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Walking Old San Juan with Across Caribe

COVER THE PROGRESS PART I: WALKING OLD SAN JUAN WITH ACROSS CARIBE

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ONE YEAR AFTER HURRICANE MARIA SLAMMED INTO THE ISLAND, PUERTO RICO AND ITS RESIDENTS ARE RECOVERING, REBUILDING AND ANXIOUSLY AWAITING VISITORS TO RETURN. IN DECEMBER 2018, I DECIDED TO VISIT THE ISLAND TO SEE FOR MYSELF THE PROGRESS THAT HAS BEEN MADE. IN A FOUR-PART SERIES, I’LL BE CHRONICLING MY TRAVELS THROUGHOUT PUERTO RICO AND SHARING THE INSPIRING STORIES OF THE PEOPLE IN THE TOURISM INDUSTRY WHO I MET ALONG THE WAY. MY HOPE IS TO USE THESE STORIES AND PHOTOS TO PUT A FACE TO THE RECOVERY EFFORTS AND TO ENCOURAGE OTHERS TO VISIT THE ISLAND OF ENCHANTMENT.

IN PART I, WE’RE HIGHLIGHTING ACROSS CARIBE, A HUSBAND-AND-WIFE TOUR OPERATOR SPECIALIZING IN OFF-THE-BEATEN-PATH EXPERIENCES ACROSS PUERTO RICO.

“Her name means ‘movement.’”

At El Jibarito, a popular local lunch spot in Old San Juan, I sat across the table from Sahid and Cindy Perez, watching in amazement and amusement their two-year-old little girl, Noa. We had just spent the last four hours in the Puerto Rican heat—canvasing the streets of Old San Juan in search of those bragworthy shots of the city’s iconic sites (not the most exciting activity for an active toddler)—and here was Noa, still climbing over chairs and her parents, thanks in part to several pit stops where she refueled on quesito, fruit, the leftover cookies from the cup holder of her stroller and now a sampling of her parents’ lunch. The Perezes spoke glowingly of their precocious toddler, who frequently transitioned from Dutch to Spanish to English in the same sentence, opened up naturally to total strangers with a toothy smile and spent “quiet time” at the table watching YouTube videos on Play-Doh, apparently one of her favorite hobbies.

If you weren’t already tired from the long walk, you’d get tired just by watching her run around with a seemingly bottomless well of energy.

After spending a day with the Perezes, I learned that the meaning of Noa’s name not only captures her personality but, in a way, also serves as a personal mantra for the entire family. And that passion for movement, for growth and adventure through travel, shines through in the tours and activities that the Perezes offer through Across Caribe, which specializes in off-the-beaten-path experiences across Puerto Rico.

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Sahid’s and Cindy’s lives have been as colorful as the bright pastel buildings that they photograph in Old San Juan, and that sense of wanderlust—now passed down and personified in Noa—developed in both of them at an early age. Sahid, born in Venezuela and raised in Puerto Rico, traveled around the world as a professional surfer in his teenage years, eventually coming back to the island to study sculpture and photography. From the Netherlands and trained as a dancer, Cindy bounced around as well, teaching and performing in countries across Europe, the Americas, Africa and even Asia. They met doing what they love—traveling and surfing—in Bali, and after a few years together, decided to turn their passion into a career in 2012.

As with most entrepreneurs, the Perezes can trace their company’s history back to modest beginnings, with Sahid offering tours out of his personal car, a ’91 Ford Nissan Quest minivan. Now, after consecutive years of TripAdvisor’s Certificate of Excellence designation, the company has on staff a number of local and experienced guides (and a comfier van).

I’ve been on my fair share of tours over the years, and what initially drew me to Across Caribe was the uniqueness of the activities and the experiential elements built into each. From the Afro-Puerto Rican Heritage Tour—taking guests to the town of Loiza, with deep roots in African-Taino history, art and culture—to the Salsa Dance Workshop, you’re not just seeing the beauty of Puerto Rico; you become an active participant.

“We stand out from the rest of the tour companies by taking our guests in small tours of off-the-beaten path locations, from the rain forest and beaches to eateries throughout the island,” said Cindy.

The Old San Juan Photography Workshop captures Across Caribe’s selling points, combining an informational walking tour of the centuries-old city with a hands-on photography lesson from none other than Sahid himself. Though my friend Katherine and I came armed only with our smartphones, Sahid spent the first 30 minutes of our tour explaining the basics, from the “rule of thirds” to framing to basic camera functionality. We then had ample time to practice over the next three hours, visiting the more well-known landmarks like the garitas at El Morro to the side streets lined with bright multi-colored doors and wrought-iron balconies draped with masses of bright pink and purple bougainvillea. Though Sahid encouraged us to explore and experiment with our own photos, he also took time to point out great shots, like the one I captured of an older gentleman, the Puerto Rican flag looking over his shoulder, pausing in between the strums on his guitar to quietly observe the stream of locals and visitors passing by.

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A life of movement, of travel, has once again led the Perezes to a new home, this time under unanticipated circumstances. Like many other Puerto Ricans, Sahid and Cindy experienced the compounding effect of Hurricanes Irma and Marie, both slamming into the island within weeks of each other. Twice over the span of a month, the family bounced around to stay with different friends, each time escaping severe damage to their home. Then with the continued media coverage of the storms’ damage, tourism came to a halt. Many of their guides, along with thousands of other residents, left for the States and haven’t yet returned. Some who remained took other, more reliable jobs with FEMA or in other industries. The Perezes stayed in Puerto Rico as long as they could, even spending weeks donating their van and time to Dr. Sally Priester and a group of volunteers that delivered food, medicine and supplies to the homes of the elderly without power. Eventually, the Perezes themselves faced the difficult decision of relocating, ultimately settling in San Diego with Noa and their newborn son Luca and managing Across Caribe from afar.

Despite the setbacks, visitors are slowly returning, and tours are starting to pick up. Across Caribe’s most popular excursion continues to be the El Yunque tour, which takes guests to a more remote and scenic part of the 29,000 acre park, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. forest system.

As business ticks up, Sahid and Cindy hope to move back to Puerto Rico for part of the year to allow them to also support a new branch of Across Caribe in San Diego.

“As a small business owner, the hurricanes were devastating for us,” recalled Cindy. “But we started Across Caribe from our hearts and do not want to let it go. We stay optimistic that things will pick up, or we will enter a new path that will lead to amazing things for the company.”

For more information on Across Caribe and available tours, visit www.acrosscaribe.com.

 

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