Melissa Alvarado Sierra has traveled the world by land, sea, and air, but when she began working as a freelance writer and had the option to settle down anywhere she wanted, she knew she’d be happiest returning home to Puerto Rico. This was the island she was born and raised on, where she spent her days exploring beaches and forests with her brother, discovering the power of nature, and falling in love with Puerto Rican cuisine by way of her grandmother’s home-cooked meals. Although it took her years of traversing the globe to realize it, this was her home — this was where she needed to be.

Today, Melissa can be found exploring Puerto Rico with a notebook in hand, drawing inspiration from the island’s natural beauty. We sat down with her to learn more about her home, her upbringing, and how settling down among her roots has influenced her creativity.

Where in Puerto Rico are you from? What was it like growing up on the island?

I was born and raised in the mountains of Puerto Rico, in a small town called Cayey. My childhood was a blend of rural and aquatic adventures thanks to my parents, who took me to the deeply forested areas of Cayey every weekend and summer. We’d camp in the rural neighborhood of Cercadillo, among the central mountain range, and my older brother and I would run down the rolling hills to reach rivers and ponds, eat wild fruits, and crawl over boulders. We’d get intentionally lost for the fun of it, but we’d always find our way back.

The aquatic escapades I owe to my grandparents, who had a trailer and a motorboat in the coastal town of Cabo Rojo. We’d go fishing together in the wee hours of the morning, always watching out for the hellish jellyfish that were abundant in those waters — one bite and your skin would burn all day. I mostly remember our daily walks by the shore, my grandmother cooking rice and beans in a makeshift stove over the sand, and my brother and me running around as if those days would last forever. My grandparents sold the boat and trailer many years ago, and we never went back. Recently, my grandmother passed away. But those days by the sea, in that quirky and humble town of Cabo Rojo, remain intact, as if frozen in time.

What do you love most about Puerto Rico?

What I love the most about my island is its people. The friendly nature of the Boricua (Puerto Rican people) is very peculiar and adorable. We like to laugh out loud, hug everyone, and share everything.

Puerto Rico is also a heavenly respite of refreshing waterfalls, pool-like beaches, an impossibly green countryside, and some of the best food in the world. Truly, our cuisine is extraordinary. Have you tried a mofongo?

What drew you to writing initially?

Writing has been a constant in my life. I wrote my first travel “article” at the age of nine, about a road trip my family took to Seven Seas in Fajardo, one of the most pristine beaches on the island. I remember all of us carrying the camping gear to our spot by the water. My brother and I were in charge of carrying the pillows, and we were so excited to get there that we ran as fast as we could. We dropped the pillows, and the sand invaded their every crevice. That night, we slept with the grains rubbing against our faces. I’ve always had a fear of memories fading away, but writing gave me a way to save them and make them permanent.

How did your upbringing in Puerto Rico influence your development as a writer?

Growing up in Puerto Rico allowed me to appreciate the power of the natural world. Instead of getting caught up in the worries of the material world, of urban environments, I learned to watch nature unfold and better understand myself as a creator. There’s a permanency in nature — an element of presence — that is conducive to creativity. When I’m out there, I listen, and the motherland whispers back. There’s an undeniable connection there, and it inspires my writing unfailingly.

I see that you traveled the world by sailboat for a while. Where did that trip take you, and what are some of your favorite memories from that time?

My husband and I regularly sail for months at a time, mostly in the Caribbean Sea. One of our most memorable trips was sailing to the Lesser Antilles, where we were enchanted by places like St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and a little island called Mustique. We had no idea that Mustique was a private island, a celebrity- and royals-studded destination, so we arrived and ventured around casually — hanging out with the locals, eating where they ate, drinking where they drank. We met extraordinary people, from generations of humble fishermen to ingenious Creole cooks, though we never bumped into any celebrities, or royals.

What challenges did you face during your journey, and what did you learn from them?

Luckily, my husband is a professional sailor and mariner. We have faced many challenges at sea, but his expertise always gets us out of trouble. One particular challenge comes to mind, though. We were sailing from San Juan to Fajardo, a nine-hour trip, when the weather changed dramatically. The forecasts were wrong, and we were suddenly immersed in a terrible storm. The sailboat was battling rough waves, the rain was falling furiously, and the strong wind could have knocked us off the boat. My husband told me to go inside, where I held on to the VHF radio and kept an eye on him in case of an SOS, while he bravely stayed out, navigating while barely being able to stand.

The tempest lasted for hours, but we arrived in Fajardo in one piece, having learned that you should never sail alone. If the weather changes quickly and you’re sailing solo, the risks grow exponentially. Sailing in groups is much safer. Venturing out alone could result in you falling off the boat and no one ever knowing what happened. We were grateful that we had each other.

Ultimately, you settled back down in Puerto Rico — what influenced that decision?

After living in different countries and exploring life aboard a sailboat, I came back to Puerto Rico because there’s no other place I’d rather be. I missed my people, that adorable singalong accent we have, our beaches, our forests, our food. Puerto Rico is my home, and it took years of living outside of it to make me understand how much I needed to come back. I know things are not ideal on the island, but I made the conscious choice of returning and finding a way to stay. I find the freelance life very liberating in terms of location, and if I am able to live anywhere in the world, why not live on my beloved island?

What locations or experiences do you recommend to those visiting Puerto Rico?

Go to San Juan for a day or two and then rent a car and explore! Even after the hurricane, Puerto Rico is one of the best destinations for road trips. You’ll find that necessity has been the engine of invention here, so it’ll be easy to support local businesses with so many new and exciting offerings. Head to the west coast for surf towns and rugged scenery, or drive east for island-hopping and mouthwatering seafood. And, if you’re in the mood for the best roasted pork in the island, please stop by my hometown, Cayey, and drive up to the sector of Guavate. You will thank me.

What do you do to kickstart your creativity when you’ve hit writer’s block?

Oh, writer’s block, my faithful friend. To move through my blocks, I go back to nature or listen to music. Depending on what I’m writing about, I find a soundtrack that elevates me. For instance, if I’m writing about Mexico, I’ll go with Aterciopelados or Los Fabulosos Cadillacs. If I’m writing about Puerto Rico, I’ll listen to Los Walters or Fania. It’s all about getting into a mood and then a groove. Once the ambiance is created, the words flow more easily.

What do you want people who have never been to Puerto Rico to know about it?

I want them to know that my island is more than the stereotypes, more than the natural disasters, and more than its economic struggles. All countries go through rough times, but many things remain the same, no matter what. If you want to meet truly friendly people and discover paradise, I invite you to come to Puerto Rico. We keep smiling in the face of hardship because we know that what really matters never fades. So come and enjoy our beaches, our tropical forests, and our finger-licking food. Come dance salsa with us, and leave your worries behind.

Visit Melissa’s website to view more of her work, or check out her Instagram to find out what she’s been up to lately.

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Devon Shuman
Devon Shuman is a creator, a storyteller, and a traveler from Boston, Massachusetts. He caught the travel bug at a young age when his family would take camping trips in southern Maine and New York’s Adirondack region. Since then, his adventures have taken him all across the globe. His favorite journeys include island hopping in the Galápagos, thru-hiking Vermont’s Long Trail, and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro. He currently works as an editorial consultant for Passion Passport, helping explorers from around the world tell their stories.