Spice up your life in San Juan

by Nicki.Grihault

Spanish colonial buildings, hot nightlife and sassy people - just some of the ingredients that go to make up Puerto Rico's sizzling capital

‘It’s a great night for sex,’ exclaimed Debbie, my night tour guide, as we walked under a full moon in the old town of San Juan. She called up her boyfriend, but there was no reply. Continuing the tour with a shrug of her shoulders, she read loudly from the menu outside San Juan’s aphrodisiac restaurant, Ostra Cosa, where dishes are graded 'oh, wow' or 'ay ay ay'. ‘Crabs legs with champagne butter’, she whooped. 'Screams of pleasure forbidden.’
The moon shone on the 16th-century Catholic Cathedral, where for 50 years of invasion, people had prayed without a roof. But although Francis Drake, on a night raid, ended up with a cannon ball on his dinner table, so the story goes, the Spanish were no match for American might. Puerto Rico means ‘rich port’ and the raising of the US flag in 1951 has meant the rise of San Juan as the Caribbean’s shopping and gastronomic mecca.
Mix Spanish, African and American culture together and you don’t get shrinking violets. Sassy, sizzling ‘Nuyorican’ J-Lo is as famous an export as the Pina Colada, invented here. She’s now as popular as salsa, after marrying Marc Anthony in the imposing Spanish Fortress of El Morro. It was after being pestered by questions from cruise tourists while playing dominoes on the open air tables by the port that Debbie had turned to tour guiding, she told me, as we gazed through an arch from the fortified ladies loo there the following day.
Touted as a ‘grown up Havana’, Puerto Rico’s romantic port city on the east of the island is one of the top three cruise ports in the world and the most visited in the Caribbean. Its old town is stuffed with lavishly restored 19th-century Spanish colonial buildings – the world's best examples – painted butterscotch, lemon and mulberry, and housing museums and art galleries, hotels, restaurants, tiny bars and boutiques. It’s a manicured garden of Eden, dripping with bougainvillea and ripe mangoes, presided over by towering 500-year-old walls. A place where the scent of frangipani mingles with the salty sea and a plaintive, native plena drifts on the warm night air. Walking out of the hotel, glossy cats wind flirtaceously around your ankles and good-looking policemen glance up from feeding pigeons on the cobbles to say bon dia.
Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman lived in the elegant Casa Blanca, San Juan’s oldest house, in Under Suspicion. Antonio Banderas holed up in a house beside a pretty sun-baked plaza and glittering casino in The Assassins.  You can stay in the quirky and personal Gallery Inn near El Morro, owned by a blonde American sculptress on her third husband. It's perched near the sea, with a view over the rooftop swimming pool of a druglord in notorious La Perla, and a self-playing Steinbeck that makes music to drift through the corridors. This, along with the wall to ceiling art works and sculpted plates in the restaurant, has tempted the likes of Rostapovich and Shostakovich to dinner.
However, it was Dirty Dancing 2, in 2004 - in which actress Romola Garai swapped her girlie Fifties skirt for a hot red dress to dance in a salsa competition in the arms of Diego Luna - that gave a glimpse into San Juan’s nightlife. In its tiny bars, the locals drive the temperature hotter than it is outside – think rubber-hipped Puerto Rican Ricky Martin.
One of San Juan’s top salsa places, Rumba, lies on Calle San Sebastian, which, with al fresco tables and pigeons fluttering on the cobbles, is the most romantic street in the city. It’s also the only one in the western hemisphere to hold its own festival. Squeezing into hot spot Baru, next door, you can try the local delicacy mufango - a plantain case best stuffed with prawns or octopus. Otherwise, on nearby El Fortaleza Street go for a Black Love vodka cocktail in Tantra before sliding into Asian-Latin fusion restaurant, Dragonfly, whose deep red lanterns and drapes have earned it the nickname, ‘house of passion’. If light and bright is more your thing, opt for seafood in turquoise Aguaviva, where watery jellyfish lamps hang from the ceiling.
Ron del Barrilito is best drunk straight at tiny bars like the graffiti-covered El Batey beside the cathedral, which predates Havana’s famous El Bodeguita Del Medio. Then there’s always Maria’s. The pulling power of this impeccably dressed woman is evidenced by the regulars - some have been visiting for 25 years. Reasons to go to Isla Verde, the modern part of town, are The Liquid Bar at design hotel The Water & Beach Club or dinner on the beach at boutique hotel Numero Uno.
After a late night out, chilling in the art galleries and museums and lunching in the famous colourful Parrot Club, is the way to go. Then there’s tax-free shopping - unusual items such as Taino design jewellery are thrown in among the designer labels - in tiny boutiques down Christo and Fortaleza Street. Brave men could call in at Indio’s Tattoo, the oldest parlour in Puerto Rico. A romantic stroll along the narrow walkway squeezed between El Morro and the gently lapping sea at sunset and you’ll be ready for another long night.
San Juan is a pushy, friendly place, where the beady-eyed local blackbird will hop on your table at breakfast, cats will mew in protest as you try to walk on and strangers will stop and tell you their life stories. It may have a big dollop of American dream, but it beats with a sexy, Latin heart.


Tour operator
British Airways & Virgin Atlantic
Tourist board
The Puerto Rico Tourism Company


After an African childhood and living and working in America, Australia, India and Italy, I became a travel writer and photographer in 1993. Staff jobs on magazines from Wanderlust to Trip Magazine followed and I have now written five guidebooks. I held my first photographic exhibition 'Edge of the Map' in 2008, and specialise in off the beaten track destinations, adventure travel, holistic travel and set-jetting. Favourite places Usually where I've just been! Irian Jaya, Indonesia; East Greenland; Dominica; Rodrigues; Ecuador.