Like a Local: San Juan
The best way to see Puerto Rico, after all, is through the eyes of a local
By Julie Schwietert Collazo
I first visited Puerto Rico while working for EF Smithsonian as a bilingual tour director, leading educational trips around the island for middle and high school students. As has happened to plenty of visitors before and after me, I was seduced by the sun, historic architecture, pastel colors, and laid-back lifestyle. On the last night of my first trip to the island, I sat in Old San Juan’s Plaza Colón and gazed up at a “For Rent” sign on a colonial apartment building. “How amazing would it be to live there?” I thought to myself. I had no trouble conjuring up images of a new home in the Caribbean… especially since it was a brutal winter back in New York City. A few minutes later, I found myself calling the realtor on the sign, and within a few weeks, I’d convinced my partner (from another Caribbean island — Cuba) to make the move with me.
Living in San Juan, I’ve been able to introduce many visitors to Puerto Rico’s capital, where the contemporary and the colonial that comprise the island’s unique identity are most accessible. Whether you’re looking for something sophisticated or spontaneous, San Juan can deliver.
San Juan, positioned on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast, has several beautiful beaches. Several of these are claimed by hotels exclusively for their guests, so if you want to experience the beach like a local — trying piononos (a fried, savory treat typically sold at the beach) and piraguas (Puerto Rican shaved ice) — ask someone to point you toward Escambrón or Ocean Park, two beaches reached easily by taxi. If you’re short on time, Escambrón is the closer of the two to San Juan’s cruise piers.
It’s tempting to simply soak in the sun, walking the old city’s blue cobblestone streets and taking snapshots of the capital’s colorful colonial homes, but some of San Juan’s most underrated attractions are indoors. If you want to get a better sense of Puerto Rican history and culture, its museums are an excellent place to start. Plus, most are air-conditioned and you won’t bump into too many tourists. In Old San Juan, there’s Museo de las Américas. Located in an old barracks, it features Puerto Rican and Latin American art. Old San Juan is also home to the small but charming Pablo Casals Museum, dedicated to the Catalan cellist and conductor, who made his home here for many years. In “New” San Juan, the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (Museum of Art of Puerto Rico) and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (Museum of Contemporary Art) are two of the strongest collections, both presented in well-curated settings.
Off the Beaten Path
If you just can’t bear to be indoors, make your way to the end of Old San Juan’s San Sebastian Street, where you’ll find the Casa Blanca Museum, the former home of Ponce de León’s descendants. The museum itself is interesting, but for a quiet, picturesque respite, walk through the museum’s small and nearly secret garden….