Head to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and give your kid a lesson in history, art and the beauty of humanity.
(And, yes, get a great tan in the process.)
By Rachel Naud
The concrete steps outside the Plaza del Mercado in Santurce, Puerto Rico, are the best seats in the city. People-watching is in its prime at this location where locals of all ages come to gather, drink, eat and blow off steam after a long workday.
Moms in four-inch heels are laughing on a park bench, sipping mojitos and chatting while their little girls — no older than five — sit content on the ground colouring. Groups of teen boys chat stealing glances and smiles from the circle of girls sipping fresh fruit smoothies. Men run back and forth from the neighbouring bar across the street, chilled cans of beer in hand. Loud Caribbean music blasts in the background — a beat that can’t be resisted by patrons in line for a cold drink as their hips sway in authenticity to the rhythm of salsa.
Nearby is the grittier part of Santurce. Scrawny cats and dogs with droopy teats dodge in and out of laneways while women sweep the dirt from their concrete floors onto the streets. Laundry is strewn on lines in front lawns with house fronts hidden behind black steel bars. The area comes alive at night, but it’s not one tourists want to be walking alone in past 10 p.m.
Just a street away sits Jose Enrique restaurant. It’s a non-descript joint located in a bright pink house. There’s no sign yet every local knows it’s the place to eat. Open at 6:30 each night, if patrons want a seat at first sitting, they have to get there ahead of time to put their name on the list.
The eatery serves the type of fare you’d expect from a multi-starred locale. Chef Jose Enrique, who was chosen as a semifinalist in 2013 in the “Best Chef South” category for the James Beard Foundation award, prides himself on bringing guests the very best of Puerto Rican cuisine. From cheese fritters, which come golden fried and topped with a pineapple chipolte sauce, to the crumbled fillet entrée, dishes from the kitchen of Jose Enrique are the epitome of decadence.
Beyond its delicious fare, Santurce is stealing visitors from nearby typical tourist destination Old San Juan for another reason — its burgeoning art scene. “Art, I don’t want Santurce without you” The words, painted in Spanish on a brick wall against a white backdrop, speak volumes of the locals’ stance on art in Santurce. The largest neighbourhood in Puerto Rico, it’s chock-full of inspiring museums, concert halls, paintings, sculptures, graffiti and murals. Once crime-ridden and poverty-stricken, the area, which was abandoned by local government and considered to be the poorest on the island, is experiencing a re-gentrification that is seeing modern buildings and restaurants dot the streets alongside abandoned apartments and businesses. Once governed by an anti-graffiti mayor, it’s been given new life by new mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, who is known for supporting local businesses and using art as a way to beautify and rejuvenate the developing area.
Santurce is now home to two art festivals — Santurce Es Ley and Los Muros Hablan. The former started four years ago in an attempt to unite different styles of independent artists and breathe new life into a once downtrodden neighbourhood. (Last year, the festival occurred in April. A date has not yet been set for 2014.) The latter festival has only happened once, yet the fruits of it are still found alongside abandoned buildings in the form of explosive colours and faces, painted by everyone from local tattoo artists to Columbian painters and even 15-year-old girls from a nearby all-girls school.
Don’t leave Santurce without stopping by:
The Museo de Arte:
Once a hospital, the tourism board pressured the government to transform the abandoned building into an art museum. Exhibits are devoted to everything from classic art to more recent works from 1930-1960. Behind the museum, locals and visitors can walk through a scenic sculpture garden, which has also become a popular venue
Centro de Bellas Artes:
This venue showcases theatre, dance and music events. Outside the contemporary-styled building sits “The Muses,” an assortment of six-foot-tall copper sculptures each representing the different arts and cultures, the Centre embraces, including local and classical music, theatre, literature, dance, films, architecture, sculptures and painting.
Book a tour Every painting has a story and local Melani Daniels from Puerto Rico & Co. (www.puertoricoandco.com) knows them all, plus has an insider scoop on the best restos, bars and music in the area.
Ca sita Blanca: After you’ve worked up an appetite, stop here for a hearty homemade lunch. Chicken soup, fresh bread and fish fritters arrive at the table before you even order. If you still have room, try some of its authentic Puerto Rican fare including chicken stew, red snapper and fried skirt steak with onions.
History in the making
If your teen is a history buff (or you’d like him to be), book a tour of Old San Juan and stop in at the Castillo San Cristóbal — the biggest fort built by the Spanish in America. Walk in the footsteps of 17th century soldiers who used San Cristóbal to guard against enemy approaches by land. Watch where the first shots of the Spanish-American War were fired and be sure to visit the overlook for the Devil’s Sentry Box or the “Garita del Diablo,” from which, according to legend, soldiers mysteriously disappeared.
Be sure to head to the dungeon and show your teens how good they have it. Guides will flip off the lights, creating
total darkness save for a small flicker of light coming from a five-inch gap in the wall. Lastly, don’t forget your camera as San Cristóbal offers stunning panoramic views of the coast from Old San Juan to Condado and beyond.
Where to stay
Located in the heart of lively Condado Beach, the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino not only fits the family-friendly bill, it’s just steps away from safe streets with a myriad of high-end shops, restaurants and bars.
Active families can keep fit with a rival game of on-site tennis and volleyball and later stretch their muscles at yoga class, which is offered some mornings for $5. For-rent bikes give kids the freedom to explore Condado Beach on their own, and a chance for you to de-stress at the Ocean Club Spa.
As for food, one thing is for certain here — variety won’t be an issue. La Vista Latin Grill & Bar offers a delicious breakfast buffet — the perfect antidote for teenage bottomless pits — while lunch at La Isla Beach Bar is a great option with American favourites against a beach backdrop.
For more sophisticated fare, The Red Coral Lounge serves signature cocktails and delicious bites of fish tacos, tostones and empanadas.
This newly renovated space also showcases amazing live entertainment, DJs and salsa lessons! For other on-site entertainment, try your luck at the 24-hour Stellaris Casino, which offers state-of-the-art VLT s and gaming tables. Also available is the “You Shoot, We Share” video service, which enables guests to record their Puerto Rican adventures on their smartphone or on a borrowed-from-the-hotel GoPro camera. The video is professionally edited and added to the hotel’s YouTube channel.
From the graffiti murals in Santurce to the colourful Spanish colonial architecture in Old San Juan, visitors staying at the San Juan Marriott Resort now have an opportunity to experience the latest and emerging art scene developments. Visit www.marriottsanjuan.com to find out how you can book your own Artsy San Juan package.