There’s Something About San Juan: Visiting Puerto Rico’s Capital
San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, has a lot going for it: gorgeous beaches with clear azure-blue water, lively food and art scenes, proximity to beautiful rainforests, and a sense of history (old San Juan has more than 400 restored buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries). And once you find out that Old San Juan’s housing is not expensive—that particular area, though beautiful, is not regarded as fashionable by the locals—you might ponder buying a colonial-era apartment there to indulge in the relaxed Caribbean way of life.
A few other reasons for Americans to visit San Juan: you don’t need a passport to visit, as it’s a US territory; you can use your cell phone for the same cost as you would at home; and, if you live on the West Coast and are craving a tropical getaway, Puerto Rico is a refreshing change of pace from visiting Hawaii.
Located in San Juan’s trendiest neighborhood, Condado, the San Juan Marriott Resort is right on the beach and a mere 10-minute walk to Old San Juan. I loved my casually elegant, recently renovated room, with its large balcony overlooking the Atlantic. The beach, its white sand speckled with blue lounge chairs, is beyond inviting, and the bodysurfing is excellent. With a bar right next to the beach area, you’re always just a few steps from lunch or a mojito. The hotel’s main bar, the Red Coral Lounge, is a chic place to people watch, listen to live music, and try the house specialty Dragon Berry Mojito, a refreshing, not-too-sweet concoction of freshly muddled strawberries, mint leaves, lime, and sugar topped with Dragon Berry Bacardi. It became apparent that, despite the name, this was not a terribly corporate hotel when an employee left his mop and bucket for a couple of minutes to hit the dance floor, where he was greeted with cheers by onlookers.
One of my favorite things about my stay was the auditory stimulation. The roaring ocean waves could be heard even from my 14th-floor room, lulling me to sleep every night. When I sat by the pool, I heard songs from the coqui, the tiny singing frogs native to Puerto Rico.
Get in touch with the beauty of the Puerto Rican rainforest on the El Toro Negro Rainforest Adventure tour, which includes a five-mile hike with zip-lining and rappelling along the way. Three people from the tour company Acampa picked my group up at our hotel and took us on the 90-minute ride to the rainforest, which we entered by hiking through a coffee plantation, then continuing on through creeks and over boulders for our tour. The five-mile hikes include four exhilarating stops to zip-line above canyons and a waterfall, along with a rappel down a hillside. We saw incredible wildlife, including exotic birds and frogs half the size of my pinky nail, along with such exotic sights as termite nests.
Along the way, our guides filled us in about our surroundings, and due to their vast knowledge of the area were able to have us taste various finds along the way, including freshly picked bananas, coffee beans, pineapple, and passion fruit. It was remarkably peaceful; other than ourselves, and the area wildlife, we didn’t hear or see another soul during our time in the rainforest. After several hours of trekking, we hiked out of the forest and stopped to eat al fresco on a lunch prepared for us by local townspeople. The delicious homemade meal of traditional Puerto Rican fare included roast pork, rice and beans, and fried plantains.
Though Don Q is the Puerto Rican’s rum of choice (or so numerous natives told me), the Casa Bacardi rum distillery tour is one of the island’s top attractions. The free cocktails might have something to do with it. It’s a short ferry ride from Old San Juan, and once there you’ll explore the distillery, learn more than you thought there was to know about rum, and enjoy a couple of rum drinks (included in the ticket price). For an extra fee, there’s also the option of taking a mixology class, where you can learn to muddle with the best of them.
If you’re a fan of street art, you’ll want to visit Santurce. A San Juan neighborhood just blocks from Condado, this grittier area showcases dozens of vibrantly colored street murals on buildings and along freeway underpasses. Not just for local artists, it’s becoming more and more of a destination for artists from around the world.
Located in Old San Juan, Café Puerto Rico serves traditional native fare in a space covered with vibrantly colored artwork by local artists. If you haven’t had mofongo—a regional dish of mashed and fried plantains or yucca that’s filled with fish, seafood, or meat—during your stay in Puerto Rico, this is one of the best places to try it. Also recommended: shrimp and rice, guava and cheese in cinnamon sauce, and yellow rice with salted cod.
The culinary highlight of my stay in San Juan was dinner at Cocina Abierta, a trendy local favorite focusing on eclectic, elevated tapas. The sophisticated but laid-back space serves adventurous cuisine, including such surprises as mofongo stuffed with duck confit, goat cannelloni with porcini mushrooms and rosemary pangrattato, creamy Vidalia onion soup with thyme, petit beef Wellington with foie gras sauce, and plantain carpaccio brûlée with tuna tatake, shiitakes, and avocado. Cocina Abierta has an unusually interesting dessert menu thanks to its passionate pastry chef. Dessert highlights include chocolate crème brûlée with chipotle and a deconstructed carrot cake, with its various elements, including a salted caramel gelato, laid out on a platter. The bar program is excellent, as is the extensive wine list.
If you want to cool down while wandering around Old San Juan, buy a shaved ice. They’re sold from private homes for just 75 cents, and you’ll know you’re at the right place when you see the sign outside reading “limbers aguas frescas.” The “limber” got its unusual name back in 1928 after aviator Charles Lindbergh visited Puerto Rico and loved the fruit ice he was served. You’ll find the ices in such flavors as lemon, coconut, cherry, cream, tamarind, passion fruit, and guava.