Where the Old Meets the New in San Juan
By Sarah Robertson
Passengers clapped and cheered as we landed at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport outside of San Juan, Puerto Rico. It wasn’t a difficult landing; there weren’t even any “dragon lizards” this time to block the tarmac and cause delays like there often are.
What filled the plane with applause was simply the joy of arriving in the proud little territory, and it happens every time a plane lands in Puerto Rico.
As the capital and most populous city in Puerto Rico, San Juan has something to offer visitors from every corner of the globe.
Every day people come and go by car, boat, and plane funneling in and out of the city like the tides of the Caribbean. Each day there was something new to do, whether it was shopping at the Plaza Las Américas, swimming at Ocean Park Beach, or sightseeing in Old San Juan.
On my trip I visited Old San Juan and Rio Piedras, the oldest and youngest districts of Puerto Rico’s capitol city.
“Old San Juan is a lot of Puerto Rico’s past, whereas Rio Piedras is more modern,” explains David López, a Puerto Rican native and resident of Rio Piedras. David has lived in Rio Piedras for two years and showed me around San Juan and Rio Piedras.
A Proud Psuedo State
Traveling to Puerto Rico is just as easy as traveling any U.S. state. Almost everyone there speaks perfect English, making shopping and daily life easy for a non-Spanish speaker like myself.
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico also does not require visitors to have passports or go through customs after they land, making airports far easier to navigate. However, on the roads it is a different story. Puerto Rican drivers could put any Bostonian to shame.
Puerto Rican patriotism is no joke in the politically charged commonwealth. In San Juan demonstrations are quite common, garnering hundreds of protestors in front of the capitol building in Old San Juan.
These protests add to the supercharged political atmosphere of the commonwealth, where elections are contentious and every issue is a battle amongst the three political parties of Puerto Rico.
Voter turnout averages almost 80% for their quadrennial elections, as opposed to the U.S. where some states can barely scrape up a 50% turnout. The reason for such Puerto Rican political awareness is the fierce competition between the political parties: Statehood, Independence, and Nationalistic. Each party is drastically different on many issues but the divisive question among them is whether Puerto Rico should become the United States’ 51st state.
Old San Juan
The historic and scenic crown of the capitol city, Old San Juan recognizes its charm without exploiting it. It is Puerto Rico’s original capitol city, making it the go-to for tourists trying to get a taste of Puerto Rico’s history. Founded in 1521 by Puerto Rico’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León, Old San Juan is the oldest city under U.S. jurisdiction and the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico. It sits on a small island off San Juan’s coast fortified by forty foot stone walls dating back at the 16th century when San Juan was one of Spain’s most important military outposts.
In contrast to the formidable stone, the buildings within are painted an array of beautiful pastel colors and the roads are paved with blue bricks the color of sapphire.
There are several popular plazas in Old San Juan, the most notable being the Plaza de Armas where you can find excellent food and strong coffee on any given street corner. There isn’t a block in the city without a quaint café and a souvenir shop in Old San Juan.
On either end of the Old San Juan are the ruins of two colonial Spanish forts: the El Castillo de San Cristobal and the El Morro fortresses. Visitors can tour the inside of these ruins or stroll along the perimeter of the city walls on the man-made footpath, Paseo La Princesa.
From the walkway there is a clear view of La Fortaleza, the massive bright blue mansion home to the Puerto Rican governor, Alejandro Javier García Padilla. Anyone walking on this scenic pathway is sure to also see some of the cats who call the seaside path their home.
Just a short ferry ride from San Juan is the Bacardi distillery in Cataño.
At the company headquarters we received two tickets for free rum drinks at the tasting tent while we waited for the shuttle to begin the tour.
The tour started with a video about the history of the Bacardi family followed by a walkthrough of the distilling process and finally a bartending demonstration. The tour gave a unique look into the industrial culture of San Juan and the growth of an international corporation.
“The Tourist Trap”
Old San Juan thrives off the revenue that tourists bring to the island, and because of this everyone wants in on the souvenir industry. I saw one shameless souvenir shop with the sign “The Tourist Trap” hung proudly over its doors. Inside the owners beamed and greeted their customers, knowing their trick had worked, and what else could we do other than smile right back and browse the key chains and coffee mugs just like the tourists we were. Here are some of the other must-see stops in Old San Juan if you want to make the most of your experience.
