Photo by Alexis Antonio on Unsplash
2020 Update: Unfortunately, Puerto Rico can’t seem to catch a break. A series of strong earthquakes struck the island in early January, destroying a colonial-era church, knocking out power to the territory and collapsing the iconic Punta Ventana arch. Damage estimates are still preliminary, but it looks like another long recovery for Puerto Rico’s southwest coast.
Puerto Rico could be the perfect destination for American travelers. It’s part of the U.S., so dollars work, your cellphone works, and your health insurance works. It sounds ideal – but is it safe to travel to Puerto Rico?
While the ongoing recovery from the September 2017 hurricanes still impacts what people can do and where they can stay, from the standpoint of general safety, the answer is yes – Puerto Rico remains one of the safer destinations in the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico’s recovery
Since the storms, more than 150 hotels have opened or reopened in Puerto Rico. Many took the storms as an opportunity to remodel and reinvent themselves; others used the opportunity to become more green.
In addition, Airbnb has stepped into the lodging breach and has more than 10,000 lodging options for visitors.
In an unusual turn, the storms have actually helped spur the emergence of art, music, and food scenes on the islands, making this one of the best times to visit Puerto Rico.
And when repairs are completed to trails in the El Yunque National Forest, America’s only tropical rainforest, everything will be in place for a multidimensional tourist experience.
People seem to be picking up on the improvements. Puerto Rico made the Virtuoso “Hot 10” for summer 2019, and The New York Times recently named Puerto Rico a top destination in its annual “52 Places To Go” list.
Puerto Rico safety concerns
There are safety concerns, however. Among them:
Politics: A recent change in administration turned violent, with demonstrations in Old San Juan.
Crime: Puerto Rico has a lower crime rate than many mainland U.S. cities. However, like Mexico and some other Caribbean islands, there’s a high level of gun crime, drug trafficking, and gang activity, and a relatively high homicide rate.
Theft is also an issue – mostly of the pickpocketing-and-purse-snatching variety, spurred in part by the island’s pronounced economic inequality.
Weather: Hurricane Dorian dumped another load of wind and rain on the storm-ravaged island, though infrastructure held up much better than it did in September 2017.
At that time, hurricanes Maria and Irma left the entire territory without power and one of its dams on the verge of collapse.
Ultimately, more than 135,000 Puerto Ricans actually left their homes because of the storms.
Now, the power is back on throughout the island and just about everyone has access to clean water, though some parts of the island lack sanitation and infrastructure is not 100% restored.
Puerto Rico safety tips
Here are our top safety tips for traveling to Puerto Rico:
1. Be careful with your belongings. Don’t leave them unattended, don’t carry bags with long straps and don’t hang bags on chairs. Consider purchasing a money belt or a money-hiding infinity scarf to hide your cash.
2. Learn some Spanish. You never know when you might need to ask for directions or get help.
3. Understand local laws. You can’t drink on the streets in Old San Juan, for instance.
4. Don’t go wandering around at night, especially in San Juan, and stay away from housing projects. Gangs operate there.
5. Watch for changes in weather and weather warnings.
6. Be careful in the rainforest. Tell people where you’re going, take a map, wear shoes with good traction over wet rocks, and cover your legs and arms to protect against insects and poisonous plants.
7. Carry a basic medical kit and insect repellent with DEET. Mosquitoes can carry the Zika virus and dengue fever.
8. Swim smart. Riptides can be deadly, and you may encounter poisonous sea creatures like jellyfish. Read beach warning signs and swim parallel to a riptide if you get caught.
Puerto Rico safety tips for solo travelers
If you’re traveling by yourself, whether you’re male or female, add on these tips for solo travelers:
- Let people know where you’re going, what you’re going to be doing, and where you’ll be staying. Provide multiple people with multiple ways of contacting you. Keep their contact info with you.
- Spread around your money in different pockets. Use a credit card in lieu of carrying lots of cash.
- Research your lodgings before booking. Pay extra attention to reviews written by other solo travelers.
- Dress to blend in, not to stand out. It will keep you from attracting unwanted attention, and it may be more comfortable besides.
- Ask locals what to do, where to go, and places to eat and drink. This is the best way to find the best spots in Puerto Rico.
- Make friends with other travelers, or join a tour. You don’t have to spend all day with other travelers, but it’s a great break from the solo grind.
