A New York Girl In Old San Juan

I didn’t expect “beautiful.” No, not necessarily. Puerto Rico isn’t the most culturally “exotic” place for a New Yorker to visit since we’ve actually got more Puerto Ricans in NYC than there are in San Juan. Plus, the island is a US territory; although they consider themselves their own country, culture, and nationality, no passport is required for Americans to enter (nice!). But I did want a taste. I wanted to know what it would feel like to walk the streets of Old San Juan surrounded by Puerto Ricans and enveloped by warm ocean breezes, rather than riding the subways of New York City surrounded by the same people all bundled up in the frigid stillness of an East Coast winter. It quickly became clear that, even while many Puerto Ricans and I call New York City “home,” this island, this colonial city, is where their heart is. And for one week, mine got to be there too.

View from Fort of San Cristobal. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Part of me expected Spanglish to fly out of everyone’s mouth, because that’s what I’m used to in NYC. But when you’re on the island of Puerto Rico, you’re far, far away from the urban jungle. I found myself speaking Spanish like I was in South America — how I love when I have to speak Spanish. While most locals speak English as well as Spanish, many do not. I quickly realized that I was farther away from the US than I expected to feel, although the first sight of a Starbucks, Chili’s, and Walgreen’s helped to remind me of the connection. It’s Miami meets Cuba meets New Orleans. That’s how I’d sum up this town. The Latin energy thickly coats the muggy nights, and the colors, architecture, and rhythm are undoubtedly Spanish-influenced. It’s exotic but familiar, foreign but navigable, us (U.S.) but them, here but there

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Often when I travel, especially to Latin American cities or even Caribbean islands, I find myself confused by a feeling that I am almost more in my element and more at home in these places than in my beloved Manhattan. I definitely feel more at home in Latin cultures than anywhere else in the US where, even though I look white, I never feel as white as the general culture around me.

Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I love to dance. For anyone who doesn’t know that, there it is. But, as I have joked, I can’t really dance to “white people” music — the kind they play at weddings and in well-lit rooms. It just doesn’t feel natural. I’ve got to get my hips shaking and I need the right beat, but without forcing anything — it’s got to just start happening on its own. I like to get close, to sync-up with another person charged by the music. I like to be spun and led by a Latin man who knows how to work it. I can’t just listen to salsa, merengue, reggaeton, reggae, bachata, cumbia, dancehall, soca, tango, etc. and not MOVE. It gets in me, as white as I may seem, and works its way through me with a determined vigor that rock (or whatever you call it) just doesn’t give me.

Graffiti in Old San Juan. Puerto Rico.

This all became extra clear on Saturday night, when my mom, my sister, her Australian boyfriend and I headed to the Hotel San Juan just down the street from our swanky hotel, where we were told the locals love to go for the live salsa music and dancing. We sat in the old, massive lobby and watched as Puerto Ricans of all shapes, sizes, and ages got up and shook their hips, gliding across the dance floor with their partners in an effortless haze of natural talent. These people are so unafraid, so uninhibited, so free and HAPPY when they dance — and boy can those men dance! At one point, we all found ourselves completely mesmerized by the hips of a tall dark-skinned man with moves that could slay vacationing gringas with one perfectly placed thrust. Women wore anything that resembled second skin — words that come to mind: short, tight, revealing and/or excessively sparkly. Men wore loose, airy button-down t-shirts with white belts and comfortable pants, many with that dark complexion that beckons a panama hat and cigar. They danced because they couldn’t help it. They danced because it was in their sangre. They danced and danced and all I wanted to do was transport this place to New York, take all of this energy with me, and dance with them as one of them on my island. But this time, I was an onlooker.

Window and cobblestones. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

It made me nostalgic for Ecuador, where every Wednesday I would go salsa dancing with a combination of gringas and Ecuadorians (shout out to Victor, my favorite dance partner!). That’s probably what I miss most about living in South America: the dancing. The constant liberty to just move if you felt like it — the inevitability of dancing. This is what the US lacks. Americans can be so up-tight on the dance floor — so afraid. Especially the men. (Of course, this is certainly not ALWAYS the case.) It just isn’t a part of the culture the same way it is in the Caribbean, Africa and Latin America. And it’s not in Americans’ (oops, “our”) blood to just MOVE, to let a beat take them wherever it wants to, and to let go. When I travel and dance in other countries, all I want is to take these places and the people back with me to Manhattan where I can feel at home in my hometown. And yet they’re already here, already transported, immigrated, mixed right in. But it’s different here, on the continental US. The energy, the music, the weather — it’s just different.

Colorful homes in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

I’ve got to say: I loved Old San Juan. I was expecting it to be a little seedy or run-down, but it was quiet vibrant and — the travel writer’s most despised adjective — charming. Not to mention, Puerto Rican men can be quite friendly when you wear short shorts… Yeah… Hehe.

