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On the ground in Puerto Rico

by Paul Heney, TravelPulse (TNS) | January 16, 2022 at 2:06 a.m.
The waterfront of San Juan, Puerto Rico, leads to Condado Plaza and the hotels that share the coastline in this 2013 file photo. (Dreamstime/TNS)


I wasn't sure what to expect on a recent trip to Puerto Rico — the U.S. territory endured a devastating hit from Category-5 Hurricane Maria in 2017 before the second blow of the covid-19 pandemic, which ravaged tourism across the globe. After Maria, I recall seeing photos of the island's stunning El Junque rain forest almost laid bare, and I wondered how different parts of the Caribbean island would recover.

But after visiting, I'm happy to say that the island is more than ready to welcome tourists.

Flying into and out of San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport was easy enough. Arriving passengers from the United States now have to fill out a Travel Declaration form, but you can do this ahead of time, and I strongly advise doing so. You'll receive a QR code upon finishing it. When you arrive, you are then able to enter the much shorter line at the end of baggage claim, making entry into Puerto Rico a snap. For travelers older than 2 who are not vaccinated, a negative molecular or antigen test (performed within 72 hours of arrival) is also required.

We chose to stay in San Juan's popular Condado tourist area at the La Concha Resort, a beautifully updated Renaissance property that fronts Atlantic Beach. The resort impressed me with its safety protocols; we were required to show proof of vaccination upon entering, as well as at check-in. Once verified at check in, we were given bracelets to wear (similar to those at amusement parks or all-inclusive properties) that served as vaccination proof. Even La Concha's restaurants, like the popular Serafina, require proof of vaccination, which put our minds at ease.

COVID RESPONSE

I asked Luz Gonzalez, Director of Sales and Marketing at the La Concha Resort about the property's covid response. She explained that in addition to maintaining the security checkpoint at the hotel entrance, masks are required through public areas, and guests can use contactless check-in options and special requests through the Marriott Bonvoy app.

"Communication is key," she said. "We keep our guests informed of all requirements prior to arrival — and there is prearrival communication of hotel happenings for their enjoyment. We've all adapted to put safety first while on vacation. Our guests can freely enjoy our amenities as usual, and we will continue enhancing their stay now more than ever, in order to make it memorable after such a long time without traveling."

Gonzalez said that the resort experienced an improvement in visitor numbers as soon as the intent to travel increased in early 2021.

"The accessibility of domestic flights to and from Puerto Rico and the mainland allowed us to remain one of the top options for U.S. travelers when looking for a Caribbean destination with outdoor adventure, nature and plenty of places to discover without the requirement of a passport," she said.

I heard mostly positive feedback from shop owners and tour guides while in town, although one local ice cream shop owner told me that weekends are OK but weekdays "have been horrible" for business.

Joe Dunn is a Buffalo, N.Y., native who now runs Triple G Tours (think "Gay Gringo Guide"), a company that offers excursions including hikes to waterfalls, natural waterslide adventures in the rain forest, cave tubing and local beach visits. He has found that tourists started returning in great numbers around spring break — as Puerto Rico was a relatively exotic destination that Americans could still visit without a passport. Even when Puerto Rico imposed curfews, the tourists kept coming.

HALF-DAY TOUR

We took a fun-filled, half-day tour with Triple-G (they amusingly advertise themselves as "straight friendly"), and were happy to discover that the rain forest was lush and apparently completely recovered, a far cry from the apocalyptic news photos from 2017. The natural waterslides we tried were invigorating and not overly crowded, but we definitely saw plenty of tourists out and about there as well as at the lovely stretch of Playa Azul beach that Joe took us to.

(Side bonus: We discovered on this tour that you can buy single-serving fruity rum punch packets in Puerto Rico — sort of like adult Capri Suns. Fantastic! Why has this not caught on in the mainland? Consider me officially stumped. Pro tip: You can buy them in the duty-free shop in the airport to take home.)

Another one of Puerto Rico's natural wonders was also affected by Maria — the island and surrounding areas contain four of the world's only bioluminescent bays. Local guides told me that after the hurricane, some feared that the small organisms that produce these magical light shows might have been washed away for good. But after three of the bays experienced a dip in the numbers of bioluminescent plankton immediately after the storm, they all recovered.

We booked a nighttime kayak tour of Laguna Grande in Fajardo, about a 90-minute drive west of San Juan, and experienced this natural wonder in all its glory. I'm happy to report that nature has prevailed.

'EVOLVE AND EMERGE'

"Puerto Ricans have taken advantage of unfortunate circumstances to evolve and emerge with new businesses to attend to the needs of every customer, local or visitor," said La Concha's Gonzalez. "Just like our property, many businesses in the San Juan area never closed and continued adapting to the market demands. Currently, our destination offers a diversity of places to discover beyond San Juan where tourists and locals can indulge in culinary and cultural experiences like never before."

Gonzalez said the resort is expecting a busy winter season, similar to — or better than — what they experienced in 2019.

"We've noticed travelers are eager to visit new places or retreat to the warm Caribbean beaches this winter."


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