- Be alcohol-smart and avoid drugs, regardless if you’re staying at a resort or out on your own. Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Drink-spiking can and does happen.
- Stand up for yourself. If someone’s attention is making you feel uncomfortable, be firm but polite, and decline their advances.
- Be friendly, but restrained. Don’t tell just anybody the details of your trip, your marital status, or other personal details. If you’re in trouble, make noise. Let others know about your situation.
- Stick to busy spots where there are lots of other people if you have to walk anywhere after dark.
Puerto Rico safety tips for families
From the El Yunque rainforest to the bioluminescent waters of Mosquito Bay to the caves of Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy, Puerto Rico has the tropical beaches and clean sand that make it perfect for families.
Here are tips on what families can do to have a great, safe time in Puerto Rico:
Accommodations: There’s a range of accommodation options in Puerto Rico. Look for beach rentals or resorts with kids’ clubs.
Activities: Most hiking trails, like the short trail up to Mt. Britton in El Yunque National Forest, are older-kid-friendly. Still, it’s important to wear long sleeves when hiking, carry a first-aid kit and plenty of water and snacks, and use sunscreen and insect repellent with DEET.
Water and beaches: Much of that advice goes double when you’re on the beach. Remember sunscreen and insect repellent, and never let your kids out of your sight whenever they’re in the water.
Attractions: Check opening and closing hours for attractions before you go or call ahead. Hours can vary or may not be consistently followed.
Safe driving in Puerto Rico
Driving in Puerto Rico can be challenging. Not all roads or traffic signals have been fully repaired or maintained since the hurricanes, and drivers tend to be aggressive and often pay scant attention to traffic laws. If you do decide to drive in Puerto Rico, follow these safety tips:
Roads: In Old San Juan and other urban areas, traffic can be horrible; on the other hand, driving in rural areas and on mountain roads can be frightening – narrow, rutted roads with sheer dropoffs and animals wandering into the path of oncoming traffic.
Navigation: GPS systems can be iffy in Puerto Rico. Having a good map and some Spanish phrases so you can ask for directions is a good idea.
Personal safety: Keep all valuables out of sight when your car is parked. When you’re driving, keep windows up and doors locked. Carjackings can happen at night, especially in rural areas.
Rentals, rideshares, and public transportation
If you decide to rent or leave the driving to someone else, follow these safety tips:
Rental cars: There’s generally a good supply of rental cars, but reservations are recommended. So is solid rental-car insurance.
Rideshares: Ubers and other rideshares are safe in Puerto Rico, but can be unreliable, with spotty service. Often a taxi is a better option, especially at night. Look for cars that say “Taxi Touristico” on the side. Ask your hotel concierge to get you a taxi or recommend a place to get one.
Mass transit: Public transport in Puerto Rico is generally safe, but all forms of Puerto Rican public transport – buses, trams, and trolleys – can have service issues, with routes that aren’t always tourist-friendly.
Keep a hand on your bags when taking public transport, and don’t stow anything in an overhead bin or compartment.
Food safety in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico can be a great place to eat. Food trucks serve up some amazing street food, and high-end cuisine is undergoing a renaissance.
In general, try to follow these tips when eating in Puerto Rico:
- Don’t go where the tourists go. Avoid the highly advertised places with bilingual menus, especially in popular tourist areas like Old San Juan. For a genuine eating experience, avoid the hotel restaurant and ask some locals instead.
- Go where the locals go. Go to restaurants and food trucks that have a lot of local traffic. Avoid poorly patronized places where the food looks like it’s been sitting around all day.
- Take your time. You can’t eat everything at once. Taste, sample, and leave room for dessert.
- Trust the water – but verify. In cities, most water is drinkable; in the outlying areas, not so much. Ask locals if the water’s safe to drink; otherwise, drink bottled water or carry a water bottle that you fill from a reputable source.
The good news for American travelers who get sick or injured in Puerto Rico is that your health insurance will likely cover many of your expenses. The healthcare system is one of the best in the Caribbean, and 911 calls work the same way they do stateside.
Still, travel medical insurance with emergency evacuation coverage is a good idea.
As Puerto Rico continues its long journey back to normal, residents and tourists alike have found that the definition of “normal” has changed – but mostly in a good way. Puerto Rico is a pleasant surprise for many visitors to the territory, and that seems likely to continue.
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