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Experiential travel in Puerto Rico

When my cousins in Boulder, Colorado contacted me in November to say they were planning a trip to Puerto Rico for two weeks, I was beyond excited. I had just seen them in Wisconsin for their father’s funeral, so the idea of visiting with them under far more pleasant circumstances was what we all needed. They’ve been to Hawaii a few times and each time they did what we call experiential travel. They cooked for themselves, rarely ate out and lived as locals do. All to say by the time they arrived on December 28th, they had itineraries planned, food to buy at the grocery store and locations on the island to map out. They didn’t need me, which as a vacation planner was bittersweet. They were ready for experiential travel in Puerto Rico.

They did the first leg of their trip alone. My husband’s sister had been visiting for a week, leaving the day my cousins arrived. In truth, I needed a tiny break: to re-clean the house and recharge my own energy levels. But I had no worries about them. They stayed in Luquillo, where they hiked up El Yunque rainforest, surfed at the beach, ate kiosk food and cooked every meal in their Airbnb.

They visited our farm in Utuado, got to know my husband, played with our dogs and ate my “famous” homemade pizza.

Two days later, now we’re talking the 5th of January, we all drove caravan style to their Airbnb in Aguadilla, home of Crash Boat beach.

Here we are at Crash Boat

Puerto Rico Earthquake: A 6.4 on the Richter Scale

In the pre-dawn hours of Tuesday, January 7th, the day after the island celebrated Three Kings Day, in the same area where a 5.8 earthquake hit the morning before and the site of hundreds of tremors and aftershocks from previous earthquakes have been taking place, we got rocked with a 6.6 (later downgraded to a 6.4) on the Richter scale.

My husband and I lived in California for many years, so earthquakes aren’t a new phenomenon to us. Puerto Rico is in a subduction zone, so while we’re more known for our hurricanes, Puerto Rico is no stranger to earthquakes. Having said that, hundreds of tremors, aftershocks and two major earthquakes between December 28th and now is extremely unusual.

My cousins aren’t accustomed to earthquakes living in Boulder, so I was worried about them. When the second one struck just after 4:30 in the morning, several thoughts went through my mind:

  • If this goes on much longer, I will need to evacuate my cousins and me from their Airbnb
  • Homes in Puerto Rico are built to hurricane code, but not earthquake code
  • Can’t leave too soon. Have to weigh the likelihood of broken glass and possibly loose live power lines against the likelihood of building collapse
  • One of the people in our group is a very heavy sleeper. Although I am too, I was wide awake and ready to shift gears if need be.
  • Our phones are scattered throughout the condo/Airbnb. We’ll need at least one if we’re going to run outside.
  • How to evacuate but stay calm, when all I want to do is scream at the top of my lungs because in reality, my husband is my rock. I’m not often placed in the position of needing to lead.
  • I had to pee!

Even in the dark, I could see the walls swaying. This wouldn’t have been a huge deal in California, where homes are built to earthquake code, but here with homes made of concrete and cement with reinforced steel rebar, building collapses after a certain amount of time is a huge possibility.

Fortunately it stopped before we needed to take action. Everyone was already assembled in the kitchen, ready for instructions, so in truth, we could have evacuated, if needed.

Now the clock was ticking on everything. When would the owners of the Airbnb get in touch to see if we were okay? How will we cook with all the appliances, including the stove, electric? Why do people have electric appliances on an island where power goes out all the time? I just don’t get that. An automatic shut off switch is on the power grids for times just like these, so cooking was out of the question. We couldn’t even boil water for caffeine. When would the complex’s generator kick in, so we could cook?

The answers to these questions and more wouldn’t get answered until after 10:00, so 4.5 hours later.

Frustrated we hadn’t heard from the owners of the Airbnb, we checked with the guard at the front gate. He said there was a main generator, but the owners of our Airbnb hadn’t bought into the monthly fee and to boot, individual generators weren’t allowed. So now my question was, “why would an Airbnb owner of a condo in Puerto Rico purchase an electric stove, not buy into the main generator, not leave instructions about what to do in case of emergency and NOT CALL US?” I was a little pissed.

We decided to walk to a coffee shop and have breakfast and make the best of a chaotic situation.

As we walked back to their Airbnb, I realized I had to drive home to Utuado. That had always been in the plans. I own another company, and I had two back-to-back client calls with presentations that were on my computer, not my iPad (which was with me).

I don’t think I could have left if it were just anyone, but knowing my cousins were accustomed to living as locals wherever they traveled, I felt confident they’d be fine, provided there was a plan in place for them to cook and that they’d know I was going to return.

Interlude: Seismic Activity in Puerto Rico

This is an image shared by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) showing how much activity there’s been in the Guanica region of the island leading up to the 6.4 on January 7th.

Experiential travel in Puerto Rico

Here are screen shots from the USGS site of seismic activity in the Americas over the last 24 hours (between January 8 and January 9).

Believe it or not, that’s less than half of what it was for the 24-hour period between January 7 and January 8. Here is a post on my personal Facebook wall from yesterday (January 8).

Beyond Experiential Travel in Puerto Rico

Beyond Experiential Travel in Puerto Rico 101

I’ve spoken with my cousins several times since I came back to Utuado. They bought a mini grill, some propane gas, refilled their gallon jugs of water at the supermarket, washed their clothes by hand, hung them on the balcony, got to know other people in the complex, cozied up to the guard, so they charge their phones daily. The owners of their Airbnb agreed to reimburse them for any out of pocket expenses related to the earthquake. I’m on my way to buy a bunch of things they need, so that’s handy. They’re being very cooperative.

As soon as I finish writing this I’ll head back to Aguadilla to sleep there for a few more days. They leave next week.

When I founded Purple Coquí Tours in the summer of 2019, I had many reasons for doing so:

  • Helping the local economy
  • Puerto Rico is far more than its famous tourist attractions
  • A chance to meet locals and live as we do
  • Experiential travel offers far more stories to share than the usual “I came, I saw, I sat on the beach for 7 days.”

But there’s one major reason I hadn’t considered until the morning of January 7th when the 6.4 struck Puerto Rico: what if an emergency strikes and you know nobody? Sure the hotel can advise you on how to proceed but they have to be concerned about every single guest in the hotel, plus their staff and their bottom line. If you know nobody, have been convinced outside those hotel doors is an unknown to fear, or don’t even have a car, who you gonna call?

Beyond experiential travel in Puerto Rico

You needn’t have a cousin living on the island to feel safe in an emergency. Just having the confidence to venture out and buy what’s needed for survival is all you need. And by being able to switch gears at a moment’s notice is crucial. Sure we’re committed to the vacation we plan, but shit happens and you have to ready to turn on a dime, which my cousins did with grace.

I’ll write a followup blog once I see my cousins, but I talked with them minutes ago and they’re fine. They still don’t have power and it may very well not return until after they’re gone. They’re headed to the beach to surf. Why not? It’s one of the reasons they came here.




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