Hurricane

With electricity and salsa, this Puerto Rican town is back in business for locals

In the center of this seaside resort town, the electricity snapped on a week ago. The seafood restaurants began serving lobster and the mashed plantain dish mofongo.

The free Sunday salsa lessons resumed on an outdoor plaza cooled by a soothing ocean breeze. Dozens of storm-weary Puerto Ricans, refugees from San Juan and elsewhere looking for a break from tough conditions at home, watched and sipped cerveza as children darted through dancing legs.

At night, the famous glow-in-the-dark bay down the road — illuminated by bioluminescent microscopic organisms that light up when touched — seemed brighter than ever because the nearby lights are still mostly out.

“We were so surprised. Nothing happened here. They have electricity. They have everything,” said Carlos Aponte, 28, who drove to the town with his wife and sister to escape the misery of the eastern town of Gurabo.

Last weekend was the first time since Hurricane Maria that La Parguera was operational. Known for its boating, diving and bars, it’s a destination not only for Puerto Ricans but also for tourists from the mainland and Europe.

But while La Parguera served as an oasis for a modest number of weary Puerto Ricans lucky enough to afford the trip, it was clear it would be a while before tourism is back to normal.

The Paradise Scuba and Snorkeling Center closed early. Owner Kiko Doitteau has only chartered one boat trip since Hurricane Maria, for 12 federal relief workers on break.

At least one hotel remained closed from damage — and there were no mainland or overseas tourists to be seen. Even the Puerto Ricans from San Juan who enjoyed a Sunday afternoon in La Parguera couldn't splurge like before.

“They aren't spending as much cash,” said Nancy Vega, 45, a waitress at Restaurant La Parguera. “There's no ATMs. Everyone needs their cash to buy food, ice and gas for the generators.”

La Parguera belongs to a town called Lajas, about 109 miles from San Juan on the island's southwest coast, a weekend destination where many people own second homes that allow them to boat, fish and drink in a stunningly beautiful spot.

The town’s added bonus is the bioluminescent bay, one of three in Puerto Rico, and one of fewer than a dozen across the globe. In La Parguera, four companies are authorized to take tourists to the bay.

When Maria raked Puerto Rico with hurricane winds and biblical rainfall, the town was largely spared the worst of the destructive winds and water. Mountains to the north protected La Parguera from Maria's initial winds — and rings of mangroves offered protection from winds that whipped up from the south.

But the devastation elsewhere on the island slowed business here even though generators powered the quaint wooden buildings downtown in the immediate aftermath. Electricity returned to the tourist zone last week, while most of the rest of the island has none, including many of the barrios surrounding La Parguera where service workers live.

At Paradise Scuba & Snorkeling Center, Doitteau’s dive shop, 90 percent of his customers book online. He’s had nothing but cancellations since Maria. “The few emails we get are for refunds,” he said.

He's also lost two of his boat captains — they left Puerto Rico to go to the mainland.

But while the town lacked overseas visitors last weekend, it had a steady stream of Puerto Ricans from across the island. Not as many as usual, and certainly not as many as will come when the high season begins in December, but enough to make Maria seem like a distant nightmare.

“Turn to the right!” Arturo Luciano yelled through a loud speaker.

The slender dance instructor, who founded the weekly classes, led a row of dancers in rhythmic lines in La Parguera’s central plaza. The speakers blared Anacaona, a classic Puerto Rican salsa song about an Indian queen executed after defying Spanish invaders.

“Puerto Rico arriba!” he bellowed into a microphone.

Three beefy men in leather jackets, straddling Harley Davidson bikes, watched with grins. The three friends live in Guanica. Miguel Sepuleva is leaving the island soon, heading to Tennessee to look for work.

But that seemed far in the future as he watched the crowd. “It’s all Puerto Ricans trying to forget about what happened,” he said. “There are no foreigners right now.”

A few yards away, Sylmarie González squeezed through customers drinking at Isla Cueva Burgers & Beer. As president of the Merchant’s Association of La Parguera, she says Puerto Rico’s government has assured her the town will be the face of the island’s tourism while other areas rebuild.

Said González: “We want the world to know that Puerto Rico is standing.”

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