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Is Puerto Rico Safe? Tips From an Expat Turned Full-Time Resident

Is Puerto Rico Safe? Tips From an Expat Turned Full-Time Resident

Note (May 27, 2021): Due to Coronavirus, Puerto Rico has travel restrictions currently in place. There is reduced capacity at restaurants and nightlife venues are not yet open. Nevertheless, travel to the island has resumed and your visit is encouraged provided you comply with all restrictions in place. 

I moved to Puerto Rico several months ago and am constantly asked, “Is Puerto Rico safe?” 

The answer is a big, resounding YES. I’ll say it a little louder for the folks in the back — YES! Puerto Rico is safe to travel to and you should definitely book that trip you’ve been stressing over.

Allow me to elaborate. 

Brief History of Puerto Rico

Arrows pointing to different destinations showing distance

For those of you unfamiliar with the island, Puerto Rico is a stretch of land spanning 100 x 35 miles in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was discovered by Christopher Colombus and throughout the years became a unique blend of African, Taino and European cultures. 

Today, Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States. It has a governor but no representation in Congress and Puerto Ricans do not vote in national elections.

Puerto Ricans are United States citizens by birth. There is no passport required to visit Puerto Rico and your phone works the same as it does in the U.S., no roaming required. 

In terms of natural beauty, Puerto Rico is comparable to Hawaii. It’s a tropical paradise and home to the only rainforest in the United States. It has bioluminescent bays, thousands of caves, untouched beaches and diverse flora and fauna. 

2017 Hurricanes

Looking out the window of an old lighthouse

So why has Puerto Rico been seeing a drop in visitors in recent years, while Hawaii has been seeing a boost?

This was not always the case. In fact, Puerto Rico was receiving unprecedented international attention after the song Despacito hit the #1 spot on Billboard charts worldwide. 

Unfortunately, Hurricanes Maria and Irma in the fall of 2017 devastated the island. Many buildings sustained damage such that it was no longer profitable for the businesses to remain there, having to incur the cost of rebuilding.

Federal relief funds were slow to trickle down to the people, if at all. A large percentage of the island was without power and it was hard to find even the basics like food or gasoline. Banks were closed so people had no way to withdraw money and no cash to pay for anything, leaving them stuck. 

The damage was so bad, and the surrounding press so negative, that people equated Puerto Rico with devastation. They still do and have not returned in the same pre-hurricane numbers to the island, despite the New York Times naming it the #1 place to visit in 2019.

Over the past few years American tourists have chosen to visit neighboring islands like Cuba or the Dominican Republic instead.

Royal Caribbean has stated that in 2020 it will be decreasing the number of cruise ships it brings to Puerto Rico due to disagreements over the port infrastructure and payment for upgrades. 

Why I Moved to Puerto Rico

Walking in front of a mural of the Puerto Rican flag

What’s my story? I was born on the island and lived here till I was 6. I am Puerto Rican and speak fluent Spanish but make no mistake about it — with my light skin, most Puerto Ricans assume I’m a gringa

My family, like so many others, moved to the mainland in search of a better life and higher paying opportunities. I’m grateful for the sacrifices they made and for all the best parts of my childhood that I took for granted, like participating in extra-curricular activities and reading a new book at the library every day after school. 

Recently, I moved back to Puerto Rico as an adult. I visited as a child but it’s different when you face the day-to-day challenges of living here.

I shipped my car over, for instance, because it was cheaper to pay $2,500 in shipping and taxes than to try to find a used car and ascertain past damage. There are no leases on the island. 

I’ve traveled many places but I can’t live just anywhere. I applaud the people who backpack for years at a time, living only out of the contents of their suitcase and eating a new food every day. I need a little more stability than that, and some creature comforts I’ve gotten used to as a spoiled American. 

For instance, I can’t live without a Walgreens or CVS. You don’t realize it when you have one on every corner but outside of the U.S. it’s hard to find a one-stop-shop for medicine, feminine products, snacks, alcohol. In Puerto Rico, they’re everywhere.

RELATED POST: 22 AMAZING DAY TRIPS FROM SAN JUAN

Puerto Rico is Part of the United States

Castle in San Juan overlooking the ocean

Puerto Rico has U.S. street signs, U.S. law enforcement, U.S. hospitals. The police don’t carry machine guns, something that’s always put me on edge about other countries. People drive on the right side of the road.

