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Aerial shot of Puerto Rico

Quick tips: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Often a friend will ask me for some tips when they’re visiting a place I know well. I decided to make it easy on all of you and just post the tips here!

These are intended to be helpful even if you speak no Spanish and know nothing about San Juan. Note, however, that your mileage may vary! A key road may be under construction, turning a quick trip into a nightmare traffic jam. (This has happened to me.) An iconic, 110-year-old restaurant may have closed its doors a few weeks before your visit. (This has happened to me.) That’s why I always show up to a destination a few days before the tour group – to learn what’s changed, so I won’t waste your limited time on outdated information.

suckling pig restaurant

A lechonera is a restaurant specializing in suckling pig, spitted and roast for hours.

Communications

If you don’t speak Spanish, it’s not the end of the world. Some people speak English, and some don’t. A dictionary or translator app on a smartphone is always helpful… or a bilingual friend you can call in a pinch.

Speaking of calls: Double check with your carrier, but U.S. cell providers generally treat Puerto Rico like the States. Full coverage, phone and data, no roaming fees, no special dialing.

Transportation

Transportation in San Juan means buses, taxis, or a rental car. Buses are the cheapest but most limiting option, as you’re stuck on their routes and timetables. Taxis are convenient but pricey, and they limit you to the city. Renting a car gives you the most options, especially if you’re interested in day trips outside the city; but driving San Juan can be horribly confusing, and parking in popular areas is a pain.

If you rent a car, I have three tips. One, allow plenty of extra driving time to get lost. Streets and freeway exits can be poorly marked, and it’s easy to miss one and get turned around. Two, have someone navigating on a smartphone at all times. And three, if there’s a major street with several lanes going one direction and just one lane going the other, that one lane is for buses only. For you, it’s a one-way street.

This fried fish at La Casita Blanca was a big hit!

This fried fish at La Casita Blanca was a big hit!

Food

I love the stuffed mofongo dinner at Inka Chicken, on Loiza in the Ocean Park neighborhood. Mixed Peruvian and Puerto Rican menu, and nothing fancy in terms of food or decor – just reliably good. The nearby Kasalta bakery, on McLeary, serves a variety of sandwiches and desserts. It’s an institution; Obama even went there on his last visit to San Juan. El Jibarito in Old San Juan has great sangria and comida criolla (traditional Puerto Rican food). La Casita Blanca is a wonderful, intimate little restaurant, but a bit out of the way, and you’ll have trouble if you don’t speak good Spanish.

La Placita (“the little plaza”) is a fun spot centered on the city’s historic marketplace, with several snack and restaurant options. The seafood restaurant El Pescador (“the fisherman”) is wonderful but closes on the early side. The daily specials are hand-written/scribbled in Spanish – not the easiest to figure out. Cafe de la Plaza, right next door, is also a pretty solid choice. At night, people congregate in the plaza with cups of beer, and there’s often live music.

These are all priced under $20 an entree except El Pescador, which has a huge range of prices depending on what you order.

Day trips

case of pastries

Panaderia-Reposteria España has case after case of gorgeous desserts.

The classic day trip from San Juan is El Yunque rainforest. From San Juan, take 26 east to 3 east to 191 south. There’s a visitor’s center on the right. Skip it. The best spots are further down 191 and easy to find. Just look for the signs and parking areas.

You may want to bring food from San Juan, as food options at El Yunque aren’t the most exciting. I like to stop at the Panadería y Repostería España. As you pass through the Isla Verde neighborhood on eastbound 26, it’s on the Calle Marginal Villamar access road. My favorite menu items are the octopus salad and quesitos con guayaba (heavenly pastries filled with sweet cheese and guava). There are a ton of other sandwich, salad, and pastry options, too. (If you’re using Google Maps, it’s maybe a quarter mile east of where the map says, a bit east of the overpass. If you’re using Apple Maps, don’t.)

Bead vendor in Guavate

Besides the food, Guavate has music, parties, and local vendors selling everything from jewelry to mavi, a sweet beverage made of fermented tree bark.

Forty minutes south of San Juan is Guavate, known for lechon, suckling pig roast on a spit. The road through town, known as La Ruta del Cerdo (“Pork Road”), is lined with lechoneras. Some are all about the party, others focus more on the food. I’m partial to Lechonera Dos Pinos. From San Juan, take 52 south past Caguas, then head east on 184. It’ll be on the right hand side, a couple businesses after the 28 km marker. The area is a zoo on weekend afternoons, and driving that twisty mountain road in crazy traffic isn’t my idea of fun. To beat the rush, aim to arrive between 11 and noon or after 4.

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