Water deficit is the major yield-limiting factor for sugarcane crop production that can be enhanced by inoculating with plant growth promoting bacteria (PGPB) combined with humic substances. The aim of this work was to examine changes to the metabolic profile and antioxidant enzyme activity of sugarcane treated with PGPB and humic acid (HA) after drought and then rehydration. The drought was imposed by withholding irrigation for 21 days thereby measuring enzyme activity, metabolic profile and photosynthetic rate 1 week after rehydratation. Growth of plants treated with HA, PGPB and with both treatments combined (PGPB + HA) was higher than control plants. The antioxidant enzymes superoxide dismutase (SOD), catalase (CAT) and ascorbate peroxidase (APX) activities remained higher after rehydration only in plants treated with HA. Plants treated with HA and PGPB + HA exhibited increased transpiration, stomatal conductance and net photosynthesis than plants treated with PGPB. The PGPB-treated plants exhibited drought resistance that resembled ‘delayed stress onset’, which is a new term for preserving water in the plants tissues. Water preservation in plants treated with PGPB was corroborated by higher relative water content (RWC) than control plants at the end of the drought period. Plants treated with HA + PGPB exhibited the highest water potential after rehydration and high RWC. Osmotic adjustment in the other treatments (control, HA and PGPB) was indicated by a new pattern of metabolic response after rehydration, including generally enhanced carbohydrates and proteins and specific changes induced by HA-enhancing aromatic compounds, whereas PGPB exhibited enhanced fatty acids and other aliphatic H species. Humic acids assist with drought stress recovery by inducing antioxidant enzyme activity whereas PGPB induced preservation of leaf water potential and RWC by closing stomata efficiently, resulting in plant water preservation.