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Beyond Arroz y Habichuelas: Puerto Rican Culture Of The Refined Kind

By Natalia de Cuba Romero

July 11, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Photos accompanying story: Copyright © 2003 Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

It was one of those Rock Fever sort of days, when the eternal sunshine and relentless salsa-merengue rhythm and ear-shattering car horns were actually getting on my nerves. I love this place, but sometimes its exuberance gets overwhelming. That's Rock Fever -- when you've been on this damn island too long and you need to get off the rock soon, or you'll just die.

But I wasn't getting on a plane nor was I interested in passing on to the other side yet. What to do?

Step out of the everyday tropical brightness and into a real museum and pretend I'm in New York, of course!

Happily, San Juan, or more specifically Santurce, has the perfect big city museum escape hatch. Mind you, the metro area and the island are full of museums of every stripe: Taíno culture, hacienda history, supreme cellist Pablo Casals, tobacco, contemporary art, children's museum, the list is kilometric. I don't mean to pooh-pooh their importance or valuable contributions in the slightest. But when you have Rock Fever, you need something a bit less home-grown, that wouldn't look out of place across the street from Central Park. And for that, you have to visit Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.

Opened in July 2000, the former Municipal Hospital at 299 de Diego Ave (corner of the Baldorioty Expressway, de Diego/San Jorge exit), is a 1920s neoclassical structure transformed. The façade maintains its 20th century grace with four massive, yet delicately rendered columns and an arched entrance. But step through the doors and enter a world that is decidedly modern.

José Campeche 
Virgen de la Soledad de la Victoria
Oil on Canvas, 1782-1789


The original hospital wings have become medicine for the beauty-starved soul. They house the permanent collections of this museum, which showcases the history of Puerto Rican art from 1700s colonial masterpieces by José Campeche to the 1950s poster art of Lorenzo Homar to the whimsical work of Jorge Zeno. The former wards are now light-filled spaces with wooden floors and neutral walls setting off exciting works.

And walk beyond the original structure into a five-story complex with wrap-around balconies overlooking a central interior atrium courtyard infused with light through a remarkable oxidized wall of glass by Eric Tabales. It echoes the colonial courtyards of other important buildings in Santurce and San Juan, but has a contemporary spirit all its own. In the modern section of the complex there is a 400-seat theatre (look for cool mini-film festivals and live performances), a shop and, of course, galleries. These rooms house visiting exhibitions that have ranged from Kandinsky to the current Luis Hernández Cruz retrospective (on display until September 21; Augusto Marín opens in October). And just outside the doors is a shady and lush five-acre sculpture garden with lily pond and all sorts of fun art to discover including garden-gnome-size couches by Dhara Rivera. There's a big Botero at the top overlooking the Baldorioty where I experienced some indecision. Do I like the roar of traffic telling me that this is a lively urban museum firmly planted in the real life of the city? Or would I prefer foliage blocking the sounds to make the feeling of sanctuary complete? I still can't decide.

By the time one has walked all the galleries and the gardens, it is most definitely time for a meal. So take a deep breath and mentally check to make sure your credit card isn't maxed out, because you need to spend the rest of the afternoon savouring the museum's ultra-swish restaurant - Pikayo.

This elegant yet simple, minimalist yet warm restaurant overlooking the gardens serves the "exotic creole cuisine" that has earned chef-owner Wilo Benet praise from Conde Nast Traveler, The New York Times, Gourmet and other Arbiters-of-Style and Anointers-of-Greatness publications. Wilo, who is a Culinary Institute of America graduate, was also chef at the Governor's Mansion here for a couple of years and worked at Le Bernadin and New York's The Water Club among other. For presentation, innovation and taste, Wilo ranks among the best.

Try the Grilled Shrimp with Julienne Chorizo and Guanabana (soursop) Beurre Blanc ($29), the Sea Bass "a la plancha" with Pumpkin Puree and Vin Blanc ($32) or the pumped up Bistec Encebollado ($29) - 2 lbs. of beef tenderloin smothered in caramelized onion. Sides include rice and beans, mashed roots, tostones, mushrooms and asparagus ($4-$7). There is a $2 per person bottled water charge, which ends up being a bargain for camels like me. The wine list covers the globe, with an emphasis on Spain.

Look for award-winning chef Gary Danko of his eponymous Relais & Chateaux San Francisco restaurant to be doing a guest shot at Pikayo Sept. 25-26. And next time somebody implies that Ricky Martin is the only cultural export we have to offer, transform their vision by sending them to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. And next time Rock Fever gets you antsy, you know where to find the cure.

The Data: The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico at 299 de Diego Ave is open from Tuesday to Saturday from 10 am-5pm; Wednesdays until 8 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 6 pm. For more information visit or call 787-977-6277. Inside scoop on the best hours to visit: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays around 3 pm are the quietest times with no school groups. Entrance fees are $5 adults, $3 children and $2.50 for students, seniors and disabled visitors. For guided tours call the Department of Education at 787-977-6277.

Pikayo is open for lunch Tuesday to Friday from 12 pm to 3 pm and for dinner Monday to Saturday form 6 pm to 11 pm. For more information visit or call 787-721-6194.  

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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