San Juan, Puerto Rico - The Miami of the Caribbean
When the nights draw in and the temperature dips I always feel the urge to get out my credit card and artificially postpone winter for as long as my bank balance will allow.
My favourite part of the world is Latin America due its laid back people, beautiful landscapes and year round sun. Having been lucky enough to visit one or two countries a year for the last 10 years I am rapidly running out of new places to visit. Scouting about the atlas this year I came across Puerto Rico, an unusual hybrid of Latin charm and US infrastructure (being as it is de facto territory of the United States). I decided to take my chances.
Touching down in the capital San Juan the air is hot and heavy. From the taxi (you can get pre paid ride for $21 in front of the airport that stops any rip off merchants) I quickly notice the mix of high rise hotels, palm trees and Walgreens that reminded me of faded Miami. I hadn’t come all this way for El Walmarto so we head to Old San Juan a perfectly preserved colonial gem complete with the cobbled streets, pastel painted facades and largest Spanish built forts in the Americas.
Basing yourself in a well maintained, well policed (there were more police present then at an all you can eat Dunkin' Donuts giveaway) touristy part of the capital comes at a price. The Hotel Milano was reasonably appointed with friendly staff but had probably seen better days with a lift so slow it would have been quicker to abseil.down. However it was the best bargain I could find at about £75 a night and it was bang in the thick of the action.
Old San Juan is a cool if expensive place to hang out for a few days. It reminded me of days growing up on the Costa Blanca. The shadow of Spain understandably hangs heavy over OSJ's cobbled streets and ornate balconies. The Spanish empire used Puerto Rico as their plundering hub for best part of 400 years and their former presence is everywhere.
Whilst undeniably pretty OSJ, is a beguiling tourist trap. With high prices and plenty of souvenir shops selling mass produced maracas you have to look hard to find the real Puerto Rico. For instance I found it very difficult to find cheap local eats. I walked all over trying find a decent bakery eventually locating one by the harbour after following a few locals munching surruptiously on pastelitos . In that respect OSF isn't a real working city as such and most of the locals come to OSJ to work and then drive back to the neighbouring suburbs of Santurce and Hato Rey.
I was staggered by the prices which we were more expensive than the States. Don't come to Puerto Rico expecting Guatemalan or even Dominican Republic bargains unless you get right into the sticks. In OSJ you will do well to get change out of $40 for lunch or dinner for two unless you decide to eat at Subway (there is nothing wrong with a Subway).
Food wise Blessed Cafe has a heavy Bob Marley vibe, slightly grubby interior but some tasty jerk chicken and goat curry for 15-20$ per main. The staff were glued to the TV watching the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that was tearing up the North Atlantic coast. Quite a few Puerto Ricans seem move to the mainland (New York/New Jersey is popular) get an education and return to start businesses.
We stopped off at Airenumo a bistro with delusions of grandeur and a spanish chef who offers a myriad of paella options. It is nice enough but for $80 for two pleasant if unspectacular mains I would have expected unicycling waiters or a view of hanging gardens of Babylon. Overpriced.
One of the nicest things about going for a stroll through the narrow streets is the unexpected archetectural treasures hidden around every corner. Sturdy lookout posts, baroque gates and imposing fortresses dot the city. To the north, protecting the bay, stands the greatest reminder of Spain's colonialism, El Morro and El Castillo. They combine to create the largest colonial fortress in the Americas. For $5 (a rare bargain) you can get access to both Unesco Heritage sites where you can scale ramparts, explore dungeons and enjoy imposing vistas of the Caribbean from its look out points. Do take water por que es muy caliente!
A decent half day trip is a visit to the old Casa de Bacardi located across the bay in down at heel Catano. You can jump on the ferry for 50c from Pier 2 and cruise out the 20 mins or so to the opposite side of the bay. When you get there you are quickly ushered to waiting minibuses (7$) who shuttle visitor to the free tour. Once there you get a couple of drink tokens to sample the wide variety of rums and cocktails on offer and then starts the hour long Bacardi advert.
I found it reasonably entertaining with info about the history of Bacardi and cocktail tips on how to make the perfect Mojito but it wasn't a patch of the Jack Daniels tour in Lynchburg as you are not allowed to go into the distillery due to security considerations. Of the millions of potential targets around the world why Bacardi think terrorists would pick a rum factory in the Caribbean to make their point remains a mystery to me.
Back in OSJ if you want to continue your rum buzz you can head to Parrot Club were drinks are pricey but you can luxuriate in a pleasant tropical ambience with its brightly painted interior, extensive cocktail list and a pianist in the corner plinking away jazz versions of pop hits (a jazz Roxanne anyone?).
For me the nightlife highlight was Cafe Nuyorican an unassuming salsa club off a side street that we walked by twice without clocking (tip: It's just round corner from Da House). An intimate venue with a mix of locals and wide eyed tourists its small dance floor allows the salsa maestros to strut their sultry stuff. If like me the only salsa you capable of producing is the sort that goes into a burrito don't worry. You can grab a seat and watch the pros dance it out to some phenomenal music courtesy of mega-talented house band El Comborican who absolutely kill it live. Salsa is an institution in PR and back in February one Sir Mick Jagger popped into the venue in the small hours to see what all the fuss was about.
So, take the plunge in Old San Juan: If its good enough for a Rolling Stone its good enough for you.