Connecting Travelers with Puerto Rican Locals for Personalized Trips
ViaHero, a peer-to-peer platform, will help travelers make the best of their vacation to Puerto Rico.
By Kayla McMillan
Hurricane Maria struck land in Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. The tragic destruction of a beautiful island put Puerto Rico out of power in most areas and destroyed much of its beauty that visitors have come to know and love.
One year later, the island that depends so much on tourism is ready for its travelers to return.
“The tourism industry has recovered, and we are ready and willing and eager to welcome visitors,” says Brad Dean, CEO of Discover Puerto Rico told USA Today.
Since the 2017 natural disaster, over 4,000 restaurants, 189 attractions, 13 golf courses, and 16 casinos have re-opened. The island has 14 cruise ships making ports, which is four more than last year. Airlines are making 110 daily flights to the island right now. Before the hurricane, there were 120 to 130 daily flights. Directly after the hurricane, there were just 20.
It hasn’t been an easy year for the U.S. territory popularly known for its beaches and Caribbean flavor. It was only on August 14, 2018, almost an entire year later that the electric company finally restored power to the final home that lost it.
The government has spent a lot of time trying to rebuild the tourism industry because it brings in so much money to the island.
ViaHero, a peer-to-peer platform where travelers can hire locals to plan unique, personalized trips, is expanding its destinations to include Puerto Rico. ViaHero provides travelers with one-of-a-kind travel experiences by connecting them with locals who serve as direct-access experts.
Puerto Rico will become ViaHero’s first American destination in November of 2019. The service provides travelers with a local “hero” of their choice with shared interests to create a custom guidebook.
This relationship between the traveler and hero mitigates the uncertainty and unease of traveling to a foreign land without ruining the authenticity.
Heroes will offer their true opinions and recommendations for a flat rate and no commission agreements. With this help, travelers can avoid the typical tourist travel experience and gain some independence in their trip.
Travelers are provided with interactive maps, travel arrangements, and unlimited access to their Hero throughout their adventure. ViaHero’s expansion to Puerto Rico comes at an interesting time for travelers curious to discover the island. Finding reliable information about traveling to the area is evolving daily as it continues to recover from Hurricane Maria.
By expanding their options to Puerto Rico, ViaHero is beneficial for both locals and travelers. Trip planning fees go straight to the Heroes.
For Heroes, it’s easy to help new travelers; as long as they’re reliable, knowledgeable, and have access to a phone, laptop, and WiFi, they have the opportunity to lead vacationers in the right direction.
Additionally, Heroes make recommendations based on the people, places, and things they know best. This guarantees tourism dollars spread far and wide within local communities.
ViaHero currently has Heroes in Colombia, Cuba, and Japan. Puerto Rico service begins November 19th. For more information, visit viahero.com.
Aside from donating to charity, ViaHero’s website says “traveling to Puerto Rico is the best way to help the island recover from Hurricane Maria.” Hurricane Maria caused over 80 billion dollars in damages. Tourism dollars have become an extremely important part of Puerto Rico’s economy.
“Basically, every minute you spend sipping piña coladas on the white sands of a pristine Puerto Rican beach, you’re aiding the island’s recovery effort. Total win-win.”
One of the major new developments settled to open at the end of the year is District San Juan, a $125 million entertainment complex. It will include a concert space for up to 6,000 people, an eight-screen movie theater, a 23,000 square-foot day and night club, and more than 15 bars, restaurants, and fast-casual eateries. It will also have a 175-room Aloft Hotel by Marriott.
Tourism certainly took a big hit the first few months after Hurricane Maria, but hotels, communities, and organizations have been working hard to restore the tourist areas in order to continue giving visitors an incredible experience.
Many visitors are worried about the beaches: are they safe for swimming? The answer is yes; the beaches of Puerto Rico are ready for visitors to enjoy.
Some of the beaches became ready as soon as one month after Hurricane Maria. Community organizations worked really hard to clean up debris, fallen trees and seagrass on the shores.
See what ViaHero’s Co-Founder Greg Buzulencia says about Puerto Rico Tourism
What are some of the most popular attractions in Puerto Rico?
Oh man, Puerto Rico is DENSE with attractions. Seriously, for an island so small, it’s packed with amazing things to do. Travelers love Old San Juan—it’s a perfectly-preserved Spanish colonial town, complete with cobblestone streets, brightly-colored buildings, and amazing history.
You’ll stumble across the old city walls and fortifications wherever you go, which are likewise amazing. The 17th-century Castillo San Felipe del Morro and its sister fort, Castillo San Cristobal (both in Old San Juan) are amazing, as are the views of the ocean.
Aside from Old San Juan, La Placita de Santurce—located in San Juan’s Santurce neighborhood—is an amazing experience for travelers.
By day, it’s an outdoor market; by night, it’s the hotspot for San Juan nightlife. Basically, it’s where most travelers fall head-ovc the United States) which is, as the description implies, one-of-a-kind. Vieques Island (off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico proper) is known for its AMAZING bioluminescent bay (courtesy of the millions of glowing microscopic critters that live in its waters).
