Puerto Rico draws over three-million visitors annually to indulge in its urban charms and play in its natural splendors. Recently, the island nation has placed cultural and environmental preservation to the forefront, rolling out a plan to promote sustainable tourism. And in the face of the ongoing economic crisis, responsible travel is more important than ever.
University of Puerto Rico Anthropologist Evelyn Dean-Olmsted offers her take on responsible travel and offers some tips for visitors to her adopted home. Originally from Colorado Springs, Colorado, Dean-Olmsted moved to San Juan with her husband and two children in August 2013. As a scholar of language and identity among minority groups in Latin America, getting to know the country has been a priority since she arrived. “It’s literally my business to learn as much as possible about the country. This is important for teaching (my students come from all over the island and I need to be able to relate to them) as well as for local research I plan to do,” she explains.
Dean-Olmsted breaks sustainable tourism into to two main components: ecological — “that your travel doesn’t harm, and hopefully even benefits, the natural environment” — and economic — “that your tourist dollars provide income to local people who are not being exploited or working in poor conditions, and that [they] will benefit the local economy.” She also always urges visitors to learn as much as possible about local art, culture and history and to “engage to some degree with the people who live there.” Here are her top picks.
1) Book a tour with Para la Naturaleza. “They are a great steward of both natural and cultural patrimony and their programming is top notch,” says Dean-Olmsted.
Para la Naturaleza aims to increase the amount of protected land in Puerto Rico. Headquartered in Old San Juan, the non-profit provides community education, volunteer opportunities and outdoor experiences throughout the island. For example, visitors looking to understand the intersections of nature, agriculture and human history should join The Power of The River That Transformed Coffee Tour. Wildlife enthusiasts can participate in a Bird Census, observing and logging information about the island’s avians.
Para la Naturaleza has three visitor centers.
Call for information — 1.787.722.5834 — or reservations — 1.787.722.5882.
2) Get the kids excited about learning at the Museo del Niño de Carolina. This children’s museum offers interactive educational exhibits about art, technology and the environment. Some of the stars showcase sea-life, alternative energy and local ecosystems. But the Museo del Niño de Carolina isn’t just for the young ones. Says Dean-Olmsted, “This is one of the best children’s museums we have ever been to. [And it’s] fun for all ages.”
Location: Avenida Campo Rico intersección Ave. Fidalgo Diaz Carolina 00983, Avenida Campo Rico, Carolina, Puerto Rico
3) Eat locally and ethically. Troubling agricultural policy dominated the mid-20th century on the island, dooming residents to import most of their food. Today, 85% of food consumed in Puerto Rico comes from elsewhere and prices of staples like milk are set by the US government. But, Dean-Olmsted says, “As the economy declines, local agriculture is on the rise.” In San Juan, El Departamento de la Comida doubles as a shop and restaurant serving up vegan fare sourced from Puerto Rico’s growing farming industry. And committed chefs like repatriated Natalia Lucía Vallejo promote agritourism and local eating with tasting events and farm visits.
Location: 2413 Calle Laurel, San Juan, 00913, Puerto Rico
4) One agricultural industry that has held strong in Puerto Rico, despite the presence of global giants like Starbucks, is coffee. Visitors can support local coffee production and learn about history and sustainable land use by checking out one of the many amazing plantations. Family owned Hacienda San Pedro dates to the 19th century and prizes traditional growing practices and community engagement. Plus, located in the central highlands of Jayuya, a visit provides the chance to see a different landscape and way of life.
Location: Road 144 Km. 8.4, Bo. Coabey, Jayuya, PR 00664
Finally, Dean-Olmsted urges, “Just come. Don’t be scared off by the media hype about Zika.” But remember, whether you’re staying in a kid-friendly neighborhood Airbnb or a top-notch resort, take the time to engage with the local environment and citizens. Talk to your waitress about her college plans. Grab a phrase book, dust off your high school Spanish or seize the opportunity to hone existing skills. And, as always, seek out locally owned businesses — whether restaurants or tour companies — rather than US-based chains.
Stacey is a freelance writer covering travel, adventure, health and social justice. A longtime vagabond, she lived all over the U.S. as well as in France, Austria, Morocco, and Canada before landing in northern Colorado. If not tramping about the U.S. with her husband and dog, she’s probably avoiding winter in the deserts or tropics.