Nothing else in the Caribbean quite compares to San Juan , the frenetic, party-loving capital of Puerto Rico. With around 1.5 million people, Greater San Juan contains over a third of the island’s population. It’s also one of the largest urban areas in the region, crisscrossed with highways brimming with SUVs and the proud home of the Caribbean’s biggest shopping mall, its only subway system and all the other trappings of a modern American metropolis. Indeed, sanjuaneros like to compare their city with Miami, rather than more obvious regional peers like Santo Domingo and Havana. But while San Juan owes much to its links with the US mainland, it’s the city’s criollo roots, a rich stew of cultures and races, which provide the real allure.
The historical heart of the city is Old San Juan, a seductive blend of Spanish colonial charm, Caribbean languor and modern chic. Its cobbled streets are laced with brightly painted houses and balconies of vivid tropical blooms, with the odd palm tree squashed in between. Get to grips with the island’s turbulent history at El Morro, the imposing Spanish fortress that juts into San Juan Bay like a giant stone fist. The old cemetery nearby offers a more poignant window into the past, the resting place of many of Puerto Rico’s most illustrious citizens, while modest but engaging museums such as the Museo de Las Américas provide insights into the island’s Taíno and African roots. For a city of this size, San Juan’s beaches are pretty good too and the well-established surf scene has plenty to whet the appetite of serious shredders as well as beginners. The best beach is Isla Verde, east of the old town, where smart resorts and boutique hotels face a fine strip of sand and clear, turquoise waters, and Condado also boasts a long strand.
If you have the time, it’s well worth getting beyond the tourist zones and finding out what makes contemporary San Juan tick. The edgier barrio of Santurce, behind the beaches, has some of the best clubs in the city, plenty of cheap comida criolla and a couple of excellent art galleries, the Museo de Arte and Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. Further south, Río Piedras is a laidback campus district with San Juan’s most vibrant market, while rural Piñones along the coast is where sanjuaneros take weekend escapes to party. The historic town of Caguas also makes for an enticing day-trip, with a smattering of less-visited museums and galleries. When it comes to food, the city’s restaurants are the most innovative in the Caribbean, ranging from rustic local diners to stylish temples of fusion cuisine. San Juan is also one of the best places in the world to experience salsa and the distinctively Puerto Rican sound of reggaetón – ideally with a rum and Coke or piña colada in hand.
In contrast to other areas of Puerto Rico, Greater San Juan seems to have supported a relatively small number of Taíno settlements and the modern history of the city begins with the arrival of Juan Ponce de León in 1508. The Spanish conquistador surveyed what today is San Juan Bay and named it Puerto Rico (“Rich Port”) before establishing Caparra a few miles inland. It didn’t take long to realize that laying down roots in such a swampy location was a big mistake. After a prolonged dispute between the settlers and Ponce de León, the colony was moved to today’s Old San Juan and formally established in 1521. Ponce de León, who never accepted the move, sailed for Florida and died the same year – despite monuments in the city that suggest otherwise, he was not the founder of San Juan. How the name Puerto Rico was switched with “San Juan”, the original name of the island, is still a source of debate: the process was probably gradual, but by the mid-eighteenth century the current conventions were firmly established.
As one of the most strategic cities in Spain’s vast American empire, San Juan was the constant target of pirates and envious foreign powers. The English attacked in 1595, when Sir Francis Drake was rebuffed and again in 1598, when the Earl of Cumberland captured the city for sixty days. The Dutch sacked San Juan in 1625, while the British, under Sir Ralph Abercromby, were beaten off in 1797 by primarily local militia – a feat that is still the source of immense pride on the island.
Despite its capital status, San Juan remained a small city until the twentieth century. Nevertheless, by 1898, when the US took control of the island in the aftermath of the Spanish–American War, Old San Juan was desperately overcrowded: Puerta de Tierra became an overspill area for the city’s poor, while Río Piedras and Condado were absorbed as wealthier suburbs. Under US rule the city was rapidly modernized. Tourism developed gradually in the 1920s; boosted by the legalization of casinos in 1940, the real boom came in the 1960s, when Condado benefited from the US embargo of Cuba.