It’s definitely one of the most popular attractions for off-the-beaten-path adventurers, as the nighttime kayak trips are unparalleled. Vieques is also known for the bands of wild horses that roam the island’s black-sand beaches (and occasionally take a dip next to travelers).
There’s Culebra island—also off the eastern coast of PR proper—that’s known for its incredibly chill vibes and amazing beaches. Flamenco Beach, for example, is consistently ranked as one of the top ten beaches in the world. It’s, in a word, idyllic.
There’s amazing snorkeling nearly everywhere in Puerto Rico, including Culebra, Vieques, Cabo Rojo, even in San Juan. Coral surrounds so much of the island, it’s easy to see amazing fish, sea critters, and even sea turtles.
The towns of Ponce and Rincon are likewise popular with visitors; Ponce for its amazing culture, fantastic museums, and incredible architecture (it’s listed in the international register of art nouveau destinations) and Rincon for its unreal beaches (it’s known as the surfing capital of Latin America).
The Arecibo Observatory is also a super-popular attraction (for many years it was the largest single-aperture telescope in the world and it featured prominently in the finale of the James Bond film Goldeneye), and the Rio Camuey cave system is always a traveler favorite.
But really, Puerto Rico is so much more than just the popular attractions. It’s the off-the-beaten-path treasures that set it apart. The swimming holes in the jungle, the incredible food (look up “La Ruta de Lechon”), the beaches no one but locals know about. That’s why we at ViaHero do what we do.
Should visitors be concerned about the possibility of businesses and excursions affected by the hurricane?
That’s a great question, and one we get all the time. The irony is that Puerto Rico is—as far as visitors are conerened—almost completely recovered from the hurricane.
Don’t get me wrong, lots of Puerto Ricans are still struggling and the island is still rebuilding. But since the storm, Puerto Rico has put (literally) millions of dollars into tourism; they’ve even created a new DMO, Discover Puerto Rico.
To put it bluntly, Puerto Rico needs tourism dollars to recover, so they’re making really sure to reopen everything possible, as quickly as possible.
Is the island safe for travel after a year of cleanup post-hurricane?
Oh, absolutely! You know, Puerto Rico gets a really bad rap, which is totally undeserved. It’s actually one of the safest places in Latin America, and statistically, it’s safer than a LOT of US states (including California, Washington, Oregon, etc.)
The areas that are still struggling to clean up and recover are far off the beaten path, and the odds of a traveler ending up there are almost nil.
The water is good to drink, the major cities are entirely rebuilt (everywhere except the most impoverished areas, predictably), and it’s life as usual for almost everyone—and it has been, now, for months. We hear the same thing over and over from travelers: if they hadn’t known about the storm, they never would’ve guessed anything had happened.
Are the beaches safe for swimming?
Holy guacamole yes! The beaches aren’t just safe for swimming—like I mentioned above, they’re literally ranked as some of the best in the world. San Juan alone has over a dozen swimmable beaches, all with their own distinct attractions.
You have to remember: this is the Caribbean. The beaches here are just as beautiful and safe for swimming (more so, in many cases, thanks to lifeguards and helpful locals) as the beaches in the Virgin Islands and the Bahamas.
Is there anything not open to the public currently for visitors?
There are still a couple of big attractions recovering from Maria, though most of these are partially open nevertheless. The Rio Camuey cave system is partially shut to visitors (though you can still go to Cueva Ventana, one of the most famous views in Puerto Rico).
Some parts of El Yunque are closed as well, though mostly just the tourist sites. The trailheads are all open, and tours are still running. Then, of course, there are the off-the-beaten-track attractions in the island’s interior, which are case-by-case.
What’s the best way to visit the island? Ex. Is renting a car the best option?
Another great question! It totally depends on what you want to do. If you plan to stay in the greater San Juan area, you can use Uber to get around—it’s cheap and easy. If you want to do some exploring, renting a car is often the best option (and what we’d recommend).
Extra traveling facts for the island!
- All US phone plans work in Puerto Rico! Many major carriers don’t charge roaming either!
- Puerto Rico uses the US Dollar.
- You do not need any special vaccinations to visit the island. If you don’t already have your Hepatitis A and Typhoid vaccines (which most people do) the CDC recommends getting them—but only if you’re planning on spending a lot of time in extremely rural areas.
- Zika does exist in Puerto Rico, but it is very rare. If you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, you should talk with your doctor before traveling to Puerto Rico or anywhere else that has experienced Zika.
- Puerto Rico uses 100v outlets, just like the rest of the US.
- Puerto Rico’s climate is always warm and a bit humid, but never terribly hot. Daily highs and lows all range within the 70s and 80s. Certain areas of the island can be a bit warmer or cooler than others depending on the season and location, but not too much.
- Uber serves the greater San Juan area, which includes the entire northeastern half of the island.
Kayla McMillan is a travel journalist from New Jersey. She hopes to integrate her passions for writing and photography throughout her travels.