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Splish Splash: San Juan's Annual Born-Again Beach Bob

By Natalia de Cuba Romero

June 13, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

The best night of the year to be on a San Juan beach is coming up fast. Noche de San Juan is celebrated June 23, which is the eve of San Juan (St. John) Day in the Catholic calendar. As it happens, the city of San Juan gets its name from that very saint, the one who was born to allegedly infertile Zachary and Elizabeth just six months before his cousin, Jesus (a.k.a. The Son of God), and who went on to start baptizing all comers in the river Jordan.

John came to an unfortunate end. He had been imprisoned by then-king Herod when naughty Salome asked for poor John's head in exchange for having danced for the king, her stepfather. She got that head on a silver platter, but John presumably got a more eternal reward in heaven.

St. John's Day is still celebrated around the world - but especially in San Juan. In a ritual reminiscent of ancient practices that started centuries before John was that lone voice in the desert, sanjuaneros plunge into the ocean (or their swimming pool) at midnight on the eve of San Juan's Day. The premise is that at midnight the water becomes purified and healing and can take all your troubles away.

This is an event that no one - resident or visitor - should miss. When else can you go to a beach in the middle of a tropical capital at midnight and watch hordes of people dash into the water like lemmings, only backwards?

Yes, backwards. Tradition has it that you need to leap backwards into the drink either three, seven or twelve times (which one is correct has never been clear to me, but I prefer three as trinities seem to be pretty sacred) in order to enjoy the full benefits of San Juan's cleansing spirit.

And the night is made more picturesque by the bonfires that light the beach. Fire is another purifier; some people jump over the fire on Noche de San Juan, but don't for a minute think I'm recommending it. Just because it's a holy sort of experience, doesn't mean you're not as liable to drown or burn as any other day if you're not careful.

Another less -risky tradition is to imbue a small piece of wood with all the lousy things that happened to you in the last year and toss it into the fire to burn away. Sort of a prehistoric delete for your psyche.

Of course how could it be a citywide party without a little music? This year the Municipality of San Juan will oblige by setting up a large stage at El Último Trolley - the east end of Ocean Park beach, around the area of Parque Barbosa.

The free show begins at 7:30 pm with raperos Héctor y Tito. From 9 pm - 10:30 pm Moncho Rivera, nephew of the late, great Sonero Mayor, Ismael Rivera, will rock the playa with salsa and from 11 pm - 12:30 pm it will be Andy Montañez with his own inimitable salsa rhythms. There are usually kiosk-trucks and vendors out in droves at the beach for your refreshment needs, but most people will probably have coolers in tow. Good luck getting a park anywhere near unless you arrive very early in the evening, but that's life in San Juan!

For a quieter beginning to your evening, Hotel El Convento in Old San Juan has live guitar music from the old days by Luis Oliveras from 5 pm - 9:30 pm in the Patio Romántico. Look for drink and dinner specials at Café Bohemio.

The nighttime beach party takes place outside San Juan too. Villa Montaña Beach Resort in Isabela,offers a three day-two night Verano San Juan Bautista Day Special at $316.00 for two in a hotel room with queen bed. Rate includes accommodations, Continental breakfast, use of pools, tennis courts, beach and pool chaise lounges and towels, limited use of bicycles and kayak and live music Sunday afternoon. Villas also available. Call 787 872-9554 to make your reservation. 15% tax and resort fee not included.

And of course you can just head to Ocean Park, Isla Verde or Condado beaches and you're sure to find a crowd of midnight dippers.

I myself may head over to the beachfront San Juan Marriott's Tuscany Restaurant where my great friend, la bella ragazza di Roma, Patrizia Carciani, former owner of ground-breaking enoteca Il Grottino is now the maitresse d'hotel or some such gorgeous title. She's in charge of the wine bar, which means it's gotta be good. Should be fun watching her sneak off at midnight to jump in the ocean at the Marriott's beach. And return with wet hair! More on Tuscany soon.

And make a calendar note: Sip wines and nibble tapas created by the Caribbean Culinary Institute as you wait to see if your bid wins a new car or a trip to the Turks & Caicos at Olé por tu corazón, the third annual auction to benefit the American Heart Association. It begins at 6 pm on June 26 at the Olympic Committee headquarters in Old San Juan. Suggested donation is $10 and can be credited towards anything you purchase at the silent or out-loud auctions. Wine to taste: Rioja's El Duque de Huésar, as yet unavailable on the island. For more information contact or call 787-283-0330.

Natalia de Cuba Romero is a freelance travel, food and arts writer. Her column, "Sights, Sounds & Tastes of Puerto Rico", appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald. She can be reached at

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