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A Night In Old San Juan

By J.A. del Rosario

November 21, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

There is probably no site in Puerto Rico more popular than Old San Juan. The city's profile is well known by locals and travelers alike. An almost-500-year-old city, begun as a Spanish settlement that still features narrow cobblestone streets, Spanish colonial architecture and old stone fortresses used by the Spanish to protect their settlement in the New World from a roster of invading pirates that included Sir Francis Drake. (Drake's attempt failed, or we would all be breaking at 4 P.M. for tea.)

But San Juan's history has attracted more than tourists and historians. For years, the district has been a hub of art, food, drinks and long, long nights. From Thursday night, which marks the end of the week for local university students, through Saturday night, Old San Juan is that favorite spot for those looking for a good time in an unrivaled setting.

If you are heading for the Old City after 8 P.M. on any of the nights mentioned above, enjoy the ride down Luis Muñoz Rivera Ave., which overlooks the ocean crashing against the walls of the San Cristobal Fort, and get ready to brave some traffic. For years, the municipal police have been controlling car access to the Old City on these nights, after local residents complained of the overwhelming amount of cars that would crowd the narrow streets late at night. Cars are directed to park at the multi-level Doña Fela parking lot on Recinto Sur Street. This redirection is the main cause of the traffic jam. Don't worry, the line moves, so follow the car in front of you and reach Doña Fela in no time.

Old San Juan is built on an incline that peaks on the north side, and bottoms out in the south. Recinto Sur Street (sur means south) is the lowest street in the city. From here, your walk to a good time will be uphill, but well worth it.

The first thing to do is get a couple of drinks to loosen up and welcome the night.

Traditionally, the best place to start would be the Hard Rock Cafe, but the place has remained closed for the past few months after a fire gutted the kitchen.

No matter, just a block up from the Hard Rock is Enlaces Cafe, on Calle Cruz. This bar features an indoor swimming pool and some of the best alternative entertainment. On any given night, you can catch a sleek jazz trio pumping out tunes, showings of local and foreign film shorts, or young alternative bands playing anything from acid jazz, to alternative rock trying out their new material.

This place has great ambiance, so get a couple of drinks, dig the new music scene burgeoning inside and get ready to have a good time.

A long night requires sustenance, so food is important. Continue your walk uphill to Cristo Street, an walk into Burén, a modest restaurant in front of the El Convento Hotel. The specialty of the house are pizzas named after different streets in Old San Juan. One eyebrow-raiser is the "San Sebastian" which features smoked salmon.

Although this pizza comes without sauce, you can request it with it. I recommend it.

Smokers are welcomed here, Burén has a bar and an outdoor patio where you can take your meal. An appetizer, a pizza pie and a couple of drinks will cost you roughly $35. A great value when you consider the good quality of the food and the relaxed but impeccable service.

Now that you have a full stomach, it is time to walk back downhill for the main event of the night. For the last few years, the Nuyorican Cafe has become the hottest spot in Old San Juan. Located in an alleyway called the Callejón del Gambaro, the Nuyorican has become the home of new and established artists. The music scene has gained so much renown that the cafe is starting to sell records of the live performances. You can get these at the bar.

For the past week, the Nuyorican has been hosting its very own jazz festival. On Friday night, pianist Luis Marín and his quartet, which includes a stand up bass, congas, and drums, blew the roof off the place.

Marín held the audience in a trance as he led his band though through a stream of improvised riffs. All throughout the place, one could see the jazzheads with their eyes closed, religiously bobbing their heads to the beat and grimacing with every note that came from Marín's fingers.

How much must you pay for such an enlightening experience? A mere $5 entrance ticket.

Jazz is not the only thing at the Nuyorican. An open-mike night on Sundays has attracted young poets that read new works, show videos and do performance art for the approval of the audience.

After the Nuyorican, it is time to settle down, and calm down your heartbeat. Take a breather, and start walking back uphill to El Batey, Old San Juan's most legendary saloon. El Batey is located on Cristo Street, only a few doors from Burén. Why go back uphill? Because El Batey will feel like an oasis with pictures of home.

For many, the first reaction to this bar is something like repellent awe. I'll explain. El Batey's bare, eroded stone walls are completely covered in graffiti, the hanging lamps have shades made of random business cards strung together, and the old wooden bar has the names of endless customers carved on it. But El Batey is also one of the few places in Old San Juan, or the city in general where you can listen to old Bob Dylan 45s on the jukebox. That's right. Go into this bar where time has stood still, and let the baby boomer in you run amok as you rifle through bar owner's Davy Jones' record collection, which includes old Rolling Stones, Dylan, Crosby Stills and Nash, Peggy Lee, Louis Armstrong, James Brown and Aretha Franklin -- all with the hisses and pops of those old vinyls you thought you would never hear again.

Finally, when you get back from Memory Lane, stroll down Cristo Street, turn left at the Cathedral of San Juan (you can't miss it) and keep heading down to Plaza de Armas. You need to make it back to your car, and to your hotel, and the best way to do this is stopping at the Four Stations Kiosk, a 24-hour cafe on the plaza, and getting yourself a good cup of coffee.

Drink, enjoy, and drive carefully.

For a list of activities at the Nuyorican Cafe and Enlaces Cafe call:

Nuyorican Cafe
312 San Francisco

Enlaces Cafe
255 Calle Cruz

105 Calle Cristo

J.A. del Rosario, a business reporter for The San Juan Star, is a remedial guitar player and an incorrigible nightcrawler. He can be contacted at: :

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