Puerto Rico was the first tourism commercial I ever saw, or at least that I remember seeing. When it first aired in the mid 1990s. Native singer Ricky Martin was pictured walking through several sunny points of interest while inviting mainland gringos to “visit exotic Puerto Rico—no passport required!”
A lot has changed since. Americans now skip TV commercials with a DVR or YouTube click. I’m no longer an awkward teenager (although I’m still awkward). And the unique U.S. commonwealth was decades away from the crippling and defeating debt crisis it faces today.
Nevertheless, my desire to visit the Spanish-speaking American island never died. It was rekindled last year after writing a story on European-like cities in North America. And it was christened this spring when I purposely scheduled a long layover in the capital of San Juan while returning home from Anguilla.
Although my single-district speed run in no way does Puerto Rico justice, this is what I observed during my short time there.
Foreign but Familiar
It’s fun to be in a foreign-speaking and Spanish-looking land powered by American infrastructure—namely dollars, U.S. cell service, and overall security. And that’s precisely what the 500 year old cobble street blocks of Old San Juan do so well. As a separate isle from greater San Juan, it’s basically a U.S.-controlled Gibraltar in eastern Caribbean. Either way, it’s fantastic.
During my visit, I encountered several Southerners, Hispanic Americans, and port-of-call cruisers all taking advantage of Puerto Rico’s close proximity and conveniences. The no passport required policy seem to be a big draw for many domestic travelers I encountered. Unfortunately for Puerto Rico, that same proximity and familiarity might come at a price.
The Debt Crisis Demeans It
Sadly, many historic buildings are now closed … or open on a limited basis due to budget cuts. Given the country’s almost 70% debt-to-income ratio, more reductions and closures are probably coming. For example, basic trash removal no longer appears to be in the budget. Many of the national historic sites I visited within Old San Juan were littered with bottles, beer cans, and scraps of paper.
Still More to See
Current problems aside, I believe Puerto Rico can and will do well as a travel destination. In addition to Old San Juan, there’s so much more I hope to see in my next proper visit. For instance, I wanna hike Window Cave (pictured); explore the Yunque and Carabali rainforests; kayak Bioluminescent Bay; do nothing on Flamenco, Blue, and Caracas beaches; and visit the islands of Vieques and Culebrita.
Some twenty years later, Ricky Martin’s invitation still rings true.
Off the Grid columnist Blake Snow writes epic stories for fancy publications and Fortune 500 companies. Follow him @blakesnow