Puerto Rico was severely damaged in 2017 when Hurricane Maria ripped through the small Caribbean island. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and millions were left without adequate housing amongst an estimated $90 billion worth of damage.
The recovery has so far been remarkable, but it still has a long way to go. As the focus shifts from clean up and dealing with the immediate aftermath to rebuilding communities, that’s where you come in.
By making the decision to travel to Puerto Rico, straight away you are supporting the country to continue to rebuild. Tourist dollars can make a huge difference in the local economy and are influential for local retailers and their livelihoods. Many of these retailers have operated successfully for a long time, but face a lack of cash flow through a drop-off in visitor numbers. They are still the high quality operators they always have been but they’ve had their business disrupted through no fault of their own.
Tourism is a resilient industry in that it can be quick to recover from natural disasters - if travelers choose to return. By comparison, industries like horticulture require crops to be re-sown and infrastructure to be repaired. Tourism is a key part of Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery, as it holds the potential to inject millions of dollars into the local economy.
From a traveller’s perspective, Puerto Rico is open for business. There’s a real sense of satisfaction to be had by helping the country get through a tough time that’s come about by a freak storm. And all you have to do is take a holiday that truly means something!
Hurricane recovery aside, now is actually a really good time to go. Puerto Rico has always been a popular tourist destination, and in 2019 the New York Times named it the number one place to travel to. Lonely Planet also named it the most popular spring break destination for 2019.
There are, of course, parts of the island still rebuilding from the effect of Hurricane Maria. However, the vast majority of tourist attractions, accommodation and eateries are operating as normal. As a visitor, you should expect to encounter signs of hurricane damage, but you should also not expect these signs everywhere you go.
Puerto Rico is also battling against the myth that it is not a safe place to travel. This could not be further from the truth. Official information has disproved attempts to argue Puerto Rico is any less safe than it always has been.
But what exactly is there to see and do in Puerto Rico?
Old San Juan is the eclectic, walled old town of Puerto Rico’s capital that is a must-see for all travellers. Cobbled streets, colored colonial architecture and character abound in a unique and captivating way. This is the beating heart of Puerto Rico’s culture and home to some of the country’s best local food, nightlife and attractions.
Puerto Rico has some of the best beach settings in the world. While away your hours sheltered under a palm tree on the clear white sand beaches or in the glistening blue Caribbean water. Like any island, there’s all matter of water sports to enjoy, including world class snorkelling and scuba diving that’s easy to get to from San Juan. On top of that, Puerto Rico boasts three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays. Best seen by kayak on a clear night, the underwater glow in these bays is other-worldly.
El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the US. Home to waterfalls, parrots, frogs and loads of other unique wildlife, the rainforest boasts stunning vistas and animal life that can be explored on foot or by car.
Puerto Rican food is a delicious mix of Mexican and island influences. Plantains are used in lots of different ways, both on their own and with meat, rice and beans to delight your taste buds. Mofongo is a popular local dish, made of plantains, meat, onions and garlic. For something unique, go for a drive in the mountains at Guavate for traditional roadside restaurants, all slow roasting some of the best pork you’ll ever have!
The coffee is also excellent. Formerly the official coffee in the Vatican, Puerto Rican coffee is distinctly smooth and rich.
Now you know you can make a difference and enjoy your trip, why not elevate that? With IVHQ you can have a truly meaningful impact by volunteering in Puerto Rico.
As a traveller going to Puerto Rico to support the community, you’ll get much more of a genuine experience than you would as just a tourist. San Juan plays host to many cruise ships and tourists who come and go in a day or two. But as a volunteer, you’ll be based in local communities with local people. You’ll actually live the Puerto Rican lifestyle, not just observe it.
IVHQ’s volunteer program is designed to help Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria by helping its people. As a volunteer in Puerto Rico, you can choose from volunteer projects that focus on different social, infrastructural and environmental aspects of Puerto Rican life. These projects target the immediate needs of the community, which will include aspects of hurricane relief. However, they are also designed to adapt as the recovery progresses, and in that sense are about setting up the long-term future of the island and its people.
With IVHQ, there are four volunteer projects available in Puerto Rico.
Young people in Puerto Rico are growing up in extremely uncertain times. This project is all about helping youth-based organizations work with young people in Puerto Rico, especially those who need a little bit of extra help. Volunteers work in community centers, day care centers and after school programs as mentors and tutors. Work involves helping with homework, playing games, sports and fostering the next generation of Puerto Rico to fulfil their potential.
As an island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico will always be at risk of potentially damaging weather systems. This project recognizes the important work that can be done to minimize the effects of climate change and to prepare for future natural disasters. Volunteers should be prepared to work hard and get their hands dirty helping with coastline and waterway conservation, raising awareness in the community about environmental issues and general support of environmental initiatives.
NGOs in Puerto Rico do all sorts of support work in local communities, especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. These organizations are often under-resourced and understaffed, so volunteers are essential to helping them operate. Volunteers can assist a wide range of NGOs with individual focuses that vary based on their goals, conditions at the time of the program and other factors. Volunteers will be matched with an organization that best aligns with your skills, interests and experience.
The grassroots of any country are its individual communities, and volunteers in Puerto Rico can play a significant role in helping local neighbourhoods regain their vibrancy. Volunteers work in the heart of local neighbourhoods in a hands-on capacity to help locals overcome challenges and live up to their potential. This project is varied, exciting and changeable based on volunteers’ strengths and interests.
Volunteers will have plenty of time to enjoy all the island has to offer on weekends, evenings and even afternoons in some cases. Volunteer accommodation is in local hostels in San Juan. Rooms are dorm-style and shared between 6-16 people. There are two hostels volunteers may stay in. Both are centrally located, close to beaches, attractions, restaurants and amenities. Staple breakfasts are provided at the volunteer accommodation. The really good thing about that is it means you have lunches and dinners to enjoy the local food yourself.
So how do you get there?
Puerto Rico is easily accessible from the United States in particular. San Juan is home to the main airport, which is just two and a half hours from Miami. Not only that, but as it’s a US territory, no passport is required for US citizens or green card holders.
It’s also made easy by using US currency and speaking English. Most people grow up speaking Spanish, or both languages, but English is commonly used. IVHQ volunteers will benefit from being able to speak Spanish, but it’s not a requirement.
There is a beautiful island paradise in the Caribbean that is a highly rated tourist destination and it’s crying out for visitors at the moment. It has an eclectic, fun capital city, stunning beaches and great food. It’s a cultural place and you can have an authentic experience living in the community as you help it to recover from a devastating natural disaster. You know you’ll be making a difference and you also know it’ll be a rewarding travel experience.
When you take all that into consideration, you’d have to have a pretty good reason for NOT going to Puerto Rico, wouldn’t you?