Out of all the islands in the Caribbean that one could travel to coming from Europe, perhaps Puerto Rico isn’t at the top of the list in terms of popularity. With places such as Cuba, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Barbados, Antigua, etc., this associated free state of the United States might fall under the radar a bit. However, it provides an urban experience as well as a natural one, an ideal destination for the combination of history, culture, gastronomy and nature.
It’s not many times that one travels all the way across the Atlantic and comes across a hurricane but that’s exactly what happened to me. Hurricane Isaac was threatening to cause havoc in La Isla del Encanto, the Island of Charm, as the locals call it. Thankfully, Isaac only affected the southern part of the island lightly, the city of Ponce, and San Juan was just left with heavy winds and rain, a minor problem considering the grand scale of things and how hurricanes usually destroy everything that comes across them in this partof the world.
The only things I had heard about Puerto Rico before came from Hunter S. Thompson’s book The Rum Diary and that it was the island that brought reggaeton to the world, two claims to fame of incredible contrast. I had plenty of curiosity to get to know the Old San Juan, those perpendicular streets with houses of different colours that aligned next to each other. That’s where I was adamant to come across the essence of this city that has inevitably become corrupted by luxury tourism and American culture, as it’s easy to see in Condado. One could say that Puerto Rico has the best of Latin America and the worst of the USA: the commodity culture in this city brought by Uncle Sam makes it almost impossible to feel like you’re in the Caribbean on a non-luxurious trip. Everyone on the island has a car… or two, and circulation and parking is a big problem. If one wishes to take public transport, buses run every as-often-as-the-driver-feels-like-it, with no set timetables and 45 minute waits not unheard of. Taxis cost ¢15 for a 10-minute ride and all of this combined takes the edge of the experience a bit.
However, concentrating on the good things, there are many reasons to travel to San Juan, mainly the Old San Juan. In search for a typical and local café, I came across the fantastic Café Manolín, located just off San Justo. Its interior was like and old-school diner, and the food was Creole and unpretentious, with large portions and exquisite flavour. I tried the famous mofongo with the churrasco served with rice and kidney beans, which was absolutely delicious. The prices are ridiculously low too and all in all, it was hard not to go back. Their breakfasts were delicious, especially the scrambled eggs with chicken.
Another place that served good food in Old San Juan was Cafetería Mallorca. Although not as good as Manolín, this traditional restaurant served good Creole food at decent prices, and their mallorca cake was delicious.
It wouldn’t be a visit to the Old San Juan without dropping by for a beer and a game of pool at El Batey. This bar is the ultimate dive bar in San Juan, with its walls covered in graffiti and an ideal place to come for a beer and a chat trying to avoid the tourist hoards. Places like El Batey and Manolín allow the traveller to feel like a local instead of a tourist muppet, the essence of the real San Juan that, although scarce, can still be found.