The Safety Question of La Isla del Encanto
Is Puerto Rico really as dangerous as they say?
Dwelling in the topics of safety and travel are not typically terms that I like to associate with one another. In fact, they are typically things that I like to disassociate with one another. However, even I will admit, there is a safety factor to traveling. I would argue that the safety factor is not always something that should deter you from traveling, but should rather make you more aware of potential issues and risks. This is why in the past I have written articles on safety such as Is CouchSurfing Safe?; How to Avoid PickPockets; and even tips for keeping your belongings safe while staying in a hostel. Travelers need to be aware of their surroundings and educate themselves on common issues in the region. Being aware can help one to avoid many problems and to have a better overall experience.
I’ve since relocated; however, I spent about 9 months living in Puerto Rico enjoying the Caribbean life. The weather was great, when it wasn’t the rainy season. The nature was amazing in the most pure way. The beaches were breathtaking. I even indulged in a little street food every once in a while. Though throughout all of those experiences, I can say that I really enjoyed my time on the island and my experience as a whole.
Before you go any further into this article, just note that the perspective and experiences presented in this article took place before Hurricane Maria. We’ve not had a chance to return to the island yet, but do plan to in the near future.
When I tell people I lived there, I am usually asked the looming safety question among others about the beaches and weather. Before I went to Puerto Rico, I had always envisioned the island in my mind as somewhat different than it turned out to be. I was always told by people before visiting that it was dangerous and crime was really bad, but “it is beautiful“, they would say. Although I did get into a situation where I could have been seriously injured, is wasn’t the island’s fault. After passing a decent amount of time there and traveling to many different places on the island, I cannot so easily define it. To me, Puerto Rico is neither dangerous nor safe; it is some sort of weird hybrid which almost seems to perfectly shadow its political status in the most paradoxical of ways. This article is an answer to those who have asked me about safety on the island as a tourist. In this article I do my best to show both the positives and negatives of the island in a fair light, but then share some of my experiences and others that I’ve met/heard. I request if you are going to read the article, please read it in its entirety.
The Stats: What do they say?
Statistically speaking, Puerto Rico is of the more ‘dangerous’ places in the United States of America and her outlying territories. When I started to write this article, I wanted to quote a bunch of statistics for crime and homicide in Puerto Rico, but in the end I decided against it. As a visitor to the island, I think that most of the crime has little to do with tourists. It has much more to do with the underlying issues on the island that I’ll discuss in the next section. Needless to say, the crime rate in Puerto Rico has been an ongoing battle for the government and police of the island and has not really decreased for the last few years. But outside of the sparse occurrences, tourists are not normally the central focus. If crime statistics were the only thing that mattered with visiting a place, then most cities in the United States would be ‘un-visitable’. Furthermore, so would some international cities, like pick-pocketing in Barcelona, that have fairly high crime rates. Barcelona just happens to be one of my favorite cities though. However, we all know that statistics are only a part of the story.
Breaking it Down a little
There are usually a few tell-tale signs of why a crime rate is so high. We cannot simply take statistics without understanding some of the justifying factors behind them. By now you have probably guessed some of them. The most obvious of the problems with Puerto Rico, is the ever-present issue with something commonly known as narcotráfico, or drug trade. One doesn’t have to go far from the touristy beaches to see the effects that drugs have on the island. Drugs are everywhere. The Puerto Rican government even went so far as to claim in 2012 that it was an under-protected front in the nation’s war on drugs (CNN). Basically, the island has converted into a midway passage point from the drug producers of the South America to the consumers in Europe and North America (El Nuevo Dia– Una Isla Saturada de Criminalidad).
The second issue that drives crime in Puerto Rico would be its unfortunate economic situation. The Economist described Puerto Rico as the Greece of the Caribbean. When taking into consideration the less than stellar economies found in the Caribbean such as the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, even Haiti, which has itself earned the title of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, this is a pretty bold statement. Greece can be a fitting analogy for Puerto Rico though as the European Union is to Greece so can the United States of America be compared to Puerto Rico. At least, on a surface level.
Puerto Rico has also been faced with a fair amount of corruption as well. A corruption that has affected the legitimacy of its government and in some cases broken the trust of its citizens. Additionally, there is one underlying issue that is often overlooked, but Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated places on Earth. As far as comparing the amount of people versus the amount of livable land, Puerto Rico ranked 22nd according to one study, and it is the most dense place within the United States system. This population size coupled with its ‘albatross’ economy, have been a poor mix for the island’s current state. There is an interesting article on the population and economy of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans written by the Census Bureau, you may want to check it out for further reading.