Ok let’s see if I can paint the picture for you: Imagine you’re walking up a hill, two sixteenth-to-eighteen century fortresses to your right are separated by a large expanse of bright blue ocean. To your left, a dark man with a potbelly in a too-tight bright green t-shirt shakes a bell, letting you know he’s selling coconut and mango flavored ices. Another man sells potato skins in a rolling cart. An overwhelmingly warm morning is whipping around you in the refreshing ocean breeze. When it stops, you realize your sunglasses are sliding off your sweat-slicked nose. The tops of your feet are burning a little in your flip-flops, but despite the excessive heat, the air is light. The streets are filled with colorful colonial-style homes, with balconies and shutters that remind you of the Creole-Caribbean influenced houses in the French Quarter of New Orleans. All the streets are cobblestoned and lined with leafy trees, bright magenta flowers, and the occasional graffiti. The energy is new even though the city reeks of history, pirates, cannon ball fire, large ships with the quest to conquer, and footprints of the Spanish.

Ship sketch on wall of dungeon in Fort of San Cristobal. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Dome next to El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Especially after the sun sets, Old San Juan comes to life from beneath the heat. Pulsing with a newfound chic-ness, this city is anything but dead or run-down. Puerto Rican food is generally unhealthy — chincharrones (the Puerto Rican interpretation of chicken nuggets) and fufu or mafongo, a sort of stew with a base of mashed plantains and black beans — are staples here. However, either I had very good luck with our restaurant selections for the week or Old San Juan has an amazing little selection of Nuevo-Latino restaurants with with which to play. (See list at the end of this post.) Let’s just say I ate well. Like, really well.

Tres Banderas: Spanish Military flag, Puerto Rican flag, American flag. El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For those wondering, this was a family trip. Every year, my family (of seven) tries to do a spring break together. It’s a tradition that, for most families, fades after high school, but in ours, it has managed to continue, albeit with the occasional sibling missing in action. One nice perk to dating a Tavel: you get to join, courtesy of my dad. Not too shabby… Not that you need ANOTHER reason to date or hang out with me, but there it is. (HA! SO JUST KIDDING. This better be obvious.) Not bribing. Just sayin’…

Me strolling through Old San Juan.

Since I graduated from college, the annual Tavel spring break has taken me to Turkey (Istanbul), Argentina (Buenos Aires, Salta, Tucuman, Cafayate, Purmamarca), Portugal (Lisbon, Sintra), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg, Bruck), Italy (Rome, Pompeii, Vatican City), and now Puerto Rico. As you can see, most of the trips have been to European cities, where we spend our days exploring museums, ruins, and general neighborhoods in a nonstop fury of productivity, punctuated by heavy, excessively delicious three-to-five course meals that often happily backfire on us and slow things down. Getting four adult kids and an opinionated, sassy Argentine mom to agree on the daily itinerary can be trying, at times. It often feels like the opposite of vacation, and sometimes – by the end of the trip – I find myself needing another one just to dilute the intensity of the phantom vacation I supposedly just had. But it’s also wonderful, and it means a lot to my parents that we are still happy to do these trips. That said, I always end up in the middle  seat on every flight when I specifically request the aisle (why, WHY, will no sibling every trade with me!?). My mom acts like an excited puppy when she sees good shopping, at which point my impatience begins to take over (I am not a shopper). We all just have slightly different agendas, and it takes a lot of bending and shutting up to make things work in a big family. Alas, it somehow always does…in its own way.

Colorful street. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Needless to say, it’s getting harder and more complicated to pull off these trips without a clash of opinions, priorities (mine are always cultural – the art, the food, the people, the street life, the history, the desire to take in the big picture of a place), and moral/existential/social/personal preferences. To try something different (and save a little cash), I thought we should go somewhere that could combine our interest in another culture with our desire to completely RELAX (you know — the point of a vacation), and suggested Puerto Rico.

El Morro. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

To my happiness, this worked out PERFECTLY. Every morning, we’d sip our Puerto Rican coffee on the balcony of our hotel overlooking the ocean, and spend most of each day either basking in the sun by the pool, or submerging ourselves in the warm sea. We’d go for daily walks up and down the beach of Isla Verde, and order the occasional pina colada, mango smoothie, or beer from the comfort of our bright blue pool-side chairs. Most evenings, we’d venture into Old San Juan for a trendy restaurant, and spend a morning or two casually strolling through the city, only to follow the effectively calm morning up with an afternoon nap by the water. It really was heaven, and for a change, it truly felt like a vacation.

Beach. Isla Verde. San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And now we’re back in New York City. Gone are the beaches and the palm trees, the waves of calm water, the cilantro and plantain-filled meals, the constant pulsing desire to move my hips and speak Spanish. But here in Manhattan, I’ve still got the Puerto Ricans. A girl like me can only hope that I will find myself a slice of that Old San Juan energy somewhere within the crowded streets of this less tropical and slightly less Latin island that, like for many Puerto Ricans, I call home.

