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Ask the Locals Travel Guide: San Juan, Puerto Rico

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Old San Juan streetOn June 6, Peter broadcast his radio show from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To get a better idea of life on the island, we reached out to the locals.

Check out their recommendations for great activities, restaurants, sights, and places in San Juan and beyond.

Wilo Benet, chef/owner Pikayo, Payá and Varita, contestant on Top Chef Masters

After a stint as the Chef de Cuisine at the Puerto Rican governor’s mansion, this classically trained chef has become the face of nouveau island cuisine. When he’s not dining on fine food at Pikayo, located in the acclaimed Museu de Arte de Puerto Rico, or roasting suckling pigs on Varita’s rotisseries, he will occasionally head out to other establishments around the island.

Udon noodlesChinese food in Puerto Rico? Why not? Great Taste, located on Ashford Avenue in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan, is one Chef Benet’s favorites. In this casual eatery, guests can gorge on dim sum (widely considered to be among the best on the island) from noon to 5 p.m., sample fresh sushi, or grab a late-night cocktail.

About an hour south of San Juan is the mountain town of Aibonito, known as the “city of flowers.” When he can get away from the city, Chef Benet heads to El Cuñao, a family-run establishment that serves truly traditional Puerto Rican cuisine.

And if you’re looking to dine among the beautiful people, try BLT Steakhouse inside the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan Hotel, Spa & Casino. This upscale steakhouse features four different cuts of Kobe beef and local influences such as white fish ceviche. Best of all, kids 10 and under eat free. Ritzcarlton.com.

Pablo Cruz, Forest Supervisor, El Yunque National Forest

Waterfall in El Yunque National ForestOK, so he has a vested interest in this first recommendation, but Cruz is compelled to urge folks to visit El Yunque National Forest. Part of the U.S. Forest Service, this is the only managed tropical rainforest in the world, according to Cruz, which means visitors can enjoy the remote jungle experience while hiking on well-maintained trail systems.

Within the relatively compact 28,000-acre forest, hikers can experience several ecological zones within a short period of time. Because of forest’s complex eco-systems, Cruz recommends taking a guided hike with a naturalist. www.southernregion.fs.fed.us/caribbean

As a native Puerto Rican who has traveled all over the Caribbean, one of his favorite places on earth is Isla de Vieques. Located just off the east coast of Puerto Rico, a short flight from San Juan, this tiny island was managed by the U.S. Navy for several decades—meaning it was off-limits to tourists and developers. In 2003, the Navy turned the land over to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it continues to be a pristine, rugged wildlife refuge under strict management.

Culebra Puerto Rico beachCruz points out that in recent years, Vieques has developed two distinct towns—the south side is more English-speaking with “Continentals” from the mainland purchasing property, and up north is a more traditional Puerto Rican community.

His second-favorite beach is Flamenco on Isla Culebra. Featuring miles and miles of white-sand beaches, it shares similar eco-system and climate as the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Once there, don’t miss the little beach-side kiosks that sell traditional Puerto Rican fritters—sure there’s beef and chicken, but if you want to go truly local, opt for the shark-meat fritters. (Don’t worry, says Cruz, they’re not endangered.)

Luis Alvarez, producer of the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Festival

Puerto Rico is teeming with live music venues, so just pick your style and you’re off!

Nuyorican Cafe In the heart of Old San Juan, the Nuyorican Café on San Francisco Street is a little pub with a lot of soul, featuring  local bands playing salsa, reggae and Latin jazz. www.nuyoricancafepr.com

Also in Old San Juan is the newer Escenario on San Sebastián Street, where you can catch locals practicing their sexy salsa moves to live music. On Sunday afternoons, the vibe takes on a decidedly Spanish flair with Sevillana flamenco-style dancing.

The Rio Pedras district, home to La Universidad de Puerto Rico, is also where you can catch straight-up Latin jazz at the aptly named Il Jazz Club.

And last, but not least, Alvarez reveals one of the best-kept secrets in town: Yerbabuena Restaurant, a Cuban restaurant located on Ashford Avenue in Condado. On Monday nights—diners can tap their toes to the big-band sounds of the Humberto Ramirez Jazz Orchestra, 17-piece ensemble made up of some of Puerto Rico’s most prominent musicians.

By Sarika Chawla for PeterGreenberg.com.

Puerto Rico was a pick in Personal Picks: Travel Editor Jane Wooldridge on Four Family-Friendly Destinations.

For more information on other destinations in this area, check out our Caribbean Travel section.

For even more on Puerto Rico, don’t forget to tune in this weekend to Peter’s radio show.

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