Daniel Selikowitz, like Rosalia in West Side Story, wants to go back to San Juan.
As an Australian booking a trip to Puerto Rico, my expectations were laughably clichéd. It’ll be wall-to-wall Cancun-esque resorts, I figured, packed with passport-less mainlanders looking for an easy vacation, a pool and some seaside casino gambling.
Man, was I wrong.
Granted, you can find the Cancun experience if you go looking for it – particularly in the heavily-touristed enclave of Isla Verde near San Juan. But if you’re looking for something else – a crossover between the down-tempo Caribbean vibe, Latin American vigor and Spanish-American history – you’re bound to find it in Old San Juan.
From the moment we arrived at La Terraza de San Juan, we knew we had misjudged the island. The hotel lies in the heart of the old city on a picturesque street: all slate-blue cobblestones and pastel facades, nestled between the Caribbean and the Atlantic. The property itself is a collection of suites, housed in a lovingly restored 19th century Spanish colonial building.
The owner, Joe Uribe, is as international as the island, having lived in the US, Venezuela, Colombia, and Trinidad and Tobago before finding his home in Old San Juan and opening La Terraza in 2011.
“San Juan is one of the oldest settlements in the new world,” he told us. “The first governor was Juan Ponce de Leon, of search-for-the-Fountain-of-Youth fame, and the island has been occupied since. I walk the streets and can’t help but imagine the centuries’ worth of lives that have been lived here; the weddings, the funerals, the battles, the day-to-day shopping and bartering. You go to Mass and realize that every Sunday, for the last 300 years, people have gathered together here where you are seated. I get a sense of continuity: I am here today, they were here yesterday and others will be here tomorrow.”
This sense of history and continuity is palpable, even for first-time visitors. A stroll along the city walls is like a walk through time – from the waterfront boulevard where the well-to-do went for the evening walks centuries ago, to the gate where the King of Spain would make his grand entrance, and then onto military installations, cemeteries and boutiques – all surrounded by the seemingly endless Atlantic.
If you can tear yourself away from the views (and, eventually, we did), there’s a lot to satisfy your mind and your mouth. The art scene in Old San Juan is active, combining centuries-old traditions and modern styles (check out the Obra Galeria and the surprisingly big Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico). The restaurant and bar scene have a distinctive local flavor and don’t start to feel touristy until you venture outside Old San Juan. Do yourself (and your cardiologist) a favor by trying a mofongo – Puerto Rico’s signature dish – which merges mashed, fried green plantains, garlic, deep-fried pork skin and a buttery garlic sauce into a plateful of awesome.
And all this is without scratching the surface of the islands, beaches, rainforests and bioluminescent bays within a 90 minute drive of the capital. Use San Juan as a base to visit El Yunque (the only tropical forest in the US National Forest System), the popular west coast surfing town of Rincon, and the white sand island of Vieques in the east.
Puerto Rico: You will also hold a special unincorporated territory in my heart.
San Juan is a four hour flight from Boston.
We asked Joe Uribe, owner of La Terraza, what he’d recommend for a 24-hour stay in San Juan: First, stay with us at La Terraza de San Juan. Second, tour the fortifications of San Felipe del Morro and San Cristobal, strolling along the wall between on and the other. Go for a drink and snack at El Picoteo Tapas Bar in El Convento Hotel (an old Convent converted into hotel). Then, take a nap! When you’re up, go to dinner at Casa España (order the Rice with Cuttlefish and Ink plus whatever else catches your eye); walk back to aid digestion and head to the Nuyorican Cafe to hear some live music and dance some Salsa ( don’t worry… no one cares whether you dance well). In the morning, get up and head to Piñones (rustic beach and food kiosk area behind the airport), where you can eat octopus salad, drink cold beer, and jump in the ocean. Rinse off with a gallon of water before heading to the airport. If possible, repeat frequently!