“This house right here,” Jose said as he pointed out the window of the van. “This is one of the houses that we came to help. Do you see they are rebuilding the upper level? All that was gone. People were living inside that garage door in tents.”
We were driving through the small town of Punta Santiago on the east coast of Puerto Rico. It’s the town near where Hurricane Maria made landfall in September 2017, the town in that aerial photo of the handwritten and desperate “S.O.S” plea that quickly circulated around the world and came to symbolize Puerto Rico’s plight.
While today the power is back on and many homes are in the process of being rebuilt, there is still no internet. Let that sink in — 18 months after the hurricane and still no internet service. We all freak if it goes out for an hour in our own homes.
“This house here, this little one. It was all gone. We came and had to throw everything they had inside their house away. When we were finally able to come and start cleaning houses it was a month after Maria. So everything was all destroyed,” Jose further pointed out.
It was early January when I traveled to Puerto Rico with the Ocean Kayak/Old Town Canoe team to not only enjoy some time on the water, but to also see first hand how the island has recovered since Maria. We were joined by a couple of the brands’ local distributors, who over the course of a few days, would take us around to meet small paddle tour companies and talk to locals about their experience.
None of us knew what to expect before coming, as what you read in the news here on the mainland is that devastation still abounds in Puerto Rico. While you could look out of the plane window on the flight in and see a patchwork of blue tarps still covering homes and sections of mudslides or leafless trees, it became instantly clear upon landing that Puerto Rico is open for business. So much so you would be hard pressed to know on much of the island that a Category 5 hurricane came through just a year and a half ago.
And that is mostly thanks to the Puerto Ricans themselves. Not ones to wait for any federal aid or assistance which is usually never forthcoming (you just have to read a recent NY Times article about Punta Santiago to see that hundreds of thousands of people in Puerto Rico were denied aid as they have no clear title to their properties, not to mention access to insurance, savings, or credit), it was the locals that jumped in to help each other. Local business and nonprofits like P.E.C.E.S. quickly stepped up, giving as much as 90,000 people water, food, and clothing in their community during those first weeks, getting generators up and running, and clearing houses.
On one of the first mornings of our trip, we toured Old San Juan by foot and by boat (aboard La Paseadora II), a charming historic district brimming with restaurants, shops, open air markets, and museums. There was an enormous Royal Caribbean cruise ship in port that day so the pastel-colored streets were buzzing and filled with music. Our driver Ernesto told us that just last week they had seven ships docked at once.
While Old San Juan is fabulous and absolutely worth a visit, in order to help the rest of the island get back on its feet you need to venture out to the smaller towns, roadside restaurants, bed and breakfasts, and adventure tour operators. It’s here you’ll find authentic, unique experiences, not to mention amazing food — I am still dreaming about late night arepas from a tiny stand in a gas station parking lot complete with a bar for some Don Q and Coke while we waited.
Head to places like Humacao Nature Preserve on the east coast of Puerto Rico where we visited after a kayak fishing session outside the small town of Patillas. Not before gorging on mofongo — a delicious rib-sticking dish of mashed plantains and meat — at the local beach restaurant Musafá. At Humacao you can kayak through the mangroves, fish in the lagoons, or hike, bike, and bird watch along the trails. The nature preserve is known for its diverse and spectacular collection of approximately ninety bird species that have made their homes in this protected area. There are also a few families of monkeys that roam the preserve as well as a turtle population that frequents the beaches. You can explore an old sugarcane plantation that was closed down in 1970 and a World War II naval base bunker.
Christina Vazquez runs the Water Sports and Eco-Tours outfitter at the preserve where you can rent kayaks, paddleboards, and pedal boats to explore the lagoons and waterways. She spoke with us at length about her experience during and after Maria. Mere hours after the hurricane hit, she and her husband were out in the preserve with machetes trying to clear the trails and waterways.