For great gifts make sure to stop by the Spicy Caribbee on Calle Cristo Road. The shop’s specialty teas, jams, and spices pack easily for the flight home and made gift shopping almost too easy. For your literary needs, visit the Poet’s Passage for original books, artwork, and souvenirs. Attached to this gift shop is a café where visitors can sip coffee and listen to original poetry on Tuesday nights, or live music on Thursday nights
Almost any gift shop in Old San Juan sells the iconic ceramic doors the island is famous for. The hand-painted doors are made right in Old San Juan and are painted to resemble the homes and storefronts of the city. While more expensive than the average souvenir, the doors are a great way to take a piece of Old San Juan home with you.
For lunch the Siglo XX or Café Puerto Rico are two the necessary stops for authentic Puerto Rican food. Mofongo (mashed plantains with meat sauce), empanadas, and fried pork dishes are staples in Puerto Rico, and for the best experience small, family-owned bistros are always the best for an authentic taste. We ate an excellent lunch at Tropical Taste, a restaurant in the back of the gift shop tucked away from the bustle of the street.
For a cheap treat after lunch buy a piragua from one of the vendors on the street. After a day of hiking the hills, heat, and humidity of Old San Juan it is amazing how good shaved ice and syrup can taste.
Rio Piedras is a neighborhood for the young and young at heart. Home to the flagship campus of the University of Puerto Rico, it is the college town and the creative hub of San Juan. In place of the souvenir stores and cafés of Old San Juan, Rio Piedras has bars, pizza shops, bookstores, and more bars.
“Rio Piedras is basically the cheaper, younger part of town where you can be up to date on what is happening right now,” says David.
“In Rio Piedras you are really going to get more of the modern culture, and the youth culture. There you will find a lot of the bars, the up and coming cuisine, and music.”
Unlike Old San Juan, Rio Piedras is not tourist friendly. Getting to the barrio requires a transport-savvy traveler to find the subway system, the brand new Tren Urbano, and ride it outbound until the Rio Piedras stop.
The stop lets passengers off right in the gut of the district midst the bars and one-way streets that canvas the town. From there on travelers are on their own to explore this up and coming neighborhood just like any college student.
The University of Puerto Rico’s distinctive clock tower is a famous landmark for the school and Rio Piedras. It can be seen from anywhere on the university campus and from all around Rio Piedras.
Perhaps even more famous in Rio Piedras, however, is the street art that covers all the buildings and storefronts. Street artists from all over Puerto Rico flock to Rio Piedras to showcase their work, quite frankly because no one there is telling them to stop.
“Artists are welcomed in Rio Piedras,” David says, “People want street artists to come and paint the murals because it makes the neighborhood more beautiful and people like that.”
The buildings in Rio Piedras are constantly changing canvases. The college town supports young, local artists by letting them cover their walls and storefronts in original artwork and in exchange they turn a blind eye to the legality of the graffiti.
As a historically run-down barrio, the street art is welcome almost as a community beautification project. Such art would have serious consequences in Old San Juan.
We visited Boricua, a bar just a block away from the subway station in Rio Piedras. It too had graffiti-covered walls, with plastic lawn chairs and a disheveled feel that made it feel like the entire bar could pack up and leave in a matter of minutes.
College students milled around inside and around the open air bar. The quintessential Puerto Rican beer, Medalla Light, is the drink of choice amongst the college crowd and runs like water in the streets of Rio Piedras. The bars are packed almost every night.
Part of the magic of Rio Piedras is that things are always changing. Just like the artwork there is always something upcoming, something cool and hip that is gone just as fast as it came. Artists and businesses come and go with the only long standing structure being the clock tower and the university.
Visiting San Juan
There will always be the obvious reasons travelers flock to Puerto Rico for vacation. Tropical beaches without the passport, shopping without the currency exchange, and a culture without a language barrier, it’s easy to feel comfortable in the tiny territory.
In order to truly experience Puerto Rico and San Juan, however, we must learn to get out of our comfort zones and experience new things. Rio Piedras offers travelers this opportunity without displacing them completely.
Sarah Robertson is a student at UMass Amherst studying Journalism and Social Thought in Political Economy. She is Lifestyle editor for The Daily Collegian and AmherstWire. Follow Sarah on twitter at @srobertson_17 and read her blog at http://robertsonsarah.wordpress.com/.