San Juan is all charm. I recently visited Puerto Rico’s capital city and absolutely adored it. It is Puerto Rico’s most densely populated city, its cultural hub and social centre all wrapped up into one pastel coloured, beach friendly, charismatic little heaven. If you’re looking for a place rich with history, gorgeous architecture, nightlife and delicious cuisine, San Juan has them all in spades. You can even have a swig of some fine, locally brewed Puerto Rican rum (ask your bar tender for Barrilito or Don Q Cristal Rum).
Getting Around: Navigating San Juan isn’t difficult, but you only have a few options. Buses run steadily in some areas of the city, but the majority of locals drive, take taxis, ride bikes or skateboard. Here’s a break down of the district zones & some transportation costs.
Zone 1: Luis Munoz Marin (SJU) Airport
Zone 2: Hotels in the Isla Verde Area
Zone 3: Hotels in the Condado and Miramar Areas
Zone 4: Hotels & Piers in Old San Juan, Puera de Tierra
Zone 5: Convention Center, Isla Grande Airport
Monthly public transit ticket: $45 USD
Taxi (within zones 1 to 5): $25 USD maximum
Taxi to Canovanas Outlet Mall: $46 USD
Taxi to Prime Outlet Mall in Barceloneta:$80 USD
Car rental rates: Variable
NOTE: The above list is a very brief summary of fares, for more information visit Puerto Rico Day Trips
Food Prices: I suggest doing groceries any and everywhere you travel. If your accommodation has a kitchen, toaster-oven or microwave, you’re golden. If not, load up on cold sandwiches, nutrition bars, fruit and water. A week’s worth of groceries in San Juan will run you 30 USD to 60 USD if you spend frugally.
Food in San Juan is nothing short of delicious. On the cheaper end of the food spectrum, you can grab a fast food combo meal from Subway ($7 USD) or somewhere similar. On the other end of the spectrum, you can find restaurants that cater to any of your other culinary desires with a wide range of international eateries at your disposal ($13+ USD). Of course, you can literally get a taste of Puerto Rico with a local dish like Mofongo (mashed green plantain, garlic, oil, pork/chicken/beef). I tried it and loved it.
NOTE: Coffee lovers rejoice! Puerto Rico has some of the best coffee beans in the world, comparable to or better than the famed coffee beans of Colombia. Want to try for yourself? Head down to Cafe Hacienda San Pedro in the Santurce region of San Juan and buy a cup or three.
Hotels/Motels: The cheapest hotels or motels (2.5 stars or less) you’ll find in San Juan start at $95 USD per adult per night. Luxury hotels can charge over $600 USD per adult per night. This is the perfect city to couch surf. Accommodations are costly, the city is small enough to walk around in most districts once you’ve arrived in them, and the locals are very hospitable.
Hostels: Hostels are almost always the cheaper accommodation option and San Juan is no exception to this rule. Find yourself an awesome hostel for as low as $14 USD (check the reviews). There are hostels at all points on the price continuum. Save money and make friends, wins all around.
Free Accommodation Alternatives: Low on funds? You can still travel, especially when you’re not paying for accommodations. Here are some of my favourite companies for free accommodation.
NOTE: Spanish is the first official language of Puerto Rico and English is the second. If you speak English, you’ll have no problem communicating with the people of San Juan. However, you should still put in a little effort to learn and speak a few words of Spanish.
EXPERIENCE SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO
- Witness the vibrant parades and revels during the San Sebastian Festival (Fiestas De La Calle San Sebastian), celebrated in January.
- Get your tan on while laying on Condado’s or Isla Verde’s sun-drenched beaches. Also, set some time aside to visit Puerto Rico’s most famous beaches (as per locals) Culebra & Flamingo.
- Tour Fort San Cristobal (Castillo San Cristobal), the largest fort built by the Spanish in the Americas. The views of (Old) San Juan from this enormous fort are second to none. Pack your camera, or at least your smartphone.
- Walk along the narrow, blue cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and enjoy the beauty of its soft-coloured Caribbean buildings and Spanish architecture. Lined with great restaurants, bars and artisan craft shops.
- Explore the El Yunque Rainforest.
NOTE: Taxi drivers will not take you into El Yunque (pronounced El Jung-kay), and if by some fluke one does, no taxis will be available when you leave El Yunque. It’s best to take a half-day guided tour to see it ($75+ USD). This ensures that you get a ride back to a more central part of San Juan. Your other options are to rent a car or connect with a local and have them take you there.
- Discover Caribbean and Latin art at the Puerto Rico Museum of Contemporary Art/Museo de Arte Contemporaneo (5$ USD) and the Puerto Rico Museum of Fine Art/Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico ($7 USD) when you’re in San Juan. It’s the perfect activity for a rainy (or hangover) day.
- Sip your way through a tour of San Juan’s Bacardi distillery.
- Stroll through Santurce on foot to see San Juan’s amazing street art and commissioned murals or walk along Paseo La Princessa.
- Visit La Casa Blanca, home of Ponce De Leon, founder of Puerto Rico.
BONUS (Personal Favourites):
La Placita: San Juan’s party district, lined with clubs, lounges, restaurants and bars. Go there on Thursday, Friday or Saturday to experience San Juan’s lively nightlife first hand.
La Taberna Lupulo: One of the best bars in Old San Juan. Here you’ll find great music, a wide variety of draft beer, tasty food and down to earth staff.
Address: 151 Calle San Sebastián, San Juan, PR 00901.
La Cubanita: Less than 30 seconds away from La Taverna Lupulo, it’s a little smaller and more Latin in essence, but just as fun as its neighbour.
Address: 104, 100 Calle San Francisco, San Juan, PR 00901.
La Bodega Viejo San Juan: A quaint little bodega across the street from Castillo de San Cristobal. The wait staff was impeccable. The food was mouthwatering and the price was affordable. I was so impressed with my experience there that I called the waiter (Jorge) back to point out that I was undercharged for my drinks. I then went back to my apartment (rented via Airbnb) and wrote a glowing review on TripAdvisor. Yes, it was that good.
Address: 413 Calle San Francisco, San Juan, PR 00901.
Cafe Hacienda San Pedro: A neat little air conditioned coffee shop with Puerto Rican styled croissants, great coffee and ambiance. Do brunch here and head on over to the Puerto Rico Museum of Fine Arts for a relaxing half-day of activities.
Address: 318 Ave de Diego, 318 PR-37, San Juan, PR 00923.
Insider Tip: Local taxi drivers can spot a foreigner from a mile away and most don’t mind charging a little extra for a ride, be certain to research the approximate cost of your destination before calling/flagging one down.
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Until next time,