She saw her business go from 500 visitors per month to absolutely zero, remaining that way for much of a year even though she got her business back up and running by November of 2017. It took six months longer to clear the trails. At the time we met with her, the tourist season was finally picking up but she still was only seeing 11 visitors per month — nothing like pre-Maria.
After that morning tour of old San Juan, we headed north to the town of Fajardo where Laguna Grande is one of the major bioluminescent bays of the world. Kayak tour operators line the shores like Yokahu Kayaks, whose owner Jose dreamed of running a kayak business since he was a kid, or Pure Adventure which has five local marine biologists on staff.
We paddled through a long mangrove channel to reach Laguna Grande, where fat iguanas jumped from the branches as we approached, making a huge splash in the water below. We spent some time fishing before the sun went down, waiting for total darkness and the real show to begin. Bioluminescent plankton living in the water phosphorese when you disturb the water, almost like thousands of underwater fireflies.
While the conditions were not completely favorable for an all out show (June, July, and August are the best months, supposedly) we did see some glittery diamonds when we agitated the water. But it didn’t matter, as one of my favorite moments from the entire trip was our paddle back out through the mangrove tunnel with only the light of the new moon to guide us and the soothing sound of the lapping waves. It was magical.
It reminded me of the line from Hamilton:
“In the eye of the hurricane, there is quiet.”
At the end of the night as we drank celebratory Medalla Light beers back on shore, I spoke with Sandra, one of the marine biologists at Pure Adventure about how the lagoon fared during Maria. The heavy winds and fresh water rains majorly disrupted the plankton, but the natural world has a way of creating new life from these disasters. Hopefully through adventure travel we can help the Puerto Ricans slowly rebuild their lives as well.
Kayaks: We got to play around on both the Ocean Kayak Malibu Pedal and the Old Town Topwater PDL Angler. I own a Malibu Pedal which I use often for kayak camping here in the Bay Area, so it was fun to play around on the Topwater.
With a mantra of pedal not paddle, the forward/reverse PDL Drive really does make a difference, especially when fishing. Your hands are completely free to cast and reel in your catch without worrying about dropping your paddle of having it get in the way — it remains safely stowed on the side of the boat until you need it in shallow areas.
The Topwater features numerous intelligent fishing-related amenities such as on-board rod and tackle management, and for those of you that use fish finders, a universal transducer mounting system. There are plenty of storage options, both above and below deck to accommodate all your gear.
We pedaled the Topwater out past the reef protected area in Patillas and took on some pretty big waves. Never once did I feel like I was going to tip over. The kayak is even stable enough to stand up and fish.
One thing I really like on the Topwater compared to the Malibu Pedal is the knob on the rudder control. It’s much easier to make micro adjustments as you pedal. You can also lock the rudder in position if you want maintain a heading.
AquaTech AxisGo: This super bomber watertight case for your phone lets you safely take underwater photos and videos down to 33 feet. It’s fully touchscreen compatible too, meaning you can operate your phone as normal when it is inside the case. We added on the ultra wide lens to lend a 140-degree field of view to our shots — lenses are easily interchangeable on the outside of the case. The Pistol Grip Trigger accessory makes it easy to take shots one handed and extend your reach for the perfect selfie.
Aftco Samurai Sen Protection Hoodie: Aftco sent us a variety of fishing apparel to test out and I absolutely loved this long sleeve hoodie. Super soft against the skin, the shirt gives you UPF 40 sun protection and dries super quickly should it get wet — we got caught in an absolute downpour on our paddle in from fishing and the shirt was dry by the time we made it to lunch.
Astral Brewer 2.0: In and out of the water all day, we needed one pair of shoes that could do it all. The Brewer 2.0 feature a super sticky rubber outsole with razor siping so you won’t slip getting in and out of the boat. Drainage ports in the toe and heel mean your feet won’t stay waterlogged once you get out of the water, and the mesh/nylon canvas upper dries super quickly.
Also a note on the Solitude PFD from Old Town. The high-back construction that stays out of the way of your kayak seat is absolutely brilliant. It makes pedaling/paddling all day so much more comfortable on your back.