Here’s What It’s Like to Travel to Puerto Rico During the COVID-19 Pandemic

I touched down on the island to see how it's keeping residents and visitors safe

Toro Negro State Forest, Puerto Rico

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Puerto Rico remained open to U.S. citizens or foreign nationals who hadn’t traveled to high-risk countries in the previous 14 days. The island has been doing fairly well: according to a New York Times database, there’s been a 60 percent drop in cases in the past 14 days, and as of May 11, about 38 percent of residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, with 26 percent fully vaccinated. 

Despite these promising numbers, the U.S. territory continues to make the safety of its residents a priority. Recently, the island announced that visitors who do not present negative COVID-19 tests upon arrival and fail to get tested on the island within 48 hours would be fined $300, and anyone caught without a mask on will be fined $100. 

I touched down on the island last week to see how Puerto Rico is keeping its residents and visitors safe. Here’s what my experience was like. 

Pre-Flight Preparation

As of May 28, Puerto Rico has waived COVID-19 testing requirements for fully vaccinated travelers from the United States. However, regardless of vaccination status, all visitors to Puerto Rico will still need to submit traveler declaration form identifying your dates of travel and where you’ll be staying. Those flying to the island from an international destination will still be required to present a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival, which is what I had to do when I flew to the island before the new policy was rolled out. Once you receive your test result, you must upload it to an online portal which then produces a QR code that is emailed to you. I was a bit confused about how to upload my negative test result as it was several pages long. I ultimately decided to save the entire lab report as a PDF and upload it to the portal to be on the safe side. I received my QR code within seconds of my upload. 

Flight and Landing

I flew JetBlue from John F. Kennedy International, and all passengers in both the terminal and at the gate were following social distancing protocols, with everyone around me wearing masks. I did notice that my flight was completely sold out, as were several other Caribbean and Florida-bound flights at surrounding gates. As all airlines have now ended their blocked middle seat policies, the seat next to me was filled, but I still felt comfortable as a fully vaccinated traveler.

The airline did not ask for proof of my negative test before boarding my flight, but upon my landing at Luis Muñoz Marín International in San Juan, I was walked over to a queue in which airport officials were scanning the phones of travelers who had just landed. Maybe due to the timing of my morning flight, I was lucky in that there were only two people ahead of me in the queue. My phone was quickly scanned, and I was allowed to leave the airport in less than five minutes.

The next day, I received a text message asking me to confirm whether or not I was experiencing any COVID-19 related symptoms with a Yes or No response. I continued to receive these texts once a day every day I was on the island. The messages were completely in Spanish, which was fine for me as a Spanish speaker, but may be confusing to those who don't speak the language. I appreciated the check-ins, but wished they would have been more aligned with my actual time on the island—I continued to receive them until 3 days after I had already returned home.

First Impressions

The primary focus of my trip was soaking in the island’s great outdoor adventure experiences. After all, I knew that bars and restaurants would still be operating at 30 percent capacity limits and that an island-wide curfew would be in effect from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., so I probably wouldn’t get to get a real feel for the island’s famous nightlife. (The curfew was extended to midnight shortly after I left.) I was also excited to explore areas a little more off the beaten path.

For the first three days of my trip, I stayed in Manatí, a municipality on the island’s northern coast, about a 40 minute drive from San Juan. The check-in process at the Hyatt Place Manatí was seamless, with plastic barriers at the reception desk and sanitizing machines that sprayed a mist of sanitizer on you while simultaneously checking your temperature. I noticed these all over the island and wish I saw more of them in the mainland United States. They were so convenient—two tasks in one!—and the sanitizing mist felt better than gooey gel.

As expected, the hotel’s dining spaces were not open and the included breakfast was served grab and go style from the kitchen’s window. This is the case for most hotels on the island, although on my last day at San Juan’s bed and breakfast Casa Sol, I was served breakfast in the hotel’s open inner courtyard.

Experience on the Ground

Staying true to my goal of outdoor adventure, my first visit was to the island’s famous Toro Verde Adventure Park, home of the biggest zipline in the Americas, The Monster, and the new Guinness world record-breaking bike zipline ToroBike. On the day I was there, a government press event took place in the park, and entry was limited, so crowding was never an issue—even better as fewer people could hear my terror-filled screams. My instructors, Jean and Xavier, wore masks and had extra hand sanitizer on them at all times. My adventures that week continued with a socially distanced hike in Toro Negro State Forest—which was perfect except for a bout of torrential rain—and underground cave exploration in the Rio Camuy Cave Park, where all groups were distanced, and hand sanitizer was plentiful. 

My dining experiences all felt very safe. At La Cobacha Criolla in Orocovis, our temperatures were taken at the door, hand sanitizer was provided, and we were asked to fill out contact tracing forms before sitting at a socially distanced table. It was great to see smaller communities outside of San Juan taking COVID-19 protocols just as seriously as in the larger cities. Every restaurant I ate at used QR codes for their menus; the only one that did not immediately brought out a menu on a whiteboard that we could read from afar. The waitstaff at all restaurants I visited were masked up at all times.

On my last evening on the island, as I was sipping a piña colada at an outdoor table in Old San Juan, a police officer stopped and informed us that curfew was about to begin and we would need to go back to our home or hotel. I looked at my phone: 9:58 p.m. Everyone around us immediately stood up to shuffle away. As a New Yorker, curfews were not new to me, but the strictly imposed process I witnessed that evening was impressive. Despite having to wrap things up early, I still feel like I had a great night out, and now that the curfew has been extended, I wouldn’t consider it a hindrance. (The most recent travel guidelines extended curfew from midnight to 5 a.m.)

Overall, my time in Puerto Rico was refreshing, comfortable, and the perfect way to unwind as I ease back into travel. I was impressed with the level of safety and strict protocols instituted throughout the island, all of which facilitated making the trip as relaxing as it was.

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