The resort hotels of Isla Verde are great for extravagant shows and gambling, and discos like Egipto can keep you dancing to hits for hours, but the best night out consists of weaving through the mix of high-end and low-life bars of Old San Juan, drinking and dancing through several cultures.
Like the locals, I began my night late, around 10, meeting friends at Carli Café Concierto (206 Calle Tetuán, Plazoleta Rafael Carrión; 787/725-4927), a pleasant place with a terrace that's ideal for drinking margaritas and watching the parade. Besides the sun-fried cruise-boat tourists, elegant Puerto Rican couples, skateboarders, and strolling families, the street crowd this night included a thirtyish woman in a long pleated dress and heels. Bannered across the soft, café con leche skin between her shoulder blades was an elaborate tattoo: PERDÓNAME MADRE MÍA ("Forgive me, Mother"), the sad calligraphy read. She turned, saw me staring, and smiled lightly. There were tattooed teardrops on her cheek.
My friends and I made our way up the hill to Hijos de Borinquén (Calle San José at Calle San Sebastián; no phone). The checkered floor, posters of palm trees and girls in bikinis, and live music from an XXXL guitarist and a petite bongo player made me think I'd stumbled into a relic of the old city in the days before it was restored. Medalla beer, the excellent local brew, is the drink of choice. Leaving, I noticed a ruin of a building, the doorway painted with a replica of the flag used by Puerto Ricans in the 19th century. The political display was a quiet reminder of the conflict between Puerto Ricans who want to secede from the United States and those who don't. (A December referendum ended with a majority of voters choosing the status quo).
The next stop was Aquí Se Puede (50 Calle San Justo; 787/724-4448), where the dreadlocked bartender grinned as she served up a rum and tonic, and the stools were occupied by casually cool people, including a beautiful woman with short hair, yellow lenses in her sunglasses, white jeans, a muscle shirt, and colorful tattoos. Other upscale hippies and fashionistas lounged at tables, and just when it seemed that I'd wandered into a photo shoot, a woman in a white muumuu started dancing to the Cuban salsa music with a man in a wheelchair. Others joined them, and soon the room was filled with twirling dancers, completely unselfconscious and given over to the music, not a poseur among them.
Wanting live rhythms, my friends led me to nearby Rumba (152 Calle San Sebastián; 787/725-4407), where the crowd spilled out onto the cobblestones, hoping to cool off during a break in the music. Long and narrow, with 20-foot-high ceilings, Rumba was packed with overweight businessmen, sleek young Rastafarians, and every permutation in between. The rumba was acoustic and intense, and even amateurs were welcome. A word of advice: Keep your knees bent and move from the hips.
At about four in the morning, I stopped in at El Farolito (277 Calle Sol; no phone), a tiny shot-and-beer bar decorated with oil paintings of nefarious, drunken people. Although a quick survey of the patrons indicated they'd make apt subjects for the house artist, El Farolito felt safe enough. Try a coco frío with rum. It's open from noon until "whenever," says the bartender.
Entering the courtyard of my hotel, I heard women singing softly -- a group of New Caledonians and Australian Aborigines in town for a United Nations conference. I fell asleep to their sweet sounds just as the sun was rising. A typical night in Old San Juan.
on the radio
San Juan is famous throughout the Caribbean and Latin America for producing an unusual number of music stars. Here's who's hot now around the city.
• Fiel a la Vega These down-to-earth guys bang out a modern reprise of trova, the heartfelt rock music that was so popular in the islands in the seventies. The group is in the vanguard of the resurgent "rock en español" movement sweeping Puerto Rico.
• Olga Tañon An island diva who brews a mix of merengue -- the hyperactive Latin dance music that even klutzes can move to -- and schlocky, sentimental Spanish pop. Somehow, it seduces.
• Ricky Martin Lush Latin pop in a surprisingly original mix of styles, ranging from the accordion lilts of cumbia to the trance-inducing rhythms of Cuba. Martin is a sex symbol all over Latin America, but his music has unexpected depth.
• Gilberto Santa Rosa Classic salsa -- complete with staccato horns, careening piano, and a singer who knows about love lost and gained.
• Marc Anthony and La India Two of the leading purveyors of modern salsa, which mixes slick production, urban edginess, and old-fashioned rhythms. These are by far the two most popular voices on the island -- even though they live in Nueva York.
• Luis Rojas A satisfying fusion of Caribbean and Latin music with a rock-and-roll heart. Rojas is often called the Puerto Rican Bob Dylan.
if you like piña colada...
No visit to San Juan is complete until you've sipped at least one tropical drink, and you've passed a brief meditative moment in front of 104 Calle La Fortaleza, in Old San Juan. The bronze plaque reads: "The house where in 1963 the piña colada was created by Don Ramón Portas Mingot." Too bad he didn't get royalties.
There's no shortage of shopping, whether you're on the prowl for a tropical bird (they're sold from the back of a pickup near the Coast Guard base) or a tennis sweater (try the Polo Ralph Lauren outlet in Old San Juan). Here's a selection of some of the most interesting places to browse.
DMR (Designs & Museum Reproductions) La Cochera Bldg., 204 Calle Luna, Old San Juan; 787/722-4181. A cool, calm spot on a mad, muggy day, DMR sells handmade mahogany veranda chairs in children's sizes, colonial-style paintings, and reproductions of Caribbean plantation furniture.
Jah Rastafari 366 Calle San Francisco; 787/725-5432. Imagine you're in Jamaica as you browse through everything from T-shirts silk-screened with portraits of Bob Marley to red, green, and yellow driving gloves. Reggae blares as Rastas compete with punk skateboarders for the newest CD's.
Olé 105 Calle Fortaleza, Old San Juan; 787/724-2445. Go for the hand-carved trinkets, colonial paintings, antique santos (carved images of saints), and curiosidades.
Plaza del Mercado Calle Capitol at Calle Dos Hermanos, Santurce; 787/723-8022. A pretty, old-style Caribbean building housing what is perhaps the most serene central market in all of Latin America. The botanicas sell medicinal herbs, Santeria offerings, bay rum, candles, and patchouli roots, which are used in "religious ceremonies and to kill cockroaches." There's even a "spiritual" floor cleaner. Pause for a mango-banana shake along with a plate of roast pork at one of the simple restaurants.
El Alcázar 103 Calle San José, Old San Juan; 787/723-1229. Entering any of the many rooms here is like discovering a forgotten attic in a Newport mansion, filled with treasures from trips around the world. The selection might include a 19th-century Tibetan incense burner or a carved-wood Christ figure.