All children learn English in school and everyone speaks it (unless they’re so old they’ve forgotten or they’re just messing with you). It’s just like being in the U.S., because Puerto Rico is part of the U.S. 

I can’t stress that enough. Most people who ask “is Puerto Rico safe?” wouldn’t think twice about visiting somewhere like Portland or Austin. San Juan is just like any other major city in the U.S. and Puerto Rico is just like any other state. You shouldn’t fear it. 

Looking for the State Department Travel Advisory on Puerto Rico? You won’t find one, because it’s part of the U.S. The same way you won’t find one on Alabama. Let’s not debate the merits of that decision. 

If you’re in the San Juan metropolitan area, which is where most tourists stay, you’ll have all the same amenities as home including Uber Eats, Lyft and a ton of different concerts, events and gyms. These are harder to find elsewhere.

Regardless of where you’re staying renting a car is the best way to get around since public transportation is not really well developed here. 

Why are People Scared of Puerto Rico?

Is it safe to travel to Puerto Rico?

As with any new place, you want to be cautious. Don’t leave your valuables in plain sight when you park your car. Be careful driving at night (and in general cause people drive like New Yorkers here). Take it easy on the partying if you need to keep your wits about you. 

Puerto Rico is safe but it’s not without its problems. I’ve been repeatedly warned of carjackings. Honda Civics seem to be the most in demand.

There’s also issues with gangs and drug wars on the island. If you’re staying in San Juan I wouldn’t suggest going to La Perla at night. For the most part though, this won’t involve you.

Weed is legal on the island. Tourists can get a tourist prescription valid for 30 days and go to a dispensary. Unless you’re looking for harder stuff you shouldn’t be in a situation where you’re in the middle of a drug war.

I’ve lived in the U.S. almost all my life and have yet to have an altercation with a heroine or coke dealer, for instance, despite knowing that they’re there. 

So what are the main problems? Drugs, poverty and corruption. Unfortunately, many people are unemployed or making below a living wage which is what makes theft so rampant.

However, we’re not talking Barcelona-level theft. You can walk around without having your cash securely taped to your stomach underneath 5 layers of clothing. Again, more like grand theft auto or break-ins so lock your car and hide your valuables.

Regarding corruption, the protests that took place in the July 2019 have stopped and the governor that the public took issue with has resigned. It’s a problem that will take time to fully rectify but unless you’re vying for government contracts, this also isn’t something you should concern yourself with. There are no protests or scenes of unrest out in the streets. 

These are problems I’ve seen in major cities I’ve lived in including Philadelphia, Miami, Baltimore, Rochester and Fort Lauderdale. Be smart, don’t go to places you shouldn’t be or walk down dark alleys looking for trouble.

You will not feel unsafe generally. In fact, quite the opposite. 

What is it Like to Travel Around the Island? 

Window cave overlooking a field

People are surprised when they come to the island at how welcoming and easy it is to visit here. I won’t lie to you — Puerto Rico needs your business. This means that they treat tourists like VIP’s. You are the top priority. Staff and government agents are responsive, helpful and kind. 

There is power on the island. Most places have electricity restored except for certain remote locations in the mountains or buildings that were beyond repair and left abandoned.

There is a lot of abandoned property now but the island is resilient and the population has finally started to increase for the first time since Maria. That’s because Puerto Rico is attracting foreign businesses and investors with tax incentives under Act 20 and 22 (4% federal income tax, I’m looking at you digital nomads!).

I expect that many of the buildings you see abandoned now will be purchased and become prime real estate for the new investors moving here. 

The road have potholes so you need to be vigilant while you’re driving. If you’re going outside the metro area, the highways are not well lit up at night. 

RELATED POST: BEST THINGS TO DO IN PONCE, PUERTO RICO

Being a Solo Female in Puerto Rico 

Woman sitting by pink lakes

I am constantly traveling the island on my own as a young female and have never felt unsafe. I recommend making use of daylight hours as it’s simply easier to travel.

You might lose phone service if you go into the mountains so make sure you have directions or are connected to an offline GPS. 

You can travel anywhere on the island on your own without a tour or guide and will save a ton of money doing so. For instance, the Bacardi Factory is $15 to tour and comes with a free drink.