After a period of relative decline, the city was given a much-needed face-lift in the mid-1990s and today San Juan receives over a million cruise-ship passengers annually, making it one of the busiest cruise ports in the world.Read More
If you’re in town for a short time but want to learn to dance salsa, your best bet is to visit Latin Roots in Old San Juan. The bar usually offers lessons during the day when cruise ships are in port, but there are always experts around to give advice. The Picante Lounge at the Courtyard Isla Verde Beach Resort (Avda Boca de Cangrejos 7012, Isla Verde; t787/791-0404) offers free lessons Thursday at 8pm, while the Lobby Lounge at the San Juan Marriott Resort in Condado serves up nightly Latin live acts and dancing – salsa lessons are also sometimes held (call to check).
For more structured lessons and courses, try Salzuumba (t787/342-6964, w www.salzuumba.com), in Santurce at Avda Ponce de León 1418. The school is easy to reach by bus and offers ten salsa lessons for $80. It’s open Monday to Friday 6–9pm and Saturday 10am–4pm.
The big smoke
The big smoke
Puerto Rican cigars may not be as prized as their Cuban counterparts, but they’re almost as good. Don Collins (www.don-collins.com) is part of the Puerto Rico Tobacco Corporation, with a shop at c/Cristo 59 that sells some wonderful varieties, though like everything else here, they’re not cheap. The Puros Indios are dipped in rum ($17.26 each) and taste sensational, while the Lonsdale CF are cured in vanilla ($10.52). You can buy a selection box of their whole range from $29.99 for four and even tour the factory in Bayamón if you contact them in advance. You can also check out Cigar Lounge/Cigar House at c/Fortaleza 277 or El Galpón, which both stock a good selection of Puerto Rican and Dominican cigars.
Surfing San Juan
Surfing San Juan
The local surf scene in San Juan is well established and with the coast taking an almost constant battering from the Atlantic Ocean, there are plenty of enticing breaks to suit all levels. La 8 Surf Shop (t787/723-9808, wwww.la8surf.com), at Avda Ponce de León 450 in Puerta de Tierra (near La Ocho), is one of the best in the city, selling, fixing and renting boards ($25/3hr; $50/day), as well as arranging lessons with a couple of pro-surfers. You can also contact the instructors yourself: William “Chino” Sue A Quan (t787/955-6059; wwww.wowsurfingschool.com) is a good teacher for both beginners and more experienced surfers. Lessons are $50 per person for 1hr 30 min. Costazul Surf Shop in Old San Juan at c/San Francisco 264 also offers lessons and board rental in addition to surfing gear. In Isla Verde make for Surf Face, in La Plazoleta shopping court (t 787/791-6800), for a good selection of surf gear and boards.
The best breaks
Beginners should make for this fine beach break in Isla Verde (in front of the Ritz), which has small waves and a sandy bottom.
This break, just west of Escambrón beach in Puerta de Tierra, should pose no problems for surfers with slightly more experience. You have to paddle out a bit and there’s a rocky bottom, but the water’s deep and it’s popular with long-boarders.
Includes Chatarras, a hollow, fast reef break, not far from the last line of kioscos off PR-187: the swell is not consistent but when it gets up you’ll score some excellent tubes. Playa Aviones is a more consistent reef break in shallower water suitable for most levels, while Tocones is a short beach break with fast waves popular with body-boarders, but watch the currents here.
Cockfighting is one of the most traditional and controversial pursuits in Puerto Rico, a blood sport which dates back to the Spanish colonial period and is vigorously defended by its chief supporters. The main arena for cockfights in San Juan is Club Gallistico de Puerto Rico, at Avda Isla Verde 6600. Ringside seats are $40, but the $10.70 seats higher up provide perfectly adequate views. Women are welcome, though in practice you won’t see many inside.