For those of you actually traveling to Puerto Rico, here are some restaurant suggestions:

Tavel’s Old San Juan Dinner Picks:

Marmalade. Considered “the best” restaurant in Old San Juan, it was an easy choice for the Tavel clan. The restaurant is very trendy, but backs it up with a really delicious and funky Latin-inspired menu. I opted for the four-course tasting menu, which included a paella with smoked chicken, then an unforgettable white bean soup scented with truffle oil and dusted with pancetta, followed by a perfectly tender beef tenderloin in a cabernet-rosemery jus with roasted mushrooms and three cheese potato gratin, and topped off by a killer chocolate mousse. Before dinner, I sipped a honey-chamomile martini (for a girl who hates sweet drinks, this was a good choice as it was like a chill, alcoholic version of relaxing and strong chamomile tea with honey). White curtains dangle between diners, and the hip but relaxed atmosphere of this primely located San Juan restaurant — not to mention the memorable food — hit the spot. It’s a great place to celebrate anything, or nothing. Basically, just come up with some excuse to go here if you find yourself nearby. www.marmaladepr.com.

Baru. The tapas-style menu, along with the flamenco music on the speakers and the outdoor courtyard in the high-ceilinged Spanish-style building, will temporarily transport you to Southern Spain. I loved this restaurant from the moment I walked in. Immediately, the interior architecture makes you feel like you could be in someone’s home, with the small rooms having the natural flow of a house, and the outdoor seating small enough to be intimate beneath the shade of a big palm tree, but large enough to feel you’re on your own even surrounded by other diners. Highlights of the menu include a salad with greens and incredibly sweet mangoes, plantain chips in fufu and a spicy black bean dip, amazingly light pan seared scallops in a coconut curry sauce, a delicate asparagus risotto, a fresh paper-thin halibut carpaccio, and possibly the best chocolate mousse I’ve had in a long time. The vibe is a perfect island calm, and it’s a great place for a small group dinner or a romantic evening for two. After dinner, the restaurants and bars on this famously beautiful street, San Sebastien, fill with locals grabbing a quick bite or setting up for a night of live salsa. www.barupr.com.

Dragonfly. Located on a bustling Old San Juan street with a string of outdoor dining just outside, this restaurant was modeled after a Shanghai opium den. The atmosphere is hip at this Latin-Asian restaurant, which provides a great getaway from the Puerto Rican standards while incorporating the strengths of the island’s flavors. The dark, red seductive interior goes well with dishes like the criollo BBQ pork steamed bun sliders, the pork and amarillo (plantain) dumplings, and the miso-honey halibut. Creative cocktails and tapas-sized dishes make for a fun dinner experience. More sexy than casual, I’d definitely go back — perhaps with a nice Puerto Rican man rather than my family, the second time around. If you can stomach it, try the ginger tres leches dessert. www.oofrestaurants.com.

And here are a few songs to finish off this post and complete your immersion into the San Juan mood (as always, ignore the actual videos and just enjoy the music):

Feel free to add links to your favorite salsa music as a comment!

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3 Comments

Filed under Food, Islands, New York City, Puerto Rico, Travel, Uncategorized, USA

3 responses to “A New York Girl In Old San Juan

  1. Loooved this post! We SO have to meet, we have a lot in common. Great pics and writing. Hope you write more about PR. 🙂

    • travelswithtavel

      So glad to hear it! Yes, we will have to meet some day. Thank you thank you thank you for reading and commenting 🙂 I’ll try to write more about Puerto Rico soon. Anything in particular you’d like to read?

  2. Antonio Deliz

    Hi! Seeing Old San Juan is impressive, as the cobblestone streets and Spanish architecture transport you but, travelers must remember that Old San Juan is only a little place within the island of Puerto Rico. To truly experience Puerto Rico, one must look beyond the shore. There are other areas with superb Spanish architecture, that are hardly ever mentioned in people’s travels. San German for instance, a little town on the West coast of the island is filled with beautiful architecture. Must I dare to say that it is as beautiful, if not, more beautiful and better maintained than those buildings in Old San Juan.

    Besides the beaches in the Metro Area (San Juan, Carolina, Bayamon and Guaynabo), there are other incredibly gorgeous beaches on the island. Puerto Rico is not all about beaches however, it is much more than that. Beautiful botanical gardens in Caguas, Guaynabo and other places (I like the one in Caguas).

    Definitely have to stop here because there are so many things to see, that I would not have enough space to comment on all of it. Thanks for your post. It is always appreciated when a foreigner comes to the island and makes such objective comments about their trip… with pics!!!

    Thanks

    Antonio

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