Outside the walls of Old San Juan lies, well, mostly ocean. But go east along the island, past the grandeur of the Capitolio, and you enter the unpleasantly named "Puerta de Tierra." It sounds like something out of a science fiction movie. It isn’t