Beaches, baseball and culture come first to mind when I think of Puerto Rico. During a recent visit, my colleagues and I discovered even more: inspiration.

HI USA chose Puerto Rico for our joint annual hostel manager’s meeting with HI Canada to show our support for the island’s recovery after last September’s destructive twin hurricanes, Irma and Maria. Tourism is still lagging, as even bargain airfares can’t seem to tempt large numbers of USA tourists to visit. What a missed opportunity!

Cruise ships dock near Old San Juan

My first day in San Juan I quickly found the architecture, music and food that make the old city vibrant and fun. Scant hurricane damage is evident, and most tourist sites are open. When cruise ships arrive into port, eager sightseers and shoppers swarm the streets. At other times, the pace is noticeably slower – a relief of sorts to the more relaxed visitor, but not to the merchants who need to make ends meet with fewer tourists around to make purchases.

The streets of Old San Juan

At some point in a typical hostel trip a choice must be made: do I exchange beach flip flops for walking shoes and seek to find the footsteps of locals? On this group trip, a one-day service project outside the capital city was set by HI USA to help do our part in more remote parts of the island still suffering in the hurricanes’ aftermath.

HI USA and HI Canada volunteers clear branches and debris

Our 100+ hostel managers from the USA and Canada along with guests from the German youth hostel association and Hostelling International put on their work gloves and left early one morning in a bus caravan to the countryside. We split into three teams: one headed to an estuary to repair its natural habitat, and the other two headed to family farms to remove debris and prepare plantings. We were outfitted with machetes and shovels and brought along our own under-used backs for lifting and stacking.

HI USA and HI Canada volunteers hauling materials

The work was strenuous and the day sweltering, yet deeply satisfying … thanks to the inspiring example set by the local people we met along the way. Residents we met in these rural areas accept with quiet resilience the difficult hand that nature dealt them – lengthy power outages, massive debris, and sometimes sizable financial stress. We saw their perseverance and their kindness, towards each other and visitors alike.

Flags fly at a historic fortress.

When our volunteer teams returned to San Juan in the late afternoon, the city itself was dealing with an unexpected power outage that seemed overblown by the mainland media. While some small shops closed, hotels and restaurants with their own generators didn’t miss a beat. In the city visitors now seem well-sheltered from any major post-hurricane inconveniences.

Other tourism gems outside of San Juan also seem well-recovered. Rincon and the island of Vieques both received high marks from our staff who visited them on their own excursions.

One of many heavenly beaches

Some tugging questions emerged during our visit.  Puerto Rico is a US territory with most of the rights of a state: could it have received the same federal emergency response as hurricane-impacted areas on the mainland?  How can the island’s preparedness best be upgraded for the next big storm? And what obligation should we feel for the island’s most vulnerable residents, whose tin-roofed houses were most damaged by Maria? Not exactly topics for a traditional vacation stay, yet another reason why it’s a captivating destination.

Put Puerto Rico on your vacation calendar for 2018. With warm weather and crystal-clear waters, it’s an easy decision. Now is a time when your dollars will go the furthest yet still enjoy the sun, beaches and culture the island is renowned for. At the same time, you’ll be helping at a critical moment to preserve family jobs dependent on tourism.

And for inspiration, seek out conversations with residents while you are there. Wearing your favorite baseball team jersey is a terrific way to introduce yourself. You’ll quickly find what we did: the people are the true treasure of the island.

Thanks to the Rutrex team for helping to arrange our one-day service project, to Home Depot for tools and supplies, and the Foundation for Puerto Rico for encouragement and vision for the future.