After being weighed and given a brief “warm-up”, the two combatants are released and the fight begins, accompanied by frenetic shouting around the ring as bets are placed. You’ll hear cries of “azul, azul!” (blue) for one and “blanco, blanco!” (white) for the other, followed by the amount being waged – white or blue ribbons denote which rooster is which. Fights run almost continuously throughout the day and last a maximum of fifteen minutes each, or until one of the roosters can no longer stand (you’ll rarely see them die in the ring). It’s certainly a unique experience, but be warned: the roosters really do peck the hell out of each other and the arena floor can become bloody – it may be too disturbing for some to watch. The main season is January to May; check in advance at other times.
Watersports in San Juan
Watersports in San Juan
San Juan is not the best place on the island for diving, but there are a couple of decent reefs just offshore. Ocean Sports, at Avda Ashford 1035 in Condado (787/723-8513, www.osdivers.com) and Avda Isla Verde 77 in Isla Verde (787/268-2329) offers dives for certified divers from $85. Scuba Dogs ( 787/783-6377, www.scubadogs.net) also maintains the artificial Escambrón Marine Park near the beach of the same name, the perfect place for learners.
San Juan has a justifiably good reputation for deep-sea fishing: lines go out just twenty minutes offshore, with blue and white marlin the top attractions, but plenty of snapper, dolphinfish, wahoo, sailfish and tuna to aim for as well. The most professional expeditions are arranged by Mike Benítez’ Sport Fishing (787/723-2292, www.mikebenitezsportfishing.com) and depart from the Club Náutico de San Juan on Avenida Fernández Juncos, at the eastern end of Puerta de Tierra. Charters for a maximum of six people cost $650 for a half-day or $210 per fisherman and $90 per passenger.
For windsurfing, head to Punta Las Marías (east of Ocean Park) and the four-mile reef about half a mile out, which is one of the best wave-sailing spots on the island. To get started, visit Velauno at c/Loíza 2430 (787/728-8716, www.velauno.com), close to the top end of Isla Verde and five blocks from the beach. This huge shop is the primary wind- and kite-surfing centre in the city. Beginner lessons cost $110 for two hours, including boards. Nearby is Beach Cats, at c/Loíza 2434 (787/727-0883, beachcatspr.com), another wind- and kite-surfing specialist that organizes lessons and rents boards.
Many companies that run boat trips from Villa Marina and Puerto del Rey on the east coast offer transport to and from San Juan.
Claiming the piña colada
Claiming the piña colada
Synonymous with both tropical languor and the high life, the piña colada became Puerto Rico’s national drink in 1978, thanks to the widely held view that it was created here over fifty years ago. The official claimant (recognized by the Puerto Rican government) is bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, who is said to have created the drink while working in the former Beachcombers’ Bar of the Caribe Hilton in 1954 (their Piña Colada Club keeps up the tradition today). However, if you visit the Barrachina restaurant at c/Fortaleza 104 in Old San Juan (wwww.barrachina.com), a marble plaque on the street claims that Don Ramon Portas Mingot created the drink there in 1963.
The truth is that no one really knows who invented the cocktail – “piña coladas” were being made in Cuba at the turn of the century, where they literally were just non-alcoholic “strained pineapple”. However, some aficionados claim the alcoholic version was mentioned in travel magazines as early as 1922 with reference to Cuba. The latter is definitely the home of the mojito and daiquiri and perhaps the piña colada too – but just don’t say that when you’re in Puerto Rico.
You’ll find clusters of hotels throughout Greater San Juan, but for visitors only two areas make sense: Old San Juan, which has the most historic accommodation and contains the city’s best bars, restaurants and sights; and the beaches, which have less character but boast a decent range of eating and drinking options in addition to the obvious attractions of surf and sand. Condado (the closest to Old San Juan) and Isla Verde are more developed resort areas, with Ocean Park in between offering a quieter experience without the choice of amenities. The newly renovated Condado Vanderbilt Hotel (wwww.condadovanderbilthotel.com) at Avda Ashford 1055, is a magnificent Spanish Revival villa built in 1919; it’s one of the best hotels in the city.
For longer stays or larger groups, consider renting apartments or villas via agents such as Caleta Realty (wwww.caletarealty.com), which has several smart properties in Old San Juan, or PR West (wwww.prwest.com), which also rents places in Condado and Isla Verde.
