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Puerto Rico: The Jewel Of The Caribbean
by RAFAEL FRANCO STEEVES
July 7, 2000
The Puerto Rico tropics naturally come alive in the summer, when the days are long and sunny and the nights clear and windy. The red, gold and violet flamboyanes bloom in bright colors.
The same can be said for Old San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, where summer cruise ship passengers from all over the world converge with islanders to bring the ancient walled-in city new life both day and night.
During this time of year, the bars on Fortaleza and San Sebastian streets stay open later and the cafe owners bring out the outdoor tables. The cobblestone streets of the 500-year-old city are filled with quaint shops and bistros, museums, pedestrian walkways by the sea, palaces and two enormous forts overlooking one of the biggest harbors of the Caribbean, as well as the second oldest church in the New World, the San Jose Church.
People from all over the Caribbean come to San Juan to try many of its internationally-acclaimed restaurants and world-class concerts. Those seeking adventure can always find it at any of the thousands of underwater coral reefs around the Puerto Rican archipelago, in the hundreds of miles of underground river systems in the Karst region, or at any of the dozens of forests throughout the Cordillera Central.
We've done most of the legwork and found the best-kept secrets tucked away throughout the old city. So enjoy the sights and sounds of the Caribbean, Puerto Rican style!
Puerto Rico Art Museum. After years of planning and renovations, the turn-of-the-century building is the perfect setting for the most comprehensive collection of Puerto Rican art assembled under one roof. Spanning from the 17th century to the 1990s, the exhibit comprises more than 250 artworks by Puerto Rican artists, some never before exhibited. (De Diego Avenue and Baldorioty de Castro Avenue, Santurce. 977-4440)
Contemporary Art Museum (MAC). A favorite among the island's artist community, this museum offers visitors the best of Puerto Rican contemporary art. (Sacred Heart University, Eduardo Conde Avenue, Santurce. 727-5617)
The African Heritage Museum. Thanks to the private collection of Don Ricardo Alegria, founder of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture, Puerto Ricans and visitors alike can now view the extensive influence African culture has had on island artists. Recently opened, this museum has quickly become one of the most popular museums in the old city. (Ballaja Barracks, Old San Juan. 724-5052)
La Tertulia. For those interested in finding books in Spanish, no other bookstore on the island offers a more complete selection of fiction, literary criticism, theory and Puerto Rican literature. (Amalia y Marin Gonzalez Street, Rio Piedras, across from the University of Puerto Rico. 765-1148)
Cuatro Estaciones is a true meeting place for artists and writers. This outdoor 24-hour watering hole serves some of the best coffee just steps away from Cronopios Bookstore and the many bars and clubs in Old San Juan. The perfect meeting place for those exploring the old city. (Plaza de Armas, Old San Juan. no phone.)
Diner's Cafe. For those seeking to email a friend while savoring delicious Portuguese seafood, Diner's cafe is second to none inside or outside the old city. (357 San Francisco Street, Old San Juan. 724-6276)
Dragonfly. In the tradition of Bayamo in New York City, Dragonfly recently opened its doors to the public and is offering the island's only mix of local and oriental cuisine. Just half a block from the historic Tapia Theater, it is the perfect starting point for those getting ready to experience theater in the old city. (364 Fortaleza, Old San Juan. 977-3961)
La Casita Blanca. For those seeking a truly unique Puerto Rican dining experience, it is best to get to La Casita Blanca early because islanders flock to this award-winning restaurant specializing in creole rabbit stew and famous for the huge tree growing inside its walls. (Tapia Street and Eduardo Conde Avenue, Santurce. Unlisted phone.)
Miro. Seafood has never tasted better than in this Catalan tavern-style restaurant named after the famous painter. Whether its seafood tapas or entrees you are after, Miro will serve generous portions accompanied by the finest Spanish wines. (El Portal Hotel, Condado.)
The Gallery Inn. This beautiful colonial building used to be the home of the Admiral of the Spanish Armada, the most powerful naval force of its time, and overlooks the Atlantic Ocean as well as the San Juan Harbor. Complete with suites connected by secret passages, the Gallery Inn is a favorite among celebrities wanting to keep a low profile while in the old city. (Norzagaray and San Juato Streets, Old San Juan, 722-1808.)
El Convento. This 300-year-old building used to house the convent that served the Old San Juan Cathedral and Archbishop. Newly renovated with entrances on both streets, it has become THE place to stay in the old city. Dozens of shops and cafes also make their home among its ancient walls. (Cristo Street and Caleta de Las Monjas Street.)
The Gallery. This urban club is famous for its experimental live music and DJs who mix Caribbean sounds with Downtempo and Electronica. Weekly audio-visual shows by DJ Nature, Local 12 and Superaquello, as well as the hottest bands of the moment. (Tanca Street and Fortaleza Street, Old San Juan. Unlisted phone.)
Rumba. There is just no substitute if salsa is your thing. Rumba serves up weekly doses of salsa and guaguanco with Cachete Maldonado, Tony Carrilla and others Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Dancing shoes a must. (San Sebastian Street, Old San Juan. Unlisted Phone.)
Soleil Beach Club and Bistro. In the last standing mangrove in the metropolitan area, just north of the airport, Piñones is home to dozens of kiosks and open air bars. However, it is Soleil, tucked away in front of the recently renovated boardwalk, that specializes in seaside tropical drinks and almost daily live music. (Km. 4.8 Route 187. 253-1033)
Casa Blanca. The former mansion of the island's first governor, Juan Ponce de Leon of the fountain of youth fame, is now beautifully restored and surrounded by the most luscious gardens in the old city. There is also Archeological museum for those interested in the history of Old San Juan. (At the end of San Sebastian Street, Old San Juan.)
El Castillo de San Felipe del Morro. This imposing fort, complete with dungeons and secret tunnels, once stretched its 60-feet high walls all around the old city and has defended the island from the Dutch, English and other European powers that have attempted to take San Juan in its 500-year history. (Old San Juan)
El Yunque Rain Forest. Any of the dozens of tour companies in the city will arrange for group tours to the only tropical rainforest on U.S. soil. Occupying some 30,000 square acres, this majestic forest offers visitors 100-feet high waterfalls as well as a walk in the clouds, literally. (Luquillo, on Puerto Rico's northeast coast)
ACTIVITIES FOR KIDS
The Children's Museum. A must for kids of all ages, this museum will entertain youngsters with its specialized exhibits, tours and outdoor activities. (Rio Hondo, Bayamon)
Science Park. Just off the Las Americas Expressway, this museum offers a planetarium, an observation platform atop one of the island's unique Karst rock formations, and tons of exhibits on the U.S. space program. (150 Cristo Street, Old San Juan)
Kite Flying in El Morro Fort grounds. Every Puerto Rican kid expects to spend at least one summer weekend flying kites on the Morro grounds, where the tropical Trade Winds allow youngsters to fly even the most acrobatic kites on the market. (Old San Juan)