I admit I’m biased: I love Puerto Rico. So when two hurricanes, dastardly Maria and Irma, slammed the island last fall, I was worried. I followed the news, I donated to local causes (like the Hispanic Federation’s Unidos Disaster Relief & Recovery, a favorite of Lin-Manuel Miranda), and I planned a trip there in early 2018.
There’s plenty of good news and a bit of bad news. The bad news is that some of the more rural parts of the island are still without power. Call ahead just to make sure. There are residents, businesses, and lots of visiting contractors and rebuilding experts working toward full recovery, currently expected to continue into fall 2018. (Yes, it’s outrageous that it’s taking so long.)
The good news, however, is that much of Puerto Rico is back on line. Of course, there are battered trees and buildings, and some closed storefronts. But when I visited San Juan in February, I was glad to see so many restaurants, shops, bars, and hotels fully operational—many of them busy with patrons and guests.
For travelers, it’s a pretty nice scenario. Air travel into Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is very affordable, hotels have good rates and packages, taxis and Ubers are cheap, tour operators are offering great deals, and for a limited time, Puerto Rico’s amazing beaches feel extra spacious.
One of the top spots for a P.R. getaway is Condado, a beachfront area in San Juan that’s only about 15 minutes from the airport. My favorite accommodation is the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino, which is perched right on the ocean, and its team is overflowing with warm welcomes. (Bonus: This Marriott makes San Juan’s best piña colada—don’t miss the simply delicious “vintage colada.”) The hotel’s 500-plus spacious guest rooms and suites almost all have private balconies, and the property itself has both beach access with loungers and waiter service, as well as a big pool with a swim-up bar. The casino is a fun nightly diversion, as are the live salsa music and dance nights Friday through Sunday.
LGBT travelers will appreciate that the Marriott is super gay-friendly and hosts lots of queer travelers. Maybe that’s because it’s located beside Condado’s gay beach zone at the end of Avenida Condado. Conveniently, that street is also home to Condado’s popular gay bar, Oasis Lounge, which is reliable nightly fun, and gets busy for dancing after about 9 or 10 P.M.
Condado’s main drag, Avenida Ashford, is lined with touristic essentials. You’ll find chain stores and local shops for things like sunscreen, snacks, souvenirs, and beach-y accessories. There’s no shortage of open-air patios to people-watch over a margarita or a local Medalla beer.
Dining options are abundant, and you can easily find a low-key spot for lunch or casual dinner, like Ropa Vieja Grill, serving reliable Puerto Rican fare and fresh seafood. For more creative cuisine, reserve ahead to dine at Cocina Abierta, where you’ll find a seasonal dinner and brunch menus, plus excellent wine and cocktails.
Further upland in the Santurce neighborhood, La Placita is a local landmark and public market that’s a cultural anchor, surrounded by restaurants and bars. Grab a drink at El Patio de Lila, a little gay hotspot especially on Friday nights.
Near La Placita, make advance reservations at two outstanding restaurants that are redefining Puerto Rican gastronomy. Santaella is the more upscale, innovative eatery where Chef Jose Santella elevates traditional dishes with uncommon flavors. At the understated Jose Enrique, the namesake chef (and Santurce native) specializes in seafood, and varies his dishes daily based on what’s available. Both chefs are award winning, and their eateries are on the global radar of best restaurants.
An easy cab ride from Condado is Old San Juan, the historic city that’s home to amazing history, gorgeous harbor views, and colorful row houses that seem made for Instagram. A good culinary overview here begins with Spoon Food Tours tastings at some of the city’s top restaurants. A more breezy option is sailing away on a romantic (and informative) history tour with East Island Excursions’ sunset harbor cruise aboard the Amazing Grace schooner.
In town, lunch with local folks at El Jibarito on Calle Sol, and grab a drink at the decades-old all-time classic, woman-owned dive bar El Batey on Calle del Cristo. For a gay night out head to Polo Norte, open Wednesday through Saturday with drag shows and DJs. La Factoría, meanwhile, is Old San Juan’s go-to speakeasy, pouring incredible craft cocktails in a space so cool it’s where Luis Fonsi partly shot the video for “Despacito.”
Located about 15 minutes from Old San Juan, the Bacardi Distillery is well worth a visit. You’ll get a dose of local history there—but even more useful, join the Mixology Tour to learn how to make a trio of authentic cocktails that may redefine your feelings about rum.
As you can see, I’m passionate about Puerto Rico. Its food is amazing, its libations are enticing, its scenery are spectacular, its beaches are beguiling, and its local residents are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet anywhere in the world. So consider this my love letter to a magical place.
Dear Puerto Rico: You’re called “Isla del Encanto”—“enchanted island”—and there is no other place in the Caribbean or beyond where I’d rather share the love.
Kelsy Chauvin is a writer, photographer and marketing consultant based in Brooklyn, New York. She specializes in travel, arts and culture, gastronomy, nightlife, and LGBT interests. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @kelsycc.