the sling and pushing the other two in the double-stroller. I felt like a mini-bus, but a very efficient one! In a beautiful place like this, I was happy to do the heavy lifting (literally) and let Devang sleep in for the morning.
After breakfast we headed to the pool, expecting to spend a couple of hours playing and relaxing. But it was still early and the sun wasn’t quite as hot, and the wind was a bit too windy to enjoy just lying around by the pool. So after only 30 minutes of letting the kids splash around, we decided to take a short walk instead. Three hours, and over 5-miles later, we realized we had walked almost all the way to Old San Juan. We had stopped along the way at the various parks and beaches, letting the kids run around whenever we came around something interesting. The 27-acre Parque Luis Muñoz Rivera, was my absolute favorite stop of the afternoon. With old trees and benches, a giant open air pavilion, and walking path with beautiful mosaic patterns, it was unlike any other park I had seen before. We eventually ended at a place called Ladi’s Restaurant. It is under a bridge but high above the ocean. The views that can’t be beat. We had some coffee and really good flan, and then Ubered it back to the hotel!
On our third day, we saved the pool action for later in the afternoon, and decided to spend the morning in Old San Juan. After taking a Uber there, we spent the next few hours wandering around the blue cobblestone streets lined with brightly colored buildings which looked so immaculate! I read somewhere later that the blue cobblestone was brought by the Spanish traders to weight down their trade ships, which later were filled with goods to take back to Spain. The cobblestone stayed and was repurposed as roads. OSJ is hilly, fair warning to those who might not want to push a double-stroller up and down the streets, but with plenty of squares to catch our breath and let the kids run loose to play with the pigeons and fountains, we didn’t mind much at all. There is also a free trolley that makes the round in OSJ but it would have been more of a hassle to break down the double-stroller each time, and so we just chose to walk. I also learned later that of all the tourist sports in San Juan, OSJ was one of the last one to see recovery efforts because getting big construction equipment up those narrow hilly streets was rather difficult as one can imagine. From what we saw, there were no signs of any damage anywhere.
Lunch was at a cafe whose name escapes me. It has a white and green awning on the door and the inside looks more like an European tea house than just a coffee shop. The lady who owned it was really nice and brought out toys for the kids. We ate well and made it out without breaking any of the pretty trinkets and antique furniture.
There are several historic forts in OSJ and the one we visited, El Morro is almost 500 years old. The view of the ocean from the fort is worth the trip alone! There were so many families flying kites and just hanging out in the massive grassy promenade outside of the fort where we took a relaxing break as well. Overall, I fell in love with Old San Juan and definitely left wishing we had more time to explore the museums and other parts we missed this time around.
On our fourth and final full day, we visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and ventured around the arts district of Santurce. This part of our trip gave us an even better idea of how the area is recovering. We passed many blocks where houses and buildings were shuttered, or realized while crossing the street that the traffic lights were missing, or when a pack of stray dogs walked right by us! It was good to break-out of the tourist shell and see how much work still remains to be done. Still we loved our walk to the art museum, which not only had nice exhibits inside, but a beautiful children’s area where they could be hands-on, and an outdoor space filled with waterfall, sculptures, and beautiful plants! It was also on this day when all three kids fell asleep at the same time while we were strolling around. We took the opportunity to rest our legs at Double Cake Baking Studio and enjoyed a cappuccino and cupcakes without little people asking for a share. While I loved the charm of OSJ, Devang loved the bustle of Santurce which is filled with cafes, gallery, arty stores, restaurants, etc. In a way it reminded me of our old neighborhood in Chicago.
We had a lot of fun so far but were ready to leave San Juan without finding that perfect whole-in-the-wall fish taco joint. Thankfully though, an unexpected rain shower landed us at El Vagon and it was the best place where we ate during our entire trip (and very reasonably priced too compared to the mostly high-priced-yet-average-tasting stuff around) . We loved their fish taco so much that we ended up going back there the next day for lunch before heading back to the airport. And since it is a bit away from the main drag, the only people we saw eating here were locals on their lunch break from work. That’s a good sign of a solid eatery I think!
Our 4-night-5-day stay in San Juan isn’t exactly a representation of how the island as a whole is recovering. For instance, the grandma sitting next to me on the plane, was going back to a home which still lost power very frequently and unexpectedly. From my experience, it is clear (and not really surprising) that the recovery efforts so far have been primarily focused in tourist areas.
So to answer my original question, are things open there yet? The answer as we found out, is a resounding yes! While several sites away from San Juan, including the rainforests, are still closed to tourist, there is plenty to see and do for anyone who wants to get away for a few days. I would make only one tiny suggestion though. Opt to stay at a big hotel, rather than an Airbnb type of place. Since we got back to Raleigh, I heard on the news again that one of the power stations had some issues, cutting off power to the entire city of San Juan for several hours. In times like that, I would have totally felt safe and taken care of at our hotel, instead of a smaller establishment where resources might not be as abundant and quick to take care of unexpected issues.
To sum it up, San Juan was another great family vacation to start off our year! We hope to return again soon. I’d love to read your comments for any travel tips that we can use for next time! And in case this thesis of a post wasn’t enough, you can also check out my post Traveling Circus visits San Juan, Puerto Rico for the Raleigh Mom’s Blog. As always, thank you for reading and following along on our travel adventures!
Disclaimer: I love to travel, and honestly share our likes and dislikes about the places we visit. This post is no exception. Names and businesses mentioned here are all things we discovered and paid for on our own. And while I love to partner with brands that share our passion, this is not one of those cases.