An old city in the caribbean

November 16, 2015

On my first day on the island I went to the most touristy place there. It’s a must even for locals like myself. The Old San Juan can be breathtaking. If you haven't been, you have to do these three things: have a piragua, take a walk from el Paseo La Princesa to el Paseo del Morro, and visit the inside of El Morro (the fort). Being a local, Ive done these things many times. On this occasion my trip to Old San Juan had a very specific purpose: to find local designers, items made in puerto rico and of course, have a good mofongo.
I started the ‘tour’ from the south part of OSJ, where the cruises arrive. I wanted to experience the same path a tourist does when he/she leaves a cruise ship. I wanted to see what they see and experience when they see Puerto Rico, most likely, for the first time. Not surprisingly, almost all of the stores and restaurants in the area closest to the port are tourist traps. Most shops are selling souvenirs, of course, made in China, Vietnam or Cambodia. It can be tricky to find something genuinely made in the island. I noticed that most of the tourists I was ‘creepingly' watching didn't care at all. They would grab anything that said Puerto Rico on it and buy it. Without looking at the tag for a second. I don't know about you but, if I buy a souvenir, I like to buy something that was made on that country. I want to take something home that was made locally as a reminder of the place. At one of the biggest stores (about 1,600 sq. feet) I point blank asked one of the store clerks: What items here are made in Puerto Rico? Her answer: Only the soaps.
I stopped at Casa Cortés, one of my favorite places to eat in OSJ. The restaurant opened in 2013 but their main ingredient, Cortés chocolate, has been on the market since 1931. Everything on the menu has chocolate, even their mixed greens salad with chicken (which is amazing!). On this occasion I just wanted a small tapa and a drink because I had another place in mind I wanted to try out. I had the: mofonguitos de amarillos con chocolate (mofongo of sweet plantains with chocolate) and my favorite drink there, the don pedro: rum, ginger, lemon and dark chocolate. The snack  was just perfect. This place never disappoints! Check them out:
As I continued looking for local products and artisanal pieces I encountered the same scenario over and over. There were only two products I would consistently see in those stores that was local, and in my opinion worth buying. Remember the “Gasolina” song from Daddy Yankee? I firmly believe he was talking about one of these products (or both). The gasoline of Puerto Ricans: Rum (for the nights) and Coffee (for the mornings, and noon, and night, and… well, pretty much all the time— it’s our water).
After a while, I started going into little shops that advertised in the store front: ‘made in Puerto Rico’, ‘local artisans’, ‘local produce’ and ‘puerto rican designer’. I talked to the store clerks and in most occasions, the store clerk was the designer. Jackpot! I knew I would find real local items [because I know of some great local designers], I just didn't know it was going to be this tricky. On this afternoon walk I found:
Furniture designer, Diana Font was the highlight of my day. Her showroom immediately caught my eye. Sleek yet warm designs of that quality are an unusual find in OSJ. After reading the window display, advertising: “noble materials” I waked in. As soon as I did she kindly introduced herself as the designer. Being also a local, we chatted for almost an hour (Puerto Ricans love conversation!). I discovered she utilizes woods from Guatemala following the country’s forest management policies, which result in FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood. The day I decide to settle in one permanent location, I’ll be giving her a call for some amazing furniture for my place.
After a few hours of ‘research shopping’ the time had come for a mofongo. I stopped at La Mallorquina, a restaurant that opened it’s doors in 1848. It had been renovated since the last time I was there so I had to check it out. The staff was as warm and attentive as I’d expect from any Puerto Rican with good old values. The mofongo was good and I think any non-puerto rican would say it was excellent. For me, was missing “juice”— a bit too dry for my taste. It was also more of a very important ingredient for any puerto rican, garlic. We love garlic. The more the better. But of course I understand that there’s a large segment of the restaurant’s target consumer base who are tourist and wouldn’t appreciate garlic as much as I would. Overall the restaurant was good although I’d wish I would've gone on a date— it has a very romantic setting. Lovely.
It has been a long day walking under the Caribbean sun so I was pretty exhausted. An old friend of mine, who actually hired me  for my first job in marketing, asked me to go with him to “La Placita”.
“La Placita” (meaning “the town square”) is an aggregate of restaurants, bars and lounges in Santurce, very close to the OSJ area. You’d rarely see a tourist there, and when you do… they really stand out, and I mean REALLY. They are vacationing, so you see them in a t-shirt and flip-flop— which is a no-no for the locals. No matter where you are going, if it’s Thursday, Friday or Saturday night you leave the house acicalado (“well-dressed”). That’s the culture. I had a great time having “pitorro” shots at Marullo and a couple of drinks at El Ruby. If you ever go to the island and you want to experience the local scene, you should swing by La Placita. Warning: Do not get alarmed when you see an overwhelming amount of teenagers drinking there, legal drinking age in the island is 18; but really most kids start at a younger age. Wrong or right? That’s a topic for another post.


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