As a full-time freelance travel journalist, I was invited to Puerto Rico by Marriott International to learn about a series they’ve launched called #LoveTravels Beyond Barriers. This trip celebrated the work of Isabel Rullán, a passionate, inspiring member of their inaugural #LoveTravels class.
Rullán is the cofounder and executive director of ConPRmetidos, an independent, nonpartisan, millennial-led nonprofit organization that was founded in 2012; after the devastation of hurricanes Irma and Maria (2017), they raised $4 million to support the long-term revitalization of vulnerable communities. They’re approaching the island’s revitalization in a brand-new way, and we got to meet several of the grassroots community leaders (coffee farmers and fishermen) they’re working with to empower and educate.
What airline did you fly, and where did you stay?
I flew United there (from Chicago) and Delta home (with a quick stopover in Atlanta). I spent two nights at the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino and one night at the glorious St. Regis Bahia Beach.
What was most surprising about this adventure?
While here, I had so many flashbacks to traveling in Mexico and throughout Central and South America. I felt like I was worlds away from the U.S. (except for chain restaurants and megastores we passed along major highways). I was surprised that some elders I met spoke next to no English. Mostly, I was shocked I had never been here, because it’s such a wonderful place!
How are the people doing after the hurricane?
I also was astounded to learn more details about how deeply the effects of Hurricane Maria dominoed. We met people who didn’t have power for eight entire months, which is incomprehensible, and according to Rullán, there are still some 30,000 houses with blue tarps as roofs. (However, our travel was not affected at all, and the destination is very much “open for business.” In fact, they’ve probably never needed our visits more.)
Yet despite all the suffering Puerto Ricans have experienced, many we met were able to see the silver lining, calling this a true “wake-up call” to become more self-sufficient and less reliant on others, so that something of this magnitude can never happen again.
Can you tell us a little about the culture?
From what I experienced and heard, Puerto Ricans are warm, welcoming, spirited, and resilient. They love constant music, dancing, and plantains (cooked a million different ways)! They are incredibly proud of their culture; their people; and their cuisine, which is a fascinating mix featuring influences from Spain, Africa, and the native Taínos.
If others go, what should they absolutely fit into their itinerary?
Wandering through the charming cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan is a must, and a surprise tasting menu feast at ultra-hip Marmalade was one of the most memorable meals of my life. A night (or more) at the St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort will serve as a total revitalizing “reset,” and you’ll want to stay in this jungle haven forever. I also loved getting up into the mountains, which are beautifully lush, rugged, and alive. Rullán said that after the hurricane, all the vegetation turned brown, so the locals are thrilled to see everything looking green once again.
Will you return?
Next time I visit, I hope to make it to laid-back surf mecca Rincón and also to the island of Vieques. Here I would love to see the Bioluminescent Bay, which turned dark after the hurricane; happily, though, its glow has now returned.
What was the best thing about your trip?
I loved getting to see parts of Puerto Rico that are a bit off the beaten path and meeting forward-thinking community members who are doing incredible things to rebuild their homeland. For example, we traveled into the mountains (in Utuado) with Rullán and her team to tour COSSAO Health Clinic, a free clinic that was created, since the nearest hospital is located an hour away.
Tell us more about that.
Since they’re using an abandoned building for the clinic, there’s no mortgage to pay. Solar panels mean there are no electricity bills, and they’re raising funds in part by growing hydroponic lettuce — in hurricane-resistant “hydroponic food farm” containers at the neighboring elementary school. We also toured a couple coffee farms with PROCAFE (a nonprofit organization of coffee farmers), learning how farmers are recovering from having about 85 percent of the island’s coffee farms wiped out from the hurricane.
What did you learn about yourself/others in Puerto Rico?
I was so inspired by meeting Rullán and her team — and to be reminded of the positive impact just a couple people can have when they are driven, passionate, and willing to join forces and ask for help. I realized that, as much as I travel, these are the adventures that truly feed my soul.
What didn’t we ask you that we should have?
I was surprised and a bit ashamed that I didn’t know more about this incredible place! This destination is so easy to reach from many major U.S. cities (no passport necessary), and once you’re there, travel feels quite easy and like a total escape. And every dollar you spend there directly affects a family who lives there.