My intention wasn’t to breakdown Puerto Rico’s current economic situation and crime rate, but I felt that writing an article about safety in Puerto Rico would be more informational for the potential visitors to the island if it included some of the causes for worry. As any educated Puerto Rican will tell you, the problems that I mention are just some of the major issues on a macro level. I’ll stop here, but there are a lot of interesting perspectives and ideas about why Puerto Rico is in its current state of crime and economic turmoil ranging from lack of ability to have Independence and free trade to corporate corruption, to just plain politics. There is a website that you can use to follow the crime in Puerto Rico here; it is written in Spanish.
Crime on Tourism
Now that we have gotten some details out of the way, let’s take a look at my experience in Puerto Rico and some of the things that I witnessed and saw, as well as some recent things in the news. I wanted to make this article realistic and of a similar format to the article that I wrote on Couchsurfing where I used real examples from my experiences and other people who I met.
Most statistics would say that the vast majority of the crime in Puerto Rico is carried out via inter-group conflicts, drug trafficking, et cetera. As in much of the world, try not to get involved and you won’t be affected. If something still happens with respect to this it could just be a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is beyond your control anyway. A dangerous situation could arise in any place in the world at any time; and that is why I hate talking about safety and traveling in the same breath. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that there are never acts of crime against tourists. Though, many Puerto Ricans realize that tourism is a life-line for many people on the island. Without tourism, the economy would be far worse off than it is already.
The worst situations that I have heard:
– One girl was walking from Old San Juan to New San Juan, when a guy ran up behind her grabbed her and threw her down. He looked after that her bag of souvenirs, while she was screaming, and then decided to run off. She left with just scratches.
– Another girl was sitting by a laguna, when a man sat next to her with a rock in his hand. The man told her to give him all of her money or else he would hurt her. She gave him money and he left. She was unharmed.
– Two girls, were taking pictures in a dark park at night, when a guy ran up to them grabbed one of the girl’s camera. While she held the strap of the camera he swung her around until she fell and let go. She left with scratches on her side.
– A couple driving around the island, left the car for the beach. When they returned to their car, someone had broken into it and stole their things from the trunk. They lost all of their personal belongings and valuables to the thieves.
(The previous 4 stories are second-hand stories that I am retelling from the individuals telling me. I didn’t witness them.)
The worst that I have read:
– A tourist from Ohio was killed, when he returned to a burglar raiding his house. Article here. A truly tragic and senseless killing.
– In a non-violent yet still tragic case, a tourist died while snorkeling. Article here. So remember to not only think about the crime while you are visiting, but be mindful of nature as well. Be smart when you are exploring and have a healthy sense of respect for nature’s power.
– There was a case in 2011, where a 21 year old was stabbed on Condado beach at night while being mugged. I would argue that it would be rare for something like that to happen again as the police presence in the Condado area has been stepped up significantly.
The Best that I have heard:
– I’ve had heard so many people visiting the island and having a great time. Many of them wishing to come back and doing so.
– I have talked to couples that have driven around the island to many different cities, often sleeping in their car or camping, and returned without a single problem.
– I’ve talked to people who have been to many of the ‘dangerous’ areas and neighborhoods, and met some amazing people.
– I’ve also talked to many people who love living on the island.
Although these unfortunate situations listed above seem like enough to turn people away, I wouldn’t say that crime on tourism in Puerto Rico is a common occurrence. In fact, for everyone of those situations I listed above where something went wrong, I’ve heard of 100 that didn’t. Perhaps, there is some petty theft here and there and there are occasionally some extreme cases such as the ones listed above, but the majority of the crime seems to evade tourism in my experience. So, although I list some bad circumstances that I have heard just to make you aware of things that have happened, don’t think that any of them would happen to you just because you visit the island. Out of the 4 personal stories that I shared above, I’d say that two of them were likely avoidable (the car break in and the camera theft). Remember in the beginning, I said awareness is key.
The majority of tourists visiting the so-called ‘touristy’ areas would also not see any of these crime issues either. Old San Juan is quite heavily fortified with police these days. Cruise ships pack people there almost daily. The same is true for the Condado and Isla Verde beach areas. Puerto Rico, or at least the City of San Juan, have created an independent division in the police force specifically for safe guarding tourists. These are typically called the ‘tourist’ police. They are very active and responsive to tourism in the populated areas.
If I were to recount my whole Puerto Rican experience in just a few shorts sentences here, I wouldn’t focus on anything negative. For any visitor to the island, I can say that the island offers some truly amazing sights. Just take a look at these pictures here if you don’t believe me. Were there things that I didn’t enjoy in my experience? Yes of course, but I won’t remember most of them in a few years.
Puerto Rico is a beautiful and diverse island. From its plethora of natural waterfalls to pristine Caribbean beaches, it can offer visitors and excellent experience. My recommendation is try to really enjoy the experience and the natural beauties of the island. Try the food! Relax on the beaches! Swim in the waterfalls!
