On Wednesday, September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico. The Category 4 storm—with winds that clocked as high as 155 mph—devastated the island and caused billions of dollars in damage. Maria decimated the island’s power grid, leaving all 3.4 million residents without electricity. Waist-deep water flooded parts of San Juan, neighborhoods were reduced to rubble, and communications crippled.

To make matters worse, the United States government—which had been swift to aid Texas and Florida, both hit just a few weeks earlier by different catastrophic storms—horribly mishandled its response in providing (or even allowing) emergency and humanitarian aid to the island quickly and efficiently.

“The island was destroyed by the hurricane. The hotels on the island were destroyed,” recalls Joe Colon, managing director of Camara de Comercio LGBTTQ Puerto Rico, the island’s chamber of commerce for queer-owned businesses and an organization that worked hard to provide food and shelter to the most vulnerable members of Puerto Rico’s LGBTQ community in the wake of the storm. “We have not had tourism for a whole year. But our island is so naturally beautiful, and our people are so welcoming. We are a work in progress, but we are getting back to normal.”

Photo by Michele Falzone/Getty Images

“Many hotels and retail stores were closed for months after the hurricane,” explains Gabriel Vazquez, a 25-year-old local working at one of San Juan’s hotels. “A lot of gay people lost their jobs, and many of them left the island. It’s definitely noticeable when I go out to a bar or club. Hopefully some of them will come back.”

If there were anything positive to be said about Maria, it might be that some resort renovations, infrastructure rehabs, and attraction upgrades, which were needed even before the storm hit, were fast-tracked as a result of it. Presently, there are 135 hotels currently open and operating across the island, not to mention nearly 200 tourist attractions and more than 4,000 restaurants. Sure, the occasional shuttered storefront or a cordoned-off piece of land where a building may have stood last year are still visible in San Juan, but for someone unfamiliar with how the city looked in early 2017, everything appeared normal: Puerto Rico was open for business.

Photo by Bill Ross / Getty Images


I saw nothing but the picture-perfect tropical scenery of swaying palm trees and aquamarine sky out the car window as we made our way from Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport to the AC Hotel San Juan Condado, a sleek, modern property with spacious rooms and a contemporary art-filled lobby, located in one of the city’s poshest neighborhoods.

With a few hours free before dinner, I decided to head out and explore Ashford Avenue, the area’s main thoroughfare. Even in the afternoon heat, there were quite a few people out enjoying the various shops, casinos, and cafés along the way.

Shortly after sunset, we headed to Santaella, a local hotspot known for its namesake chef’s modern take on Puerto Rican cuisine. Stylish patrons (many of whom were queer couples) packed the dining room, filling the space with lively conversation as swoon-worthy servers brought out satisfying dishes like alcapurrias, cassaba fritters with wild-caught crab (above), and fried red snapper with chimichurri and tostones.

After dinner, we decided to stop into Puerto Rico’s only leather bar, The Bear Tavern, for a nightcap. If you’re looking for fancy, this place isn’t it. However, whatever The Bear Tavern lacks in pretense it more than makes up in the way of friendly locals, strong drinks, and a relaxed vibe. In fact, everything sort of blended together in a way that left me feeling like I’d crashed a party in someone’s garage, welcomed like a long-lost friend.


We decided a guided walking tour would be the best way to explore Old San Juan. From the Castillo San Felipe del Morro—the 16th-century citadel built to protect the port—to the colorful building façades lining the cobblestone streets, this area of the city, the second oldest established city in the New World, offers a lot in terms of sightseeing and Instagram-worthy photo ops.

We started our exploration of the neighborhood with breakfast at La Bombonera, a soda fountain/diner open since 1902, famous for its mallorcas, a grilled buttery bread dusted with powdered sugar you can eat plain or filled with egg, meat, and cheese.

Photo by Gabriel Vazquez

Since we worked up quite a thirst ambling around Old San Juan, we decided a visit to Casa Bacardi was in order. After a welcome cocktail in the Bat Bar pavilion, we were taken on a guided tour of the world’s largest premium rum distillery and then into a mixology class where were learned the proper way to make mojitos, daiquiris, and Cuba libres. We then drank our work.

Our evening began at Azucena, another chic and lively eatery offering up innovative fare like duck confit egg rolls (above), or fillet de chillo (a local fish) over a mashed plantain mofongo.

We ended the evening at Circo. If you want divas in drag, thumping dance music, and lots of eye candy, this is your place.


The spectacular ocean view at the Serafina Beach Hotel’s A Mare restaurant, where we brunched on brioche French toast and salmon Benedict, inspired me to seek out a little surf and sand time for myself. I headed to San Juan’s gay beach, located adjacent to the Atlantic Beach Hotel. A dozen or so sunbathers had set up camp in the sand, giving this a much more relaxed vibe than your typical gay beach.

Just before sunset we headed back to Old San Juan and climbed aboard The Amazing Grace for a sunset sail around the port, offering us spectacular views of the city. We followed this with a truly amazing dining experience at Marmalade. We opted for the group dining experience, which offered sharable plates like bite-sized paellas (above) and horseradish potato gnocchi with braised short rib followed by an individual entree like smoked pork cheeks or lamb tagine.

So, yes, Puerto Rico is open and ready for you to visit. And, with all it has to offer—including the many, many beautiful and friendly locals—we can’t help but wonder: Why haven’t you booked a ticket yet?

Bryan van Gorder usually writes about the places he’s been or the famous people forced to talk to him.