Carlos Sanchez brags that he can “conquer” me with salsa. The 21-year-old has all the sex appeal of a kid brother. But he stands outside Nuyorican Café, smoking a cigarette and eyeing me up with smug confidence. “If you really want a girl, if you dance salsa, you can get her,” he insists.
“OK. Show me,” I prompt. Sanchez doesn’t hesitate. He steps forward in the nondescript alleyway, grabs me, starts swaying those bony hips and … by golly, I’m smitten.
My affection isn’t for Sanchez himself — the spontaneous moment confirms what I’ve suspected since I set foot in the seven square blocks that constitute Old San Juan: This city will make you gaga.
Puerto Rico has been a U.S. territory since 1898, but Spain ultimately gets credit for San Juan. The second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas after Santo Domingo, its ancestors have yielded a hybrid that oozes character. The colonial streets combine the sun-drenched laziness of the Caribbean, the consumer appetite of America and the impulsive romance of Spain.
Old San Juan is a stand-alone masterpiece. Within the confines of the 4.8-kilometre-long old city wall, there are enough attractions, restaurants, hotels and nightspots to make you forget Puerto Rico is primarily a beach destination (the closest swimming area is 1-1/2 kilometres away).
And the visual appeal? San Juan draws from a palette normally reserved for birthday cake icing. Strict bylaws enforce the use of historically accurate pastel paints. But things weren’t always so rosy. In fact, midway through last century, Old San Juan was downright sleazy.
“It was a marines’ town. There were a lot of strip joints, whorehouses and bars,” says Christobal Perez Del Pulgar, bartender at one of Old San Juan’s oldest pubs, El Batey.
Crime was rampant, the city fell into disrepair, and tourists flocked to suburban resort strips like Condado and Isla Verde instead. Luckily, the government pulled up its socks and offered incentives for restoration. Additionally, Old San Juan and its three Spanish forts were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
Now locals are vehemently proud of the city, and you will find Puerto Ricans and tourists side-by-side, chowing down on Mofongo Churrasco al Chimichurri (smashed plantain with marinated skirt steak, served in a mortar) at traditional restaurants like Raices.
Locals love to unwind. In 1963 they invented the party cocktail that’s synonymous with getting tipsy under a palm tree: the Piña Colada. Want to raise a glass with Puerto Ricans? Stay uphill on San Sebastian street, away from American tourists who converge in the area called Fortaleza.
El Batey, with its graffiti-covered walls and gritty floors, seems like the kind of place you might be served punch. As in punch in the face. It’s open from 11 a.m. to 7 a.m., but despite its tough exterior, El Batey turns out to be rebellious but friendly.
“Is there smoking allowed in here?” I ask.
“No. No, there’s not,” says the bartender, drawing on a lit cigarette.
Well, you might argue that resistance is in their blood: after all, San Juan was a military stronghold for centuries. You can visit the old Spanish fortifications. The best is six-tiered El Morro, which guards the northwestern tip of Old San Juan. But perhaps more interesting is what the Puerto Ricans have done with its front yard. On weekends, hundreds of kites hitch a ride on the sea breeze.
Old San Juan has its fair share of American excess: The strip of designer stores along San Francisco Street caters to the 1.2 million cruise shippers who disembark annually. But as you venture uphill and away from the port, San Juan’s bohemian side emerges. As Three Kings Day is ardently celebrated on Jan. 6, the most authentic memento you can buy is a carving of the Three Wise Men.
And speaking of smarts, only a fool visits San Juan without popping into Nuyorican Café. Wooed by Sanchez and his impromptu dance lesson, I enter the popular club. A six-piece salsa band is crammed on stage and a handful of couples attacks the checkered dance floor with lighthearted fervour. As it turns out, sinewy Sanchez is something of a wise man himself. “They’re true, honest souls who want to have a good time,” he reflects.
• From December through April, Air Canada has direct flights to Puerto Rico, departing from Toronto (two per week) and Montreal (one per week).
• American Airlines, Jet Blue, Spirit, American Trans Air, US Airways, Continental, United, Delta and Northwest also service Puerto Rico.
• Visit www.gotopuertorico.com