Without fail, when I mentioned to friends and family my upcoming trip to Puerto Rico, everyone's reaction was pretty much the same. Mostly a combination of confused looks and concerned comments about the state of the island. I guess it's understandable since most people on the mainland still have images fresh in their memory of the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017. Even though the small Caribbean US territory had suffered terrible losses due to the storm, Puerto Rico and its resilient people today are all about restoring and rebuilding to be better than ever, while moving towards becoming a more sustainable and self-sufficient island. In fact, the saying I heard time and time again from locals is their excitement for the island's "new beginnings," symbolizing a rebirth after losing almost everything to the storm.
On our first day in Puerto Rico and after a blissful night's rest at Hyatt House San Juan, we embarked on a three hour Old San Juan Walk & Taste Tour by strolling through the cobblestone streets and popping into cafés to sample local, sustainably-sourced eats. We indulged in ham and cheese mallorcas and home grown/house roasted coffee at Café Don Ruiz, savored a chickpea and fish stew made from a 1850s recipe while sipping on a mojito at Princess Gastrobar, swooned over the creamy white sauced grilled chicken mofongo at Hecho en Casa, and welcomed the refreshing all-natural popsicles at Señor Paleta. In between all the food tasting, we learned about San Juan's culture and history while admiring the colonial Spanish architecture and local art. One of our favorites was the colorful Calle Fortalez umbrella sky, an inspiring art exhibit displaying multi-colored umbrellas "floating" between buildings leading to the Governor's mansion.
Next up, we took a ferry across the Old San Juan bay to Catano and the Casa Bacardi distillery, the world's largest premium rum distillery. Bacardi has been on a sustainability mission for years with their global rum operations by enforcing efforts for zero solid waste to landfill, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water usage during production, recycle/repurpose material programs, and by holding suppliers to high sustainability standards. Their efforts were evident on our visit, as we spied wind turbines that were installed almost a decade ago to help provide power for the visitor center. We started the Casa Bacardi Historical Tour with Rum Tasting by relaxing at the outside waterfront Bat Bar Pavilion with a classic rum cocktail (served straw-free) and ended the tour with a tasting session of six rums.
Two of the restaurants we visited were able to complete their openings post-Maria even though they were in the midst of construction when the storm hit, further exemplifying the "New Beginnings" theme. We experienced a flawless dinner at the newly opened Vianda, a restaurant that has emerged as one of the best destinations for Puerto Rico's farm-to-table movement. Owned by a husband and wife team, this restaurant is fully committed to supporting local farmers and their passion is reflected on every plate. Standout dishes were a butternut squash soup topped with a hazelnut sabayon, a papaya salad with tamarind, peanuts, and fried shallots and a 'Tom Kha' bacalao with a fresh coconut sauce, chili oil, and crispy rice. Honesty, I'd take a trip back to San Juan just to eat again at Vianda. Café Comunión was only a few weeks away from opening when it sustained flood damage from the storm. Undaunted by this setback, the cafe's owners sold coffee outside the shop to raise money for the restoration process. Through the community's support, this hip coffee cafe is now thriving and is the ideal place to enjoy velvety smooth cups of java with chorizo avocado toast, almond croissants, and yogurt bowls with homemade granola and fresh fruit.
For an authentic taste of Puerto Rico's history, travel away from the city to learn about the indigenous people of Puerto Rico (The Taínos) through La Ruta Taina, a series of significant sites running north to south, from Arecibo to Ponce. We visited Cueva del Indio and climbed to the top of a rocky sea-level cave to peer at the ancient petroglyphs while enjoying breathtaking sea views. We concluded the day with a guided tour (and Instagram worthy moment) of the limestone Cueva Ventana "window cave."
On our last day, we stopped by the Ocean Lab Brewing Co. for a brewery tour, beer tasting, and a delicious meal with a fabulous beach view. This oceanfront microbrewery is located inside the Vivo Beach Club and serves up its award-winning craft beer against the gorgeous blue waves. It's one place you don't want to miss before flying back home!
Puerto Rico's economy is largely supported by tourism, so what better way to support their "New Beginnings" than to visit this beautiful island and to sample their diverse culinary and cultural offerings.
All expenses for this article were provided by Hyatt House by Hyatt. Opinions are the writer’s own.