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January 14, 2005
Well, the New Year is finally here. Now that youve cleared the closet and rid yourself of your tattered possessions, what better way to spend it than acquiring -- you guessed it -- more things!
The post-Christmas and Three Kings Day sales are up, but theres no need to pound the over commercialized, tiled pavement of Plaza Las Américas. Why not stroll leisurely down one of the oldest streets in the Americas, pick up some local art and maybe a new reliable handbag in the process?
Back in 1521 when San Juan was a settlement of about 300 and got its name, Del Cristo Street was already there, beaming as the first paved road in front of the local church, surrounded by about 80 wood-and-thatch houses, along with these other fine first pathways: West Recinto, Caleta San Juan and Caleta Las Monjas. They survived possible paving during the 80s, courtesy of our beloved anthropologist Don Ricardo Alegría, and made it even further, especially because of the protection from the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
Ramón del Rivero, the famous local comedic legend a.k.a. Diplo, grew up on this street. The miracle of the horseman of the Capilla Del Cristo took place here. Dayanara and Marc Anthonys second wedding was here. Hell, even my legendary teenage escapades included this street. If these cobblestones could speak, we wouldnt hear the end of it!
But back to the issue at hand. If youre looking for a great, unique shopping experience, shopping down Del Cristo Street in Old San Juan is one of the most classic and popular to be had in the old citadel. Bigwig fashionista brands like Polo Ralph Lauren, Guess, Reebok, Dooney and Burke, Coach and Custo from Barcelona, have outlets here. But so do local people like you and me with a penchant for unique stuff.
So start from the Quincentennial Plaza, the one on top of the hill, where the San Jose Church is, which recently got a injection of cash to be restored. Work your way down. Coming down the slope, the real strip begins with Ben & Jerrys, owned by mother-and-daughter duo Celi and Michelle. Youll see lots of Michelle Campis photos of her former gymnast life, amid groovy Punky Brewster décor, a heady smell of freshly made waffle cones and people from all walks of life enjoying their yummy ice cream. The T-shirts are designed by local people, so even better. It would certainly make ye olde Ben & Jerry duo proud.
On the same side, on the next corner, Magia offers some very bold, colorful local art, complete with virgins, dragons and unique shelving. Further down you can see the legendary El Batey, one of the oldest dive bars around, a deep and dank place to wash away your identity and let it all hang out. Perhaps you can catch a spot to leave your name on the wall with a Sharpie.
On that same left side youll find Mi Pequeño San Juan, peeking multi-hued behind wrought iron bars. Here youll find all sort of ceramic goodies. They specialize in lively reproductions of Old San Juan buildings, especially Cristo Street facades, and sell all sorts of religious and not so reverent crafts from local artisans. The matches are particularly cool.
Pass the Cathedral on your left, and the celebrated El Convento Hotel and the triangular Puerta de San Juan plaza on your right, and the heavy duty shopping spree begins.
Patchouli lies on the right side, right after the guy selling bucolic Puerto Rican paintings on the street. This is a small Mom and Pop shop in the wall offering unique local jewelry, stunning silk and cotton dresses, incense, dissected butterflies and funky chimes, as well as miniature saints and unique arts and crafts that "lift your spirit." Youll be attended to with much warmth by one of the family.
Further down youll reel from all the inexpensive but pretty jewelry youll see peeking at you from the different shop windows. Youll also see the new Custo Barcelona store, which sells some expensive shirts within a minimalist ambiance. See if you can get your hand on one of those coveted Coach handbags for a cheaper price. I mean, those last a lifetime.
Yonder youll see El Galpón, where you can grab a couple of first-rate cigars, several bona fide guayabera shirts for your friends back home, and one or two vegigante masks from the top maskmakers on the island.
Look to the other side, past the Polo Ralph Lauren outlet store and youll hit Turán, a new store that sells neat stuff for the home and lots of inexpensive art by local talent. Rummage through the many canvases and find your favorite reproduction or an anonymous painting that fits your style. Being on a budget, heres where I found my thrill, a Van Gogh-like painting of a chair with a candle floating in midair. But if youre looking for top notch fine art, head to Botello Art Gallery, where youll find art from top artists like Botello himself, ceramic queen Roxanna Jordán, antique santos de palo and oh, so much more. For a more eclectic collection, visit Galería Palomas, on the right side of the street, with its down-to-earth environs in keeping with the Old San Juan residential style.
For a delight of the senses, stop by Bóveda, which sells everything from kitschy postcards to stunning jade and coral necklaces from India to Japanese paper lanterns. This store has been consistently rated as the best for gift shopping in the area. Ask for Arayoán. Hell be glad to help. Hell, they even have suites for rent so you can enjoy life the Old San Juan way.
The last bunch of stores gives you, you guessed, it more outlets. But cross Fortaleza Street, toward the Cristo Chapel, and on your right, just before the Parque de las Palomas, youll hit Amazonia, a smorgasborg of leather goods and Panama hats at very reasonable prices. Owner Luis Conrado will help you pick out the perfect souvenir.
And last, but never least, is one of my favorite shops in the whole world, a magical shopping biosphere where merchandise lays with ease and aplomb, never in rank and file. At Flowers & Gallery, the little corner shop that you almost miss, right next to the Cristo Chapel, youll find unframed art from emerging artists, a moody bunny, parakeets galore, a cable-munching cockatiel, exotic flower arrangements, Majolica balls and oddball crystal vases, along with Indian and Thai furniture, mannequins and even more antiques. Here you can get your hands on the whimsical creations of Susana, mermaids with wings, butterflies, coquettish dragonflies with cute faces made out of clay, made to hang and make you smile. These little characters are simply precious, albeit a expensive starting at $35 a pop.
After all that shopping, go back up the street and let yourself be swept off your feet with aphrodisiac fare at La Ostra Cosa, where theyll treat you like royalty. Even if you have to wait for their out-of-this-world oysters and prawns, their lemonade will soothe your spirit while you take in the loveliness of a 16th century Old San Juan patio. Happy shopping!
Ben & Jerrys
61 Calle del Cristo
101 Calle del Cristo
Mi Pequeño San Juan
107 Calle del Cristo
152 Calle del Cristo
152 Calle del Cristo
154 Calle del Cristo
158 Calle del Cristo
208 Calle del Cristo
209 Calle del Cristo
252 Calle del Cristo
Flowers & Gallery
259 Calle del Cristo
La Ostra Cosa
154 Calle del Cristo
Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org