Taxes and charges added to the price of a room are outrageously high in San Juan, sometimes increasing the bill by as much as 25 percent: check the total price before agreeing to pay. Depending on the size of the hotel, mandatory government taxes range from 7 to 11 percent, and anything in excess of this has been levied as a service charge. Some hotels charge a resort fee of 10 to 15 percent to pay for things like use of towels, pool and spa.
Eating and drinking
Eating and drinking
San Juan has a well-deserved reputation as the culinary capital of the Caribbean. The city is packed with restaurants showcasing everything from international haute cuisine and classy Nuevo Latino cooking to American diners and humble canteens serving tasty cocina criolla, the perfect introduction to the island’s own rich gastronomic traditions.
Old San Juan offers the most diversity and some of the best restaurants on the island. Meals can be expensive here, but there are plenty of cheap options and the scene is by no means solely tourist-oriented – most of the people eating here will be locals, especially in the mornings. The cheapest places are the stalls along the waterfront, where you can usually pick up fried snacks such alcapurrias and bacalaítos for less than $2, or Kiosko 4 Estaciones on the northwest side of Plaza de Armas, open 24 hours for pastas, sandwiches (less than $5) and excellent coffee. The most fashionable restaurants in the city are located in Old San Juan’s SoFo (“South Fortaleza”) district, offering superb fusion and international cuisine in equally elaborate premises. For self-catering or picnics, stock up at the Super Max supermarket on Plaza de Armas.
The beach areas of Condado and Isla Verde also boast a number of excellent and conveniently located restaurants, while cheaper, no-frills diners can be found in Santurce, and there are plenty of fast-food outlets if you get desperate, particularly along the main avenues in Condado and Isla Verde.
Going out in San Juan can be a raucous, all-night affair. Weekends are especially lively and Calle de San Sebastián in Old San Juan becomes jam-packed with people out to party. It tends to get busy around 11pm and winds down after 3am, though many bars and clubs – especially in the beach districts – keep going well beyond dawn. Lovers of rum, cocktails, salsa and, not least, thumping reggaetón, are particularly well catered for; in addition, the gay scene is the most sophisticated in the Caribbean. If you want something a little less intense, the large resorts offer plenty of activities as well and you can always hit the casinos.
Old San Juan has the highest concentration of historic, local cantinas full of character. Many SoFo restaurants double as lounge bars at the weekend, if that’s more your thing. In Condado, the hotel bars overlooking the beaches are the best places for drinks, but there are several pubs inland and Santurce is just a short drive or walk away, home to some of the biggest clubs, a thriving gay scene and the lively bar and restaurant area known as La Placita, centred on the Plaza del Mercado. Come here on a Thursday or Friday night, when the whole area becomes a wild salsa party. Isla Verde nightlife is fairly self-contained but just as animated, with most bars open until dawn, especially on weekends – here also many restaurants double as bars and discos.
The major clubs in San Juan tend to serve up the usual mix of hip-hop and house variants, but as elsewhere in Latin America, almost all of them splice in (or have nights dedicated to) Latino sounds such as salsa. This being Puerto Rico, there’s also plenty of reggaetón around.
San Juan is one of the world’s great centres of salsa and if you love Latin dance you’re in for a real treat. Lessons are a good way to get warmed up for clubs that specialize in salsa beats, but there are also shows and live performances, many in the resort hotels, where you can watch popular salsa bands and professional dancers do the work. It’s also worth checking with the tourist office for upcoming events and salsa festivals: the annual Salsa Congress (t787/449-2002, wwww.puertoricosalsacongress.com) is usually held at the Puerto Rico Convention Center every July. You can generally get tickets to watch the main competition for $10, while other performances cost $10–25.
San Juan is generally gay-friendly and most clubs have gay nights. Much of the explicitly gay nightlife in the city once revolved around the gay-oriented hotels and bars in Condado, with the Atlantic Beach Bar (c/Vendig 1) especially popular on Sunday afternoons (after 4pm). These days, though, you need to head behind the beach to Santurce for a more cutting-edge club scene. Don’t miss San Juan’s annual LGBT Pride parade held in June.