I’ve seen tour operators charge $50 or more for the same package. You can take yourself to the sites easily and many are cheap or free to enter. 

It’s safe to stop at food tents or trucks along the side of the road. Depending on the route you’re driving you’ll see these makeshift kiosks by the side of the road. People stop, purchase (cash only so make sure you have some on you) and then keep on their way. It’s a quick interaction and there’s nothing to be nervous about. The food is delicious!

If you’re going to the beach, hide your valuables. As I mentioned, theft is rampant so you don’t want your iPhone to be visible.

If you have a friend to watch your stuff then great but if not just make sure you bury anything you do have under a bunch of non-valuable stuff, like clothing, water bottles or other trash. 

RELATED POST: FINDING PINK LAKES IN PUERTO RICO

2020 Puerto Rico Earthquakes

 

 
 
 
 
 
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Updates from the ground here in Puerto Rico ? ⁣ ⁣ We had another 6.0+ earthquake this morning. Above all I’m grateful we didn’t lose power again. ⁣ ⁣ I’d say of all the madness this week, that was the worst part — not knowing when power would come back on. ⁣ ⁣ Some people with medical devices were sleeping in the lobby of their apartments to plug into a generator. ⁣ ⁣ Surprisingly, a lot of businesses stayed open. It seems like if you’re still operating on the island post-Maria, it’s cause you have the necessary equipment. ⁣ ⁣ The worst damage is in the southwest coast, near the epicenter of the quakes. Older buildings have collapsed and residences have been lost, particularly if they were built on stilts to avoid flooding. ⁣ ⁣ How can you help? I’m launching a nonprofit to address this ongoing question and boost local businesses. More on that very soon!⁣ ⁣ In the meantime, I ask that you join me in changing Puerto Rico’s narrative from one of tragedy to one of resilience. ⁣ ⁣ It seems like every time Puerto Rico’s tourism starts to pick up speed, something happens. ⁣ ⁣ Hurricanes, protests, earthquakes — they happen all over the place but in Puerto Rico the effects of a crisis remain long after it’s resolved. ⁣ ⁣ I don’t want people to be scared to come here. ⁣ ⁣ As a solo female, I’m not scared to live here.⁣ ⁣ I may be by myself but I haven’t felt alone. These occurrences bring out a sense of community.⁣ ⁣ I assure you that Puerto Rico will keep moving forward ?? ⁣ ⁣ Let’s start changing the narrative right now! ⁣ ⁣ Comment below with one positive, uplifting or just plain happy thing you associate with Puerto Rico ??⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ .⁣ #puertoricoselevanta #puertoricogram #puertoricoblogger #puertoricolife #puertoricoearthquake #puertoricoisland #visitpuertorico #discoverpuertorico #puertorico_beautiful #puertoricanwomen #puertoricanpride #puertoricans #borinquen #puertoricoholic #puertoricostrong #puertorico_challenge #puertoricorelief #amazingpuertorico #puertoricopics

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Puerto Rico sits on a fault line and experienced a series of earthquakes and shocks in January 2020. I was on the ground for all of them.

Once the Richter scale passes 6.0, the electricity grid shuts down as a precautionary measure.  This happened once and the entire island was without power for 1-3 days, depending on the location.

However, the island didn’t shut down during this time. It seems most businesses still operating post-Maria have generators. I was able to go to a fast food restaurant, Walmart and gas station without issue. 

The earthquakes are not unprecedented — dozens happen every year and go unnoticed. The last time earthquakes struck at this magnitude, however, was over a hundred years ago. 

Unfortunately, many houses were not built with earthquakes in mind and were more concerned with flooding so they were built on stilts. These are the houses that have since collapsed for the most part. 

The epicenters of the quakes were concentrated on the southwest corner of the island, completely opposite from San Juan. If you had pre-existing travel plans, it’s more than likely they are unaffected. 

Please do not cancel your trip. If you had plans to visit the southwest part of the island, you can change them or go anyways. These towns are still populated with people, still going on with business as usual and more in need of your support now than ever. 

Is Puerto Rico safe?

Sunset view at the beach

If you’re worried about being stuck without electricity in the middle of a shoot-out between two Pablo Escobar-style Puerto Ricans, I can tell you that unless you lead a singular and Bravo TV-worthy life, this will not be your reality.

