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What's Doing In San Juan


September 29, 2002
Copyright © 2002 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved. 


On the Paseo La Princesa in Old San Juan.

PHOTO: Laura Magruder for The New York Times


Puerto Rico is commemorating the 50th anniversary of its status as a commonwealth of the United States, a political association that, while fraught with controversy, has allowed the Caribbean island's 3.8 million residents to maintain a degree of self-government and a distinct Hispanic culture.

Around San Juan particularly, the Spanish language and culture of the island blend into architecture and history carved out by Spain over 400 years of dominance, transporting visitors to a colonial past of cobblestone streets, military fortresses and plazas. But there is also much that is new, including a restaurant boom in recent years that has brought many new establishments to the narrow streets of Old San Juan that fuse Spanish and Caribbean cuisine to that of Asia, Europe and others.

In the Isla Verde section, near the airport, the beach-front hotels now have the company of the Water Club, a trendy boutique hotel that attracts a hip crowd to its lounges and restaurant. And the city is buffing its shine with a new convention center at an old naval base near the Condado area, expected to be completed by 2005.

A new beach-front public park is planned next year for the site of the old, now demolished, convention center on Ashford Avenue in El Condado, opening up a bit of coastline for a grassy project aptly named the Window to the Sea.


Some 40 chefs are to offer samples of their culinary creations at the Wine and Food Festival on Nov. 17 at the Ritz-Carlton, San Juan Hotel, Spa and Casino, 6961 Avenue of the Governors, Isla Verde, from noon to 6 P.M. For $100, participants also get to visit with wine distributors, producers of Puerto Rican coffee and confectioners.

Another festival event, on Nov. 15, is a gala with food by renowned chefs from Puerto Rico and Europe and a wine auction. Tickets, $200. Information: (787) 782-4343.

Puerto Rican classic, folk, popular and Africa-rooted music is the focus of the annual Puerto Rican Music Festival, sponsored by the Puerto Rico Institute of Culture on weekends throughout November; it opens on Nov 2, with a bomba and plena concert. Admission is free to the talks and concerts, most of which will be at the patio of the Dominican Convent, near the San José Plaza, at Cristo and Norzagaray Streets in Old San Juan. Highlights include a troubadour contest Nov. 19 at 2 p.m. Information: (787) 724-1844.

A Caribbean film competition is the highlight of the 14th annual San Juan Cinemafest de Puerto Rico, Nov. 6 to 13. More than 70 movies and short films from around the world are expected to be shown, but only those made in or about the Caribbean compete for prizes. This year's festival honors the Puerto Rican actress Rosie Perez. Tickets are $7. Information on theaters and showings: (787) 723-5015 or online at

The largest artisans' fair on the island, with more than 100 exhibits of masks, jewelry, wood carvings and ceramics, takes place Dec. 1 and 8 on the grounds of the Bacardi Corporation's rum plant in Cataño, about 15 miles west of San Juan. The fair includes a Puerto Rican troubadour contest on Dec. 1. Free. Information: (787) 788-1500, extension 5254.

Artisans exhibit their works every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 8 p.m. along the Paseo de La Princesa in Old San Juan, a 19th-century esplanade at the foot of Recinto Sur Street near the piers. Information: (787) 723-0692.


A good way to see Old San Juan, especially at sunset, is to enter Paseo de La Princesa and follow San Juan Bay's waterline for about a mile. This route takes you past the city's old walls and San Juan Gate, once the principal entrance to the city for sea travelers, to San Felipe del Morro Castle at the old city's tip.

Another worthwhile destination for a walk in the historic quarter is San Juan Cathedral on Cristo Street, an example of medieval architecture in the Americas.

A tour of some of Old San Juan's historic sites is available from La Rumba, a 65-foot boat that leaves several times a day from Plaza Darsenas at Pier 1. During the day, La Rumba cruises by La Fortaleza, the governor's mansion; San Felipe del Morro; and other sites on 80-minute trips on San Juan Bay.


A courtyard at the 18th-century Gallery Inn in Old San Juan.

PHOTO: Laura Magruder for The New York Times


At night, the boat becomes a nightclub, with a bar and D.J. but a family-oriented party atmosphere. Hours vary seasonally, but there are usually two daytime departures and five at night. Tickets are $12 and $6 for ages 6 to 11. For reservations, call (787) 375-5211.

Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, 299 De Diego Avenue in Santurce near El Condado, (787) 977-6277,, holds the island's most important art collection, ranging from works by the Spanish Colonial-era painter José Campeche to those of contemporary artists. The museum includes a restaurant and five acres of gardens. General admission, $5; closed Monday.

There are casinos in every major hotel on the island. The most elegant is in Isla Verde, at the Wyndham El San Juan, 6063 Isla Verde Avenue, (787) 791-1000, with its ornate decorations and chandeliers; it's open noon to 4 a.m. Just a short drive away, the luxurious Ritz-Carlton's casino, (787) 253-1700 is open 10 a.m. to 6 a.m. The casinos don't admit people under 18 or those wearing shorts at night.