San Juan is one of the most important cultural centres in the Caribbean, with a hectic programme of concerts, shows and festivals year-round. Casinos play a big part in the city’s tourist industry, while cinemas show all the US blockbusters as well as Spanish-language films.
Everything from classical music and theatre, to folk music, hip-hop concerts and cutting-edge performance art takes place in San Juan on a weekly basis. To get an idea of what’s happening, check the local newspapers or ask at the tourist office. There are numerous concert and performance venues in San Juan, but the one with the most character is Teatro Tapia on the south side of Plaza Colón in the old town. The Centro de Bellas Artes, on Avenida Ponce de León in Santurce, is a lavish, modern arts centre with three theatres and home of the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (wwww.sinfonicapr.gobierno.pr).
All the major hotels and resorts in San Juan have casinos, with flashing lights and vast swathes of Las Vegas-style slot machines. Note that many places don’t offer much more than this, however, and only the fancier hotels provide the full range of card games, roulette and the like. Top of the list is the 24-hour Ritz-Carlton Casino (t787/253-1700), inside the hotel in Isla Verde, with elegant 1940s decor, the largest floor in Puerto Rico and all the major games on offer. In Old San Juan make for the Sheraton Old San Juan Hotel Casino on the waterfront (c/Brumbaugh 100; t787/721-5100, wwww.sheratonoldsanjuan.com), a welcoming place with similarly endless rows of slot machines and plenty of table games. Most casinos have a dress code for men (don’t wear shorts).
The most festive period to be in San Juan is over the Christmas holidays, when you’ll hear live music everywhere: it’s the best time to catch cuatro players and performances of aguinaldos, a type of Christmas folk music unique to the island, but based on traditional Spanish carols. Aguinaldos are performed by groups of singers known as parrandas, going from house to house much like carol singers in Europe or North America. On New Year’s Eve half the city descends on the campo in front of El Morro to watch the sun rise amid a real party atmosphere – bring a blanket and plenty to drink. On January 6 crowds gather in Old San Juan for Three Kings Day, featuring concerts and the governor handing out presents to children, while the official end to the exhaustive holiday season is marked by the Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián (Jan 18–21), with processions, craft stalls and around 70,000 people crammed into Old San Juan.
One of the city’s biggest religious festivals – the Fiestas Patronales de San Juan Bautista – honours its patron saint St John the Baptist, with dancing, feasts, bonfires, parades and more. At midnight on June 23 (the day before St John’s Day itself), half the city can be found on the beaches, where revellers march backwards into the Atlantic three or seven times, to ward off bad luck and evil spirits.
San Juan is a decent place to pick up general souvenirs, but it also attracts serious collectors looking for contemporary Puerto Rican art. The best streets for browsing in Old San Juan are Calle del Cristo and Calle de La Fortaleza, while for a more conventional experience, Plaza Las Américas (wwww.plazalasamericas.com), on the western edge of Hato Rey, is the largest mall in the Caribbean, with JC Penney, Macy’s and Sears department stores, as well as all the other major US chains.
Antiques, arts and crafts
The narrow streets of Old San Juan offer the best opportunities for browsing for crafts and antiques. You’ll find everything from high-quality gifts, prints and carvings, particularly santos, to colourful vejigante masks and the usual line-up of tacky T-shirts and souvenirs. Unless stated otherwise, shops tend to open daily from 10am to 6pm.
In recent years San Juan’s contemporary art scene has really taken off, with a strong base of talented local artists and growing international interest. Many of the cutting-edge galleries are in Santurce, but there are plenty of showrooms in Old San Juan. For any galleries in the former, it’s important to call in advance, as opening times tend to be irregular.
Young Puerto Rican designers are making quite a name for themselves and San Juan is the best place to get a taster of the latest trends. For more information check out wwww.sanjuanfashion.com, or attend San Juan Fashion Week, which usually runs twice a year, in March and September.