San Juan doesn’t get the respect it deserves. Most people use it as a transit stop coming or going from a cruise or a flight. The city itself is hardly given a look aside from the compulsory Old San Juan meandering from the nearby cruise ship dock. The most cosmopolitan city in the Caribbean is overlooked as a gastronomic center and a true first class destination with top hotels, nightlife and shopping. Not to mention a few pretty sweet beaches right in the middle of the city; including Condado; which is where I spent my time on my latest venture to Puerto Rico.
The San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino was the setting for an excellent trip that made me look at San Juan in a new light. My sixth visit to the island was highlighted by the tremendous hospitality of the San Juan Marriott staff and the fine amenities it offers including a great executive lounge with amazing view of Condado Beach, the city proper and a spa. Not to mention some amazing restaurants.
The lobby bar is as good as any hotel bar in the Caribbean with a fine selection of local rums and beer along with the usual International standard spirits. The two pools, including a child friendly waterslide and of course, a swim up bar, surround the grounds en route to Condado Beach. Condado Beach reminds me a bit of some other great urban beaches that you might see in Rio de Janeiro, Barcelona or Miami. It was the perfect hotel to use as a home base for exploring the finer parts of the city; and the casino was a great place for a night cap of blackjack and cocktails with some of the great people I was fortunate to be traveling with.
Condado Beach is about 15 minutes by car from Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport. It is a great spot for walking around the delightful and very safe streets that are filled with cafes, bars and shops. You will have all the comforts of home with 24 hour pharmacies, friendly English speaking locals and even a Starbucks. If beach strolling is more your thing; then you’ll love walking up and down Condado Beach to a great sunset without a ton of people. Maybe Waikiki can learn something from Condado!
Aside from the accommodation, the other highlight of my trip to San Juan had to be the food. My hosts knew all the best spots to make me crave going back to San Juan. From the Condado Asian fusion delight of Budathai and their cutting edge sushi; to the local Puerto Rican favorite of El Jibarito in Old San Juan featuring amazing flank steak and mofongo; we ate like kings. Some other must haves are the San Juan Marriott’s own Tuscany Italian restaurant featuring heavenly appetizers that will leave you unable to finish your main course and Bar Gitano which was my absolute favorite meal of the trip.
The patatas bravas are better than anywhere I’ve eaten in Spain and the pardon peppers will leave you begging for more. But don’t forget the churrasco and potatoes with manchego cheese. Add in some white or red sangria and I guarantee you that Bar Gitano will not disappoint.
Another classic Latin American tradition is certainly well represented in San Juan and all over Puerto Rico; street food and drink. After some mangrove kayaking around the wetlands out by the airport, we headed across the street for some local street food and fruit drinks. I have to say that the açaí at the Pincholandia stand I had reminded me of the amazing street açaí that you can get in Rio de Janeiro; it was that good.
San Juan is also famous for its unmistakable old town which has been the site for many Hollywood blockbusters. Old town and the surrounding coast features Castillo San Cristobal and El Morro. Both sights are worth a look and the former provides some great birds eye views of old town all the way down to El Morro. To get a real sense of the history of the castle, hire a guide to give you the ins and outs, it’ll make you appreciate it more and make you happy you weren’t imprisoned there a few hundred years ago!
Make no mistake; Puerto Rico is an affordable world class destination that is a 4 hour flight from New York. The airfare is minimal for a Caribbean destination and you don’t even need a passport. The hotels and beaches are fantastic and the city is very safe. Go ahead and book yourself a trip to San Juan…just make sure you go hungry and don’t be afraid to try some new things!