Ready for take-off? This week Frequent Flier is taking in the sights and sounds of San Juan. We’re showing you the best in where to stay, where to eat and drink and what to do while you’re there.
Exploring San Juan, Puerto Rico
One of our criteria when traveling to sunny destinations is being by the beach, but we also love being close to shops, cafés and restaurants. If you feel the same way, there’s no better place to base yourself than the San Juan Marriott and Stellaris Casino in the popular Condado Beach area. Our room was large, well-appointed and offered ample storage space and seating. We especially loved our ocean-view balcony, which offered an ideal way to start the day (can’t beat coffee and crashing waves) or wind down at the end of an evening.
Take a dip in the oceanfront pool (complete with waterslide for kids and kids at heart), lie on the beach under an umbrella or cool off in the waves, try your luck at the on-site casino, and nestle yourself in a booth at the newly renovated lobby bar, Red Coral Lounge, to enjoy a drink (we loved the tart and tangy dragon berry mojito). Then if you want to explore the Condado Beach area (and you should), simply walk out of the hotel, and you’ll be faced with any number of restaurants, bars, cafes and shops without ever having to get in a car.
Eat and drink
If you’re looking for a place to eat like a local, we suggest making a beeline for El Jibarito. This no-frills spot is packed, and we’re not surprised it gets the love that it does. Settle down with a sangria and order up some comida criolla (traditional Puerto Rican cooking). Try the tostones (fried plantain) or the mofungo (fried green plantains mashed with garlic and served with some type of protein). The lively atmosphere and satisfying, home-cooked food make this a must-try stop when you’re in Old San Juan.
Red Line Bar is where the locals go to salsa dance. If you want to test out your best moves, you’re sure to find a willing partner. Should you just want to sit back and relax, grab a Medalla Light (the local beer) and find a spot to take in the talented dancers as they sway and shift around you.
La Vista Latin Grill and Bar at the San Juan Marriott is an ideal spot to grab a casual yet well-prepared and tasty meal if you’re staying at the resort (or even if you’re not). Friendly staff and an eclectic menu mixed with local as well as international fare make for a relaxing venue to have dinner.
See and do
San Juan is a diverse vacation spot offering much more than just golden sand beaches (although we did appreciate having close access to those). One of the highlights of our trip was a leisurely afternoon spent wandering the blue-glazed cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, which felt like stepping into a quaint European town. Explore the walled city at your own pace and take in the colorful buildings painted a rainbow of pastel hues. When you need to refuel, there are countless cafes and bars to choose from.
History buffs can enjoy a visit to one of San Juan’s many forts. We made a stop at Castillo San Cristobal, the largest fort ever built by Spain in the New World, and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a sprawling structure believed to be the oldest Spanish fort in the Americas. A visit to both is a great way to get a feel for the military history of San Juan and the role each played in protecting the city from attacks by land and sea.
San Juan is the home of two dances, sultry salsa and uniquely expressive bomba. We were lucky enough to get lessons in both from two of the best — salsa lessons from Rafa Cancel of Cambio en Clave and bomba lessons from bomba legend Margarita “Tata” Cepeda.
Friendly, patient (with those of us with two left feet) and passionate Cancel holds classes every Thursday at José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum, which attract up to 1,400 students of all skill levels. Tourists can drop in to watch or participate and although classes are in Spanish, you should be able to get by simply by watching what’s going on around you.
As for bomba, there’s no other experience like donning the requisite heavy bomba skirt and shimmying, swaying, twirling and tapping to the beat of live drummers. Tata Cepeda is the granddaughter of Rafael Cepeda, known as the patriarch of bomba and owner of La Escuela de Bomba y Plena, where we had the pleasure of learning alongside the 51 year old, who teaches with grace and an infectious enthusiasm. Beginner adult classes are offered Saturdays at 10 a.m. for $25.
If the idea of dancing your way across San Juan intrigues you, book a dance-focused trip to San Juan Jan. 23 to 26 with Mickela Mallozzi, host and creator of the fascinating travel/dance web series Bare Feet in partnership with Open Sky Expeditions. You’ll get a taste for San Juan and its rich culture, and learn to dance up a storm.
Pack your bags and join us next time when Frequent Flier heads to happening Honduras.