Why Puerto Rico Is the Perfect Place to Dip Your Toes Back Into Travel, According to Someone Who Just Went

Here's what it's really like to travel to Puerto Rico during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Puerto Rico outdoor hiking, suspension bridge and nature
Photo: Karthika Gupta

Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.

As vaccines roll out and travel slowly resumes, Puerto Rico presents itself as a comfortable middle ground for those, including myself, who aren't ready to head abroad, but want to start taking steps forward.

Because Puerto Rico operates as U.S. territory, there's no U.S. Customs and Border Protection to navigate, and a negative COVID-19 test result isn't required to return to the mainland, either. The currency is the U.S. dollar, making it easy for budget planning. And for those who rely on debit and credit cards to reduce potential exposure, that means there's no pesky foreign transaction fee (though I always recommend cash for tipping).

But the island destination has plenty to offer beyond convenience, too. Its landscape encompasses mountains, waterfalls, and a rain forest, and its capital and most populous city, San Juan, treats visitors to beautiful beaches, bustling streets, centuries-old fortresses, delicious cuisine, and a vibrant nightlife scene.

Here's everything you need to know about traveling to Puerto Rico right now.

Pre-travel Process for Puerto Rico

One thing the COVID-19 pandemic has taught me is that travel insurance is always a good idea. It cost me less than $100 to insure my trip, and that included COVID-related expenses and emergency medical evacuation. The option for medical evacuation was important because, in the case of an emergency, I didn't want to put more pressure on the island's medical infrastructure.

I also had to take a COVID-19 molecular-based (PCR) test 72 hours before my flight. It's not hard to schedule a test in Indianapolis, where I was traveling from, and I was able to book a drive-through option at CVS. Although I work from home and my exposure is limited, I quarantined after the test because there's no point in taking it if you plan on being out and about in the days following.

The most stressful part of the pre-travel process was waiting for my test result - not because I thought I had COVID, but because I needed to upload the results before my flight. Thankfully, I got my results the day before my departure and was able to upload them, along with some other information, onto the Puerto Rico Travel Safe website. This process is mandatory, and upon submitting my information, I received a QR code that later served as my exit ticket at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport.

Airplane and Flight to Puerto Rico

Although there are dozens of direct flights from U.S. cities to San Juan, Puerto Rico, Indianapolis is unfortunately not among them. I had a brief layover in Charlotte, North Carolina, before heading to San Juan. The airport was buzzing with activity, but it wasn't hard to find an area away from others to facilitate social distancing. I also double-masked as an extra precaution.

My American Airlines flight was full, and no one checked my temperature or that I had a negative PCR test before boarding. As we landed in San Juan, clapping erupted all around me. It felt especially emotional as I had just learned that my seatmate was seeing her family for the first time in two years. Life as we knew it before COVID-19 would never come back, but in that moment, I felt hope for a post-pandemic future.

At the airport, there were signs posted everywhere regarding the COVID-19 restrictions and guidelines in San Juan. In order to exit, I had to show my QR code and an I.D. to prove that I tested negative. Those without a QR code had to go to a different area where their forms and $300 fines were processed. There were also testing sites available at the airport.

Experience While Traveling in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico outdoor hiking, suspension bridge and nature
Karthika Gupta

Traveling through Puerto Rico reignited in me a feeling that I hadn't experienced in over a year - the thrill of being in a new place with a new culture to learn about and experience. Although I had received my first vaccine dose, I was still nervous to be in an unfamiliar environment. However, it was refreshing to see how uniform the COVID-19 protocols were in every Puerto Rican town.

At every restaurant I visited, my temperature was checked and I was offered hand sanitizer before even stepping in. Menus were accessible through scannable QR codes, and there were few to no people wearing their masks incorrectly. At one restaurant, they even had their own method of contact tracing.

For most of my trip, I stayed at the Hyatt Place Manatí. Although I didn't spend much time in the hotel itself, I felt safe during my entire stay. They stocked me with extra towels to reduce contact, and my temperature was taken when I initially checked in. The property even offers on-site COVID-19 testing for a fee.

My visit to the island was mainly focused on outdoor experiences. I knew that the chances of transmission outside were low, and the pandemic had awakened in me a new love for nature activities. Since Puerto Rico is known for its incredible adventures, the low risk and high reward made it a win-win.

Even better, everyone I encountered abided by the mask protocols, even outdoors. At Toro Verde Adventure Park (where I experienced the world's second-longest zip line), my zip line instructors remained fully masked the entire time. Plus, when I asked about people complying, they said that most guests didn't have an issue with keeping their face coverings on. In fact, I'm sure it kept some gnats out of my mouth as I flew more than 60 miles per hour on the zip line.

Puerto Rico outdoor hiking, suspension bridge and nature
Karthika Gupta

In the beautiful Toro Negro State Forest, my hiking guides were masked throughout our journey as well. And aside from a few quick pictures, we kept our masks on the entire time. Social distancing wasn't an issue as the trail left enough space for everyone, and we didn't run into any other parties while hiking up to the summit. As we headed down the mountain, rain poured down, too. There was a moment when I couldn't see anyone else in my party, and I soaked in the surreal experience of being isolated and surrounded by nature. At that moment, I understood why forest bathing is such a healing practice.

The island as a whole is slowly recovering from the effects of Hurricane Maria and the current pandemic. Some places, like the world's third-largest cave system, Cavernas del Río Camuy, were just beginning to open after the intensive hurricane damage. Others, such as Toro Verde Adventure Park, had only taken a brief pause during the pandemic. Overall, everyone I spoke with seemed eager to have respectful tourists back in Puerto Rico.

Current Restrictions in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has a strict mask-wearing policy in public areas, both indoors and outdoors. Once you've landed, you'll receive Sara Alert text messages that help monitor your health. Every day, you'll simply have to report "yes" or "no" to experiencing COVID-19 symptoms.

As of May 24, 2021, fully vaccinated travelers flying from the U.S. mainland don't have to show a negative PCR test when arriving in Puerto Rico. Those flying to the island internationally and who have not been vaccinated will still have to submit a negative PCR test within 72 hours of their flight, or face a fine. Business capacity restrictions have been changed from 30% to 50%, and the island-wide curfew has also been completely lifted.

If you're willing to abide by these rules and regulations, and wear a mask at all times except when dining or in your private room, you'll find Puerto Rico to be a beautiful, enjoyable, COVID-conscious destination.

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