Most of us who live in the coastal United States are familiar with the planning and preparation involved during hurricane season every year. More than 41% of all hurricanes which make landfall in the Unites States are in the state of Florida. Florida is so prone to hurricanes such that it gets twice as many hurricanes than the next hurricane prone state which is Texas. By sheer numbers, most of us who live in the sunshine state will at some point experience the impact and consequences of a devastating hurricane as we did in the Florida Panhandle on October 10, 2018 with Hurricane Michael and those living on the island of Puerto Rico a year earlier with Hurricane Maria.
Six weeks after the hurricane hit Panama City, still in shock from the extent of the devastation around us, we traveled to Puerto Rico for some well needed R & R. We would travel from Panama City, Florida to meet with some family friends, the Jimenez family, who also live in Panama City and were vacationing the same week as we were in Puerto Rico. I was curious to see how much recovery had taken place on the island which experienced a similar event as we did on the Gulf Coast of Florida only 13 months earlier. In addition, I was interested in visiting this island whose name and history conveyed its richness centuries ago when discovered by the Spanish settlers who sought after its gold or in bravery and nobility as demonstrated by its original Taino settlers from which the word “Boriqua” used to describe a person native to Puerto Rico is derived.
We took a direct flight to the island from Orlando and our friends were ready to pick us up at the baggage claim section at the airport. Once we picked up our luggage and cleared customs, we drove west from the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport to the Santurce neighborhood where we were immediately immersed in the artistic and cultural spirit of the island. Murals covered in colorful paintings and artists playing music on the street corners was the scene which was set in this neighborhood south of Condado. One could see museums, restaurants, shops and galleries in this seemingly renaissance part of the city. On Calle Loiza, adjacent from Calle San Jorge, we stopped for lunch at Bebos restaurant. We were immediately struck by the familiarity of Puerto Rican cuisine to other Caribbean cuisine we have had and some African cuisine too in a traditional Puerto Rican dish such as mofongo (pounded plantain). After a very satisfying meal, we walked down Calle Loiza which was busy with pedestrians, street food vendors and music performers who had our 18month old daughter dancing to the beat in the middle of the street. Once we were back in the car, we started on a longer drive to Rio Grande where we would spend the next four days.
Before settling in at our villa, we would stop by the Monteclaro culinary and hospitality school for girls and receive a tour of the facility and the grounds. Given my love for the culinary arts, I was intrigued at the vision behind the construction of this facility and implementation of its programs. Despite this part of the island suffering a tremendous blow by hurricane Maria, it was clear their spirit of resilience and determination was not deterred by the hurricane. Classes had resumed and we observed practical instruction on some girls during our visit. I was reminded of the significance of diligence and resolution to work toward progress no matter how “little” the task may be perceived. A few more refreshments and samples of desserts made at the center and we checked into the villa for the night.
The Rio Grande (Great River) is in the East region of the island and is the municipality where the rainforest, El Yunque is located. El Yunque is the only subtropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest Service and spans over 28,0000 acres of trails, waterfalls, streams, and the only navigable river on the island. Sadly, this nature lover’s paradise was not open to the public during our visit one year after hurricane Maria due to the damage to the trails and the presence of debris which rendered it unsafe to traverse. Our villa was located on the beachfront resort property of the Wyndham Grande Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf and Beach Resort. It had multiple amenities including swimming pools with slides, golf courses, restaurants, beach access and breathtaking views of the mountains. The villa was fully furnished and stocked with all amenities a family could need to prepare meals and entertain ourselves with kid appropriate considerations.
Traveling east of the Rio Grande, one municipality over, is Luquillo where we would spend a couple of mornings and one evening celebrating mass. The priest assigned to this parish (San Jose Parroquia) we were pleasantly surprised to learn was originally from Nigeria and had recently come to Puerto Rico . Founded in 1797 by Christobal Guzman and known as “the sun’s capital”, Luquillo is full of tall coconut trees along its beautiful beaches and has an energy about it which can convince anyone it is truly touched by the sun. It is said to have been named after an Indian Cacique, Loquillo, who died a few years after the last Indian rebellion in 1513. Some historians say its name came from the Taino name, Lucuo, a Taino god. The Spanish who subsequently settled this municipality, as was customary in Spain, built a plaza with municipal buildings (city hall, post etc.) and a Catholic church. Initial Spanish settlements sought to exploit deposits of gold and to a lesser extent copper in this area. Later, in the 19th century, sugar cane was grown in the fields. The current industry in the region includes factory producing clothing, metal and leather industry, electrical equipment, construction industry, and industrial machinery. Luquillo hosts an annual festival in honor of its patron saint San Jose which attracts a lot of visitors to the region.
Our last day in Puerto Rico, we drove out to Old San Juan, the oldest settlement on the island and visited its historical colonial landmarks. I have included a slideshow of the sites we visited given the brevity of our time in Old San Juan.
Still on the bucket list:
#1. El Yunque Rainforest for reasons stated above.
#2. Kayaking in one of the 3 bioluminescent bays: Puerto Rico is unique for having three of these bays on the island. There are only two others in the world, the Luminous Bay in Jamaica and the Halong Bay in Vietnam. The glow in these bays is caused by a single plankton algae, the dinoflagellate, which glows in a blue-green color when agitated or disturbed. Of the three bioluminescent bays in Puerto Rico, the Mosquito Bay in Vieques is the most luminous with the highest concentration of these plankton and is the most known with multiple options for tours. It is recommended to tour is when the night is darkest so the glow is visually stunning, so best prepare by studying the moon cycle that time of year. The second most luminous on the island is Fajardo, the Laguna Grande. The least luminous, La Parguera, is in the southwestern part of the island in the town of Lajas and is the only bioluminescent bay in which swimming or snorkeling is allowed.
Visiting Puerto Rico when we did reminded us of the hope, determination, and hard work which build the foundation for success. It served as reassurance that we too in the Panhandle of Florida would recover post hurricane Michael. We would come back home feeling refreshed and invigorated to get back to the rebuilding that was needed of our home, our schools, churches and community at large. However, this “Rich Port” had me intrigued and left us wanting for a lot more experience and discovery. Perhaps a visit five years after Hurricane Maria may be a nice milestone to target. #Bienvenidos2022!