SAN JUAN — Julia Cruz normally steers clear of Old San Juan during the third weekend in January. That’s when the blue cobblestone streets swell with convivial throngs of party people celebrating the San Sebastian Street Festival in a manner that would make most saints blush.
Thousands line the sidewalks, parks, and city squares for the evening concerts on five stages. There are dozens of food stalls, the parada de cabezudos (parade of big heads), preternaturally enthusiastic people walking on stilts, small groups roaming about playing merengue, and copious amounts of booze. Sometimes things can get a bit sloppy in the name of good, saintly fun.
Cruz, 36, said she hadn’t been to the festival since she was a teenager, but said she came this year because she needed an excuse to celebrate. Any excuse. Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, Cruz has been helping family members who live in the countryside and volunteering to check on the elderly almost every day.
“I need this, we all do. You see?” she asked as she swept an arm over a crowd that was chanting and singing. “This feels like normal.”
After months of seeing pictures from Puerto Rico that looked anything but normal, it was almost surreal to see the San Sebastian Street Festival (the locals shorten it to a tidy SanSe) which heralds the end of the island’s holiday season, looking much the way it always has.
I’ve come to Puerto Rico nearly every January for more than a decade and I’ve been to the festival many times. This year I prepared myself for the worst. I never suspected Old San Juan would be fully electrified, let alone in scrubbed-fresh condition. But here it was looking wonderful, minus some trees and street lights. I nearly teared up.
It’s not only Old San Juan that looked better than I anticipated. I stayed at La Concha in the Condado. This area was battered by winds and flooded in the hurricane, but during my stay in the San Juan area, hotels and restaurants were open and active. It seemed impossible that this could be the same district that I saw under several feet of sea water in Instagram and Facebook videos last fall. There were hotels still occupied by Federal Emergency Management Agency employees, and others that won’t be open until later this year or next, but when I was there plenty were gleaming and fully operational.
What I saw ran contrary to stories still coming out of the island, but that’s because I stayed in tourist-heavy areas. Paper towels did not solve Puerto Rico’s power and water problems, particularly in hard-hit rural areas. More than half of the island has electricity again, but the US Army Corps of Engineers estimates that power won’t be restored to all of Puerto Rico until May.
Services are coming back, but what Puerto Rico now lacks are people to come and stay at hotels, eat in restaurants, shop in locals stores, and sip cocktails at sunset.
“We need tourism,” said Gwenn Bentz, who runs the website Puerto Rico Day Trips. “There’s not much the average person can do about our infrastructure problems, but they can come down, enjoy, and spread the word that Puerto Rico is still a great vacation.”
I took Bentz at her word and went to Puerto Rico last month not only to see how the island was faring, but to help out simply by being a tourist. I’ll confess that I initially felt guilty about sitting by a sparkling pool when I knew that there were plenty of people in this US commonwealth of 3.4 million who were still in the dark. Helping the economy with a second piña colada seemed like a shallow gesture.
“There are absolutely many ways to help Puerto Rico,” said Carla Campos, interim executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. “One of most important is supporting jobs here. That means coming and having a good time, like you always have.”
I took that as a cue to order the second piña colada.
Given that Maria was the most powerful storm to hit the island in 90 years, don’t expect everything to be open. El Yunque National Forest is closed. Some beaches are also still closed. But the island has shown remarkable resiliency. Cruise ships are back and depositing sight-seers in Old San Juan, and Campos said 122 hotels, 4,000 restaurants, 105 casinos, and 107 attractions are open and operating. I’m not going to gild the lily and say Puerto Rico is in perfect shape, but I can say with authority that it is well-suited for vacationers.
“The difference in San Juan, Condado, Ocean Park, and Isla Verde is that there’s more concrete and not so many trees,” said Juan José Cuevas, the chef at 1919 Restaurant at the Condado Vanderbilt Hotel. “So rural areas suffered more. Those trees took down power lines.”
“You also have narrow streets in those areas, so it’s harder to get through,” he continued. “That’s delayed a lot of the efforts.”
Cuevas, a Michelin-starred chef, stayed at the Vanderbilt throughout the hurricane doing whatever he could to help — from cooking meals for employees to boarding up windows. The electricity at his home was out for about a month.
In Old San Juan, Carlos Fernandez, who works at his family clothing store Almacenes Fernandez, took out his phone to show me pictures of just how bad the damage was after the Category 4 hurricane. There were downed trees blocking streets that store owners worked diligently to remove. A generator kept power going in his store until workers from Con Edison in New York arrived and restored power in October and November.
“Those guys just came in and did what they needed to,” Fernandez said. “They saved us. No one else was there for us.”
The people I spoke with were happy with all the help and donations from mainland US citizens. Not quite so happy with the government response.
By January, Old San Juan was as colorful as ever. The Spanish Colonial architecture was blazing orange, green, and pink. Most stores seemed to be open. One notable exception was the historic cafe La Bombonera, where you can find the best Mallorcas in San Juan. A sign on the door states it will open later this month.
I was hoping that when I arrived I would find a good roll-up-your-sleeves opportunity for voluntourism, that’s the oft-used portmanteau for those who want to both vacation and help out others. At the time I was there, I couldn’t find a lot of it. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company has begun a series called Rebuild Days. The latest took place Jan. 30 in El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States. Visit Rico, a nonprofit that works with small farmers to help them rebuild has scheduled days for tourists to help as well.
It’s important to remember that scheduling and coordinating volunteer opportunities for tourists is a complicated endeavour, and Puerto Rico is an island that is still on the mend.
“This work is difficult physically, you have chain saws, you have machetes. So you don’t want to give that to just anyone,” said Cuevas of the Vanderbilt.
Private sector businesses have been begun providing volunteer trips for their employees. Michael Dorf, founder of the chain of restaurant and music venues City Winery sent 125 employees of his company to Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts. Not only did employees help rebuild farms, City Winery also built a stage for concerts after the clean-up and chefs prepared meals for 200 farms affected by the storm.
“They need as much joy now as they need chain saws and seeds,” Dorf told me over breakfast in San Juan. “If we can do something to help that’s really great. But I’m really hoping that we inspire more companies, much larger companies, to come in and actually take action. Not just tweet about how important it is to help.”
After spending time in San Juan, I wanted to see how the rest of the island looked, so I rented a car, collected my friend Gary, and drove two hours to the southwest corner of the island to the beaches of Guánica. It was encouraging to see the leaves had grown back verdant and lush on trees that were striped bare during the storm.
Some of the beaches in Guánica were still closed, but those that were open were as beautiful as ever. Gary doffed his shorts to reveal an inappropriately small swimsuit and we swam with the locals. Thankfully he didn’t frighten them off.
That night over dinner we recapped the highlights of the day and I secretly and selfishly gave thanks that my favorite January vacation escape was coming back. It will not be easy, but I was encouraged that the cruise ships and tourists are arriving. At that point in the evening I decided to once again do my part to help in the recovery. I ordered another piña colada. Every little bit helps.