Not sure how to give back on this Earth Day?

Consider visiting Puerto Rico, an area hard-hit by Hurricane Maria.

Earth Day good deeds come in all sizes and shapes—participating in local cleanups, committing personally to generating less waste, planting trees.

La Rogativa: A statue in Old San Juan depicting Puerto Ricans making a plea to God for help

La Rogativa: A statue in Old San Juan depicting Puerto Ricans making a plea to God for help

It is worth remembering, on this day and on every one, that the Earth needs to support all of us—animals and people. And in this past year, some people and animals and their environments have been especially hard-hit by circumstances, such as the areas devastated by Hurricane Maria last September and October.

With damage to Puerto Rico alone estimated at $8 billion accompanied by news reports about decaying infrastructure and delays in restoring power, there can be no doubt that Puerto Rico could use a little help.

And one really good way to do that is by booking a trip and heading to San Juan now.

Restoration efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Restoration efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Helping people and planet

Is vacationing in Puerto Rico really a good way to help the environment? Yes.

Having worked in the environmental field for much of my career, I appreciate the tendency to assess any given effort’s holiness. Is planting one tree enough? 2,000? What if you still wear nail polish or leather shoes or you bleach your hair or drink water out of plastic bottles? No matter what a person does, someone else can certainly criticize the effort.

At the same time, green professionals sometimes also talk about the “ghosts of sustainability projects past,” or good intentions gone awry: a group shows up somewhere to dig a well and only halfway finishes it, or inexperienced farmers plant an acre of corn next to particularly valuable trees that need the water those corn plants will now be absorbing instead. There are a million ways to help the environment (including how and where we travel) and just as many ways to hurt it, even unintentionally.

Some structures suffered severe effects from the hurricane

Some structures suffered severe effects from the hurricane

Direct aid

Certainly, one way to offer assistance is to do it directly by helping people who inhabit this planet to lead economically viable lives. And a very big hurricane can certainly have a devastating impact on the livelihoods of people in its path.

So I find myself in San Juan in November, less than two months after the hurricane, when the power is still fluctuating, tourism tends to be down, and businesses are still in the process of rebuilding and reopening. It is not my first visit to this island, but it is my best one.

Cleanup after Hurricane Maria continues

Cleanup after Hurricane Maria continues

Why? Even though I get to experience the heat more fully than I otherwise would, and some restaurants offer limited menus, and the first hotel I booked cancelled my reservation in light of the hurricane’s damage, I get to meet and talk to locals and learn about their lives much more than I would under more conventional circumstances.

Everyone in Puerto Rico has a story, of where they were when the hurricane hit, of what happened after, of how they have been sustaining themselves in the time since. I am grateful to have learned about a few.

A guilt-free visit to Puerto Rico after the storm

I was worried that I would feel uncomfortable vacationing in a destination where so many people’s lives had so recently been upended. Was it wrong to enjoy myself at a time like this? As a longtime New Yorker, though, I recalled what the mayor of New York City and others suggested that people do after the 9/11 terror attack on Manhattan: “Come to New York.”

A statue of Christopher Columbus still presides over the plaza named for him in Old San Juan

A statue of Christopher Columbus still presides over the plaza named for him in Old San Juan

Leaders in Puerto Rico are urging the same. “We’ve been encouraging travelers since late December to visit and see first-hand our comeback for themselves,” said Carla Campos, acting executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, in a press release.

“Alongside the reminder that one of the best ways people can support Puerto Rico is by visiting – staying at hotels, eating at restaurants, enjoying our Island’s activities, and buying from local businesses, our ‘we’re open for tourism’ message is being heard loud and clear, ” she continued.

Good news! Much power has been restored, and many hotels and restaurants have reopened, and have generator backup for power outages.

Old San Juan still charms

Old San Juan still charms

What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?

  • You can do something good for the planet and the people while having a good time and gaining a more authentic experience.
  • Puerto Rico’s currency is the U.S. dollar, so there will be no money-changing hassles.
  • U.S. citizens do not need a passport to enter Puerto Rico.

Take note

  • Although many hotels have generators, they are not necessarily used to power elevators. If climbing stairs is an issue, check closely with your hotel about the status of power and generators and consider requesting a room on a low floor.
  • Restaurants may have limited menus until they are fully operational.
  • Bring very light clothing and a handheld folding fan to cool yourself should air-conditioning go out.


All photo credits: M. Ciavardini


Question: Have you visited Puerto Rico since the hurricane? How was your stay?