I spent a fairly long time in Puerto Rico, for me most of it was a personal journey, but I still felt like I got a well-rounded experience. Did I ever feel unsafe? I would say in the vast majority of the places that I visited on the island I felt more than safe. There were a few neighborhoods that I visited where I felt a little uneasy at times, but those weren’t touristy neighborhoods at all. I walked in a lot of places too. Most of the time it was to take pictures of street art and graffiti or Urban Exploring; taking photos in some neighborhoods is not exactly welcome. The places that I drove to on the island I felt quite safe. I was always mindful where I parked and what I left in my car. I was aware and conscious of potential issues, but felt fine. Perhaps, I was lucky. Or perhaps, it is just a matter of paying attention a little. I know that wherever I go in the world, something could always happen. I know that if it were about money, then they could take it. But, I have always just done my best to blend in and mind my own business.
With the people, I would say that it depends on who you are talking about, but many of the people who I met were very friendly and hospitable.
In my experience and meeting others, the people, most at least, who had issues with safety while visiting Puerto Rico acted somewhat carelessly or irresponsibly while on vacation. Being drunk in an unfamiliar area or got into things that they shouldn’t have. Some instances were just unfortunate without explanation. That being said, nearly everyone I met: girls, guys, couples, men, and women all would get by just fine. Very few times did I hear of issues and I spoke with a lot of tourists.
A New Generation?
Although, I wouldn’t say the typical dynamics of Puerto Rico will change any time soon; I can say that there are some new movements going on in Puerto Rico, especially with the youth. There are some who are trying to do their best to change the island’s name and reputation. Of course, there are always those who don’t. There are movements to clean up the cities, make the islanders more green-conscious, and even fight crime. One recent concert in Bahia Urbana, Old San Juan, gave a free concert to everyone who brought a bag of recyclable materials, which I would say is a nice step for an island so full of litter. Not life-changing, but a start. Big changes have to start from somewhere no matter how small. What will the island be like in the future? Who knows, maybe nothing will change. But, it could change who knows. I’ll hope for the best.
Tips for staying safe in Puerto Rico
As with most places in the world, there are always a few tips that one can follow for staying safe while traveling. In Puerto Rico, I have a few recommendations for you. They are in no particular order.
1.) Do your best not to walk alone at night, especially if you are unfamiliar with the area. Groups of 3 or more are typically a good deterrent anywhere.
2.) Don’t leave valuables in plain site in your car. Parking in safe guarded and/or visible area is a good idea.
3.) Don’t act like a lost tourist. Be confident.
4.) Try out not to be so ‘gringo’. Being reserved and attempting some cultural immersion can go a long way.
5.) Most Puerto Ricans told me to avoid the caserios, which are basically project housing compounds. You can tell them by their appearance as multi-level apartment complexes that often appear to be run down.
6.) Don’t flash your valuables. As with traveling anywhere, it is best not to walk around showing what you are carrying if anything at all.
7.) Stay on well-lit roads when walking.
8.) Be smart. When in doubt, speak with an authority figure.
Should you visit Puerto Rico?
If you are looking for some kind of confirmation of whether or not you should visit Puerto Rico, I would say that you should if it is something that you want to do. It is relatively cheap, except for accommodation, easily accessible from many US cities, and the weather is generally pretty good. The conclusion of this article never intended to steer you away from visiting the island. I wanted to make you aware of the major stereotypes and some factual information associated with the island, but also let you realize that many people visit the island yearly without problems. We just have to understand the underlying facts associated with the crime, where it is most prevalent, and the best precautions for avoiding it. We always take risks when we travel no matter if it is to Beijing, Rio de Janeiro, or any other city you can imagine. But living in fear should be the least of your worries.
In my opinion, part of feeling comfortable in Puerto Rico is managing the expectation of what you expect it to look like. Although Puerto Rico is technically part of the United States’ Commonwealth, do not expect it to look like your average American city. The island does have many things to offer that the mainland US does as well, especially the fast food and big corporate businesses, but that doesn’t mean that they are the same. Expect the cities in appearance to look slightly more Latin American than American. There is poverty; there are homeless people; there are abandoned buildings in the middle of the city. A large part of visiting any place is to try and find the good in it and accept things as they are. Culture varies quite drastically around the world and I think that is what keeps things interesting.
I have often proclaimed that I don’t necessarily believe in dangerous places, only dangerous people. Following that theory, enough bad people in a place can make a place dangerous, but the absence of them makes it just another place. Every place has both its positives and negatives and you have to accept the two together to visit. Weigh things out before you make a decision and be smart when you travel.
Should you be cautious about where you go? Yes. Should you let it ruin your trip being paranoid? No, I don’t believe that is necessary.
Instead of giving you a list, I’ll let a few pictures talk for me. A small sampling, but better than nothing.
Have you visited Puerto Rico before? If so, what was your experience like?
WAIT! Before leaving, please check out some of these other articles on Puerto Rico!
Lastly, for an all inclusive guide page to traveling in Puerto Rico, click here.
Thank you for reading! I hope you enjoyed this article.
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