More than likely, you’ll be laying on a warm strip of sand with a pina colada and fried pastry in hand, reapplying sunblock generously because the sun is deceptive and burns even when it’s cloudy or you’re hiking in the middle of the rainforest (you’ve been warned!).

Your most dangerous interaction will be with a spider or frog. They’re everywhere. If the frog you encounter is singing something that sounds like “co-qui,” that’s our official animal! Say hello and enjoy the sound, you won’t hear it anywhere else.

If you’re going to be drinking a lot, I recommend Don Q rum over Bacardi to avoid a headache in the morning. 

Aside from that, prepare yourself for the deadly combination that is a mofongo right before an afternoon sun shower — you will not be able to get up from whatever hammock you land on. The same applies if you’re looking to move and live here. 

Is Puerto Rico safe? Yes, yes, 1,000x yes. Please set aside whatever image the media has painted in your mind and come see for yourself. 

RELATED POST: HOW TO SHIP YOUR CAR TO PUERTO RICO

Till next time, safe travels!

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Wondering if it's safe to travel to Puerto Rico? I moved to Puerto Rico from New York and here are my top tips. #ispuertoricosafe #puertorico #puertoricotravel #visitpuertorico Wondering if it's safe to travel to Puerto Rico? I moved to Puerto Rico from New York and here are my top tips. #ispuertoricosafe #puertorico #puertoricotravel #visitpuertorico

Arnold Green

Saturday 16th of October 2021

Great blog,I was stationed at Roosevelt Roads in 1958 while in the USNavy. Got a great map of P.R from AAA that shows every town in PR. Really interested in going back after reading your comments. Put me on email list. Don’t stop writing and thank you

james lee

Saturday 25th of September 2021

remember, all the ads on the internet about traveling has to make money. these poor areas of the world do not charge hugh fees. sure there are 3 and 5 star hotels that charge $100 per nite. they want you to spend your cash at these places but wait: there are a ton of places where you can stay cheap, i know i have traveled half the world. just wait till you get there, search and you will find cheap motels or lodges. Eat where the locals eat and you will eat well and "cheap." once you find a place near the beach you will not move, correct? at least that is me. I will spend the months of nov, dec, jan, and feb on the island of PR. i will find a place that is $400 or less for each month. i will be able to walk to the beach daily and sit in the sun, read, and swim. without the sun there would be no life on this earth. If you are going to worship anything, make it the "SUN!" of course i take shade, i have a Phd. in sunshine, alcohol consumption, sweeping and starting fires. i have done a ton of all i list. My point is don't pay much attention to advertisements on the internet. They are far from the actual truth. They advertise the expensive places, not the less expensive places where there is many. james sept. 25, 2021.

Liz

Thursday 23rd of September 2021

Hello- I loved this post! We would love to visit PR this winter but one of my kids has special needs. He's 4 now and just cannot tolerate wearing masks due his challenges, and is not developed enough that he can even really be bribed to do it. I have seen many posts that masks are taken seriously in PR. If the rest of the family wears masks, do you think it would be a problem for my 4 year old who cannot to be outside? Are people understanding of special needs? Thanks for any local insight you can offer.

Jen on a Jet Plane

Sunday 26th of September 2021

Hi Liz, it's hard to say. I do think your best bet would be outside of the tourists areas where there is the most policing. Also masks are generally not required while outside here. Hope this helps!

mateo

Tuesday 27th of July 2021

i live in the high desert of new mexico, so PR is a big change..............anyhow, thanks for your information. I do not drink/party, and wondering i you have any thoughts about the quiet life in R? . be in wellness, m

Jen on a Jet Plane

Wednesday 28th of July 2021

There is a growing wellness community here in Puerto Rico. Rincon has a lot of resources available. I also recommend you read my post about Casa Alternavida.

JMCL

Friday 23rd of July 2021

Just returned home from Puerto Rico. Our first stop was Rincon. OMG…..absolutely in love and so sorry we had plans to leave and stay in Luquillo. Don’t get me wrong…Luquillo was totally beautifully but a trash pit. The locals literally throw trash everywhere….including the ocean. I’ve never seen anything in my life like this. I was turned off….so turned off I would not swim in the Public beach. Stepping over trash to get to the ocean and then having to push trash around in the water. GROSS!! So sad because it’s naturally so beautiful.