Some Enchanted Island
The magic metropolis of San Juan, Puerto Rico is a haven where old meets new.
Denise Bates Enos
Castillo de San Cristóbal, built by the Spanish in the late 1700s, sits at the northeast edge of Old San Juan.
Z. Deane, gopuertorico.about.com
They don’t call Puerto Rico LA Isla del Encanto, or “THE Island of Enchantment,” for nothing. There’s something magical about a place that straddles two bodies of water, the Atlantic and the Caribbean, and bubbles with a lively brew of cultures—Spanish, African and Taíno (the island’s original inhabitants).
San Juan is the capital city of this tropical paradise, and the best place to enjoy the island’s cosmopolitan offerings. Here, the El Condado strip boasts lively casinos, luxury hotels and upscale dining and shopping along a broad band of sandy beach. Contrasting with El Condado’s contemporary vibe, Old San Juan, where the streets are paved with blue cobblestones that once served as a ballast for ships, retains its centuries-old European flavor from the days when the Spanish conquistadors called it home.
With its combination of old and new, indoor and outdoor pursuits, culture and natural beauty, San Juan has something to enchant every visitor.
What to Do
The iconic coastal forts in Old San Juan are the perfect starting point for exploring the city. They’re known collectively as the SAN JUAN NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE (nps.gov/saju), which includes Castillo de San Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Fortín San Juan de la Cruz. The forts lie on the outskirts of Old San Juan along the remnants of the old city wall that borders the shore. Old San Juan’s museums, galleries, shops and restaurants are within walking distance and make for a full day of sightseeing after visiting one or more of the forts. Old San Juan is peppered with historic sites and buildings, some dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. Pick up a tourist map at your hotel and hop on the free TROLLEY (puertoricodaytrips.com/free-trolley-old-san-juan) to take in as many as you can, including CAPILLA DEL CRISTO (left), LA FORTALEZA and ALCALDIA. The island’s natural beauty also beckons: Beach time is a must, and kayaking is a great way to see off-the-beaten-path San Juan. The COPI CULTURAL CENTER (copipr.com) rents kayaks (far left) to pilot through La Torrecilla Lagoon, where plenty of flora and fauna reside, including a variety of colorful bird species and dense mangroves with dozens of tiny crabs living in the branches.
Where to Stay
The four-diamond SAN JUAN MARRIOTT
(marriott.com) is in the heart of El Condado’s prime strip of beach. This resort is where you’ll find the STELLARIS CASINO, a lively gambling establishment, and the RED CORAL LOUNGE, which features live music and a sophisticated crowd. It’s an ideal locale to start or end an evening with a frosty tropical libation. Room rates start at $179 a night.
Where to Dine
Traditional Puerto Rican cuisine, or comida criolla, makes the most of its Spanish-African-Caribbean roots and the island’s bounty from the land and sea. For an authentic taste of this unique style of cooking, dine where the natives do at EL JIBARITO (eljibarito
pr.com) in Old San Juan. Try pasteles, Puerto Rican tamales stuffed with chicken or pork, or mofongo, a delicious mash-up of fried green plantains, garlic, olive oil and pork cracklings. Also in Old San Juan is BARRACHINA (barrachina.com), where the original Piña Colada was invented. This restaurant not only serves traditional Puerto Rican dishes, but also entertains customers with energetic flamenco shows and live guitar music on Friday and Saturday nights. But if you’re seeking the true culinary heart of Puerto Rico, venture outside the city limits to coastal Piñones to find the SOLEIL BEACH CLUB (soleilbeachclub.com) for fresh-caught delicacies and various BEACHSIDE FOOD VENDORS offering tasty treats that you’ll be hard pressed to find stateside. You’ll discover delicious empanadillas (meat pastries) and alcapurrias (fritters) stuffed with just about any kind of seafood imaginable (including octopus), as well as the island’s ubiquitous fried plantains. And to wash it all down, there’s nothing like fresh coconut milk, which an obliging vendor with a machete will provide after chopping off the coconut’s top and inserting a straw for you.