If you want to see Puerto Rico, chances are you’re going to start in San Juan—specifically, Old San Juan.
Old San Juan is only seven blocks from the port, and every week, 28,000 visitors come off the cruise ships to see the restored 465-year-old neighborhood that was considered one of the crown jewels of the Spanish empire. But you need to get beyond Old San Juan, beyond the brochures, and beyond the guide books to really see it how it was meant to be seen.
Founded in 1521 by Juan Ponce de Leon, San Juan is the oldest city under U.S. jurisdiction, and it holds a wealth of history. Thanks to the people who love the city, there are over 400 restored 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial buildings. Today, there are nearly 5,000 people living in Old San Juan, and you really want to experience it like they do—by going where they go.
In San Juan, there’s predictable tourist shopping for souvenirs, and then there’s real shopping. For starters, you can visit the market in San Tourise. Why? The tourists don’t go there—the locals do. But it’s all in the timing. You get in at 11:00 a.m. when the place is quiet (before the lunch time crowd), and you can get all of your fruits and vegetables to eat later. Then, before you leave the market, go around the corner to get something you really have to try.
You’ll find smoothies that are blended with locally grown fruit. Thanks to Puerto Rico’s tropical climate and an average temperature of 82 degrees Fahrenheit, the territory is able to grow and enjoy fruit year round. Translation: there are no real seasons.
After enjoying that smoothie and picking up produce for the road, it’s time to burn off some of those calories. Many are familiar with the popularity of baseball in Puerto Rico, but that’s just one of the sports played there. Head down to a park and you’ll find the locals enjoying an afternoon run, playing soccer, or even playing a pickup game of basketball. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you join.
Some cities will tell you that when the sun goes down, that’s when they come alive. That’s not true in San Juan. You’ll need to wait until 10 p.m., and you can head down to the Nuyorican Cafe. You’ll have to take a few side streets to get there, but once you do, you’ll be greeted by people enjoying what is practically the national dance—salsa.
For the locals, the party doesn’t stop there. On any given night, you’re likely to find people gathering to play music. With influences from Spain and Africa, the passionate beats inspire crowds to join, listen, and of course, dance.
After all of that partying and drinking and dancing, you’ll end up where you started, right back in Old San Juan. At that point, you’ll want to take the two-mile walk around the Old City. You’re going to need it.
Want to find out about other destinations in the Caribbean? Check out:
- The Benefits of Visiting the Caribbean During the Off Season
- What It’s Like to Visit Havana 57 Years Later
- Hidden Gems of Aruba: Eco-Adventures & Eclectic Cuisine
By Peter Greenberg for PeterGreenberg.com