About 45 miles west of San Juan on Route 129, the Camuy River Cave Park is well worth the trek. Trolleys take visitors down to the entrance of a 200-foot-deep subterranean limestone cave carved out by the Camuy River, and its stalactites, stalagmites and bats. The tour also includes visits to two sinkholes. Before the end of the year, park officials expect to add a rappelling tour, in which visitors descend 150 feet by a rope to a new cave, Cathedral Cave, where 40 pre-Columbian drawings by the Taino Indians were discovered a few years ago.

The park, which also offers walking trails and picnic areas, is open Wednesday through Sunday and on holidays, unless it rains. Visitors should arrive by 2 p.m. for the last tour. General admission, $10; Information (787) 898-3100, and (Spanish only).

Where to Stay

The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Norzagaray Street in Old San Juan, (787) 722-1808, fax (787) 977-3929,, is a complex of restored 18th-century houses that once were the captain's quarters for the Spanish Artillery. Twenty-five antiques-filled guest rooms are uniquely decorated; some have interior gardens, balconies or terraces and views of the Atlantic. The property, a labyrinth of gardens, arches and narrow stairways, is filled with sculpture and paintings, many by the owner, Jan D'Esopo. A roof deck provides a 360-degree view of Old San Juan, and a "music room" has a 1912 Steinway grand piano that plays music on disks. Air-conditioned doubles, with no televisions or radios but plenty of books, are $145 to $350, with Continental breakfast.

Tu Casa, a guest house catering to couples and business people at 2071 Cacique Street, (787) 727-5100, fax (787) 982-3349,, is in the beach-front gated neighborhood of Ocean Park, between El Condado and Isla Verde. Each of the 20 suites has a different theme, and all have kitchenettes. A courtyard with a small pool is the setting for parties — belly dancing, Hawaiian, wine and cheese, for example. Children under 12 are not allowed. Doubles are $125 to $250.

Budget: You can walk to the historic sites in Old San Juan from Hotel Milano, 307 Fortaleza Street, near the governor's residence; (877) 729-9050, fax (787) 722-3379, The 30-room hotel serves a free Continental breakfast and other meals in a rooftop restaurant with a view of the cruise ships in the harbor. Rates are $75 to $85 for a room barely big enough for a double bed, a table and a chest of drawers, and $125 to $145 for a larger one facing the street.

Luxury: A rare boutique hotel, the Water Club, opened last November at 2 Tartak Street in Isla Verde; (888) 265-6699, fax (787) 728-3610, Waterfalls are found even in the elevator in this hotel with a water theme, a mostly white décor and offbeat touches like nickel jellybean dispensers in the hallway. It has 84 minimalist rooms in a 10-story building that sits across from the beach. On the rooftop are a terrace, bar, small pool and sundeck. A lobby lounge, Liquid, attracts a supercool clientele. Rooms and suites, with CD players and cordless telephones, are $209 to $695, and $259 to $800 January to April.


The Ritz-Carlton San Juan, 6961 Avenue of the Governors, Isla Verde, (787) 253-1700, fax (787) 253-1111, with its spa and casino, bills itself as an urban resort. Its 416 rooms, about half with ocean views, are brightly decorated but with sophisticated flair. Standard doubles start at $179 on weekends and $209 on weekdays, but rates more than double at the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

Where to Eat

JoséJosé Restaurant, 1110 Magdalena Avenue in El Condado, (787) 725-8546, serves international dishes with flair — ostrich loin and sweet plantain with cinnamon sauce; pheasant with almonds and port and raisin sauce; lobster and wild mushroom risotto — in an elegant setting of aqua walls and arched entrances. Dinner for two with wine is about $125. Closed Monday.

Pamela's is right on the beach at the Numero Uno Guest House, 1 Santa Ana in Ocean Park, (787) 726-5010. Popular at lunch, it serves a Caribbean menu that includes a sandwich of marinated chicken and melted manchego cheese with roasted red peppers; and grilled Jamaican jerk shrimp and coconut corn arepa (a corn griddle cake) with tamarind barbecue sauce and guava coulis. There is air-conditioning but also tables outside on the sand. Dinner for two with drinks is about $100, about $60 for lunch.

La Habichuela Colorá y Su Guiso, 7 Tabonuco Street, in the Guaynabo area, south of the city, (787) 620-0066, specializes in Puerto Rican specialties like stuffed cornish hen with a guava glaze, and whole red snapper and plantain fritters in the shape of spiders. A lounge offers live Latin music Tuesday through Sunday after 8 p.m. Dinner for two with drinks runs about $60. Closed Monday.

Dragonfly, 364 Fortaleza in Old San Juan, (787) 977-3886, is a tiny, boisterous spot with red walls and dim lights. The restaurant has only 10 regular tables and a communal table that sits 14. There is usually a wait, but the food explains the restaurant's popularity: delicious "Latinasian" fusion fare like lo mein with chicken, and stirfried rice with crab and scallions. One drawback: smoking is allowed. Open nightly for dinner except Sunday. Dinner for two with wine is about $75.

Inexpensive fresh seafood is served in a beach-front setting at the Waterfront on 187 Road in the Piñones area, east of Isla Verde, 787) 791-5989. Meals are served at indoor and outdoor tables. The menu includes local staples like minced crabmeat stew; rice with crab, octopus, shrimp or conch; and the plantain mash called mofongo, with lobster and other fillings. Dinner for two with drinks is about $50. All children's portions are half-price. Lunch and dinner are served daily, with late hours Friday and Saturday.  

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