The Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) recently invited me to go on an American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) pre-conference familiarization trip. I had hoped for the trip to dispel some of the negative write-ups that have surfaced about Puerto Rico in recent months by interviewing key figures in Puerto Rico. I had especially requested to interview PRTC’s executive director, Mario González Lafuente – a request that was granted prior to the trip, but ultimately did not materialize, because Mr. Mario Gonzales Lafuente decided to “take off for Spain” less than 24 hours before the scheduled interview. (Mr. Lafuente, I know you are reading this. Make it so, sir, that the interview happens. There are issues that need to be addressed. Even some of the hoteliers in San Juan have given me a couple of questions to ask you.) So, on count one, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company failed in not seizing the moment.
For the trip, the group consisted of ASTA staff and three other journalists, whose presence on the trip somehow boggled me as they had already been to Puerto Rico. What’s worse is that one of the journalists who was flown from California was born in Puerto Rico and she was off to see her parents after the so-called “familiarization trip.” Why in the world would they bring journalists to a press trip if they had already been there? It wasn’t the case that they were covering an event, because the actual ASTA event doesn’t take place until April of this year. For me, the presence of the three other journalists somehow defeated the purpose. I was the lone journalist who had never been to Puerto Rico. So, on count two, Puerto Rico Tourism is not for first timers only.
That said there are many things Puerto Rico Tourism has to offer. For one thing, Puerto Rico is not a destination for the faint of heart when it comes to gastronomy. Tourists must be adventurous in trying some of the local foods. My first night entailed a dinner at Coko Restaurant in El San Juan Hotel and Casino, located in San Juan’s district of Isla Verde, where I was introduced to a delectable local favorite called Mofongo – a fried plantain-based dish, served with just the right portion of seared mero. The dining experience is exactly what one would expect in a fine-dining restaurant in, say, Las Vegas, and rightfully so, as the Coko Restaurant is home to one of Puerto Rico’s renowned chefs, Hector Crespo of Aguaviva fame.
One need not dine at a fancy restaurant, however, to experience Puerto Rico’s flavorful dishes. At the San Sebastian Street Festival, an annual four-day event in the center of San Juan, party revelers can easily grab “pinchos,” grilled pork or chicken kabobs on a stick with plantain. A meal including pinchos and a serving of acerola juice seemed to be the most favored combo served at the street festival. On count three, Puerto Rico Tourism is not for the food-shy type.
Speaking of the San Sebastian Street Festival, Puerto Rico Tourism is definitely not for claustrophobic tourists. If a crowd is what you want to avoid, then you certainly do not want to be in San Juan during the first or second weekend of January (this year, it was held from January 10-13) because an estimated 150,000 Puerto Ricans flock the streets of Old San Juan for four consecutive days and become “Party” Ricans. That entails a lot of dancing, music, and boozing. The event is quite a spectacle, one that must be witnessed by tourists as a by-stander, not as participant, because it gets old very quickly. But, if you want to party, which means you love the crowd-mingling and perpetual partying for four days, then San Juan is your destination during the first and second weekend of every January. Think of it as San Juan’s version of the famous Carnival in Rio, but on a much, much smaller scale.
Also, San Juan is a famous port of call for many cruise ships. This being the case, this quickly adds to the crowd element that I just spoke about. I was told that San Juan accommodates as many as 7 to 8 cruise ships during the peak season. Do the math. That many visitors could potentially be on the streets of San Juan along with its 2 million inhabitants in a destination that offers parties, parties, and more parties. Once you find your bearing, a good time can be had, as Puerto Ricans sure know how to throw quite a festive gathering. On count four, Puerto Rico Tourism is not for tourists who are afraid of crowds.
For a destination that claims to offer surf, sand, and sun, Puerto Rico Tourism surely is lacking in the sand and sun departments. At least I can say this much about San Juan – during my brief stint in the city, the only sand I saw was the minuscule “beach area” at the Caribe Hilton. Sure, there are ample surfing areas, but the same cannot be said about sand areas in San Juan. This is where the problem of erosion comes in. As to what the government of Puerto Rico’s response (or the lack thereof) to the problem is, even workers at the Caribe Hotel are wondering. They admitted that it is a concern for them, as they are an oceanfront property. On count five, Puerto Rico Tourism is not for those looking to bask under the sun on various sandy beaches.
Being that Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States (or to be politically correct, a Commonwealth), the destination acts and functions just like any other state in the US, albeit a very expensive one. The value of the US dollar in San Juan is what one would expect in cities like San Francisco, Honolulu, New York City, or even Miami. From accommodation to dining and other trip expenses, everything can get expensive very quickly. Nightly rates at the Caribe Hilton range from US$193 to US$250. Add that to a night at Coko Restaurant, which has dinner entrées in the mid-US$20 to high US$30 range, and you are looking to spend big bucks for a few days in San Juan. Everyone transacts in US dollar, and hardcore gamblers will find that credit cards become their greatest ally when hitting the casinos in San Juan. How and why this works, you’d have to visit San Juan to find out. On count six, Puerto Rico Tourism is not for the frugal.
While in Puerto Rico, it was made known to some islanders that I was on the island, and some had requested a meeting, so I granted one. The person I met up with and continue to correspond with is Raul Colon. Mr. Colon had much to share about life on the island. His sentiments echoed one that belongs to a frustrated individual over various issues, including animal cruelty. According to Mr. Colon’s account, animals that are hit by cars are left to die on the streets – a common problem in areas outside of San Juan. While I personally did not see any such incidents during my visit, various email correspondences with Mr. Colon unfortunately show a different picture. So, as a warning to potential tourists, know that until a person of authority dispels it, Puerto Rico Tourism, on count seven, is not for pet lovers.
This is part one of my series of articles on Puerto Rico Tourism which I hope to end with my interview with PRTC executive director Mario Gonzales Lafuente.