La Perla is the ramshackle barrio just beyond El Morro and the cemetery, hugging the Atlantic coast below the city walls. It’s been one of San Juan’s most deprived areas since the eighteenth century, when it became the refuge of city outcasts as well as the poorer families of soldiers stationed at El Morro. It won notoriety in 1966 as the subject of La Vida, Oscar Lewis’s controversial study of poverty on the island, and in 2006 it was one of the locations for the movie El Cantante, the place where salsa legend Héctor Lavoe came to shoot heroin. While it’s true that some of La Perla’s inhabitants make a living from crime (and drugs are a problem here), they rarely pose a threat to tourists. In fact, locals observe a strict street code – harming outsiders brings unwanted police attention. Having said that, there’s little reason to voyeuristically wander the area’s narrow streets. You can meet some of the local characters in La Callejón (the alley), a cluster of bars at the northern end of c/Tanca, back in the old town above La Perla – it’s best if you speak Spanish. Bars such as El Adoquin del Patio are usually quite safe and on Friday nights attract a boisterous, friendly crowd with live music and plenty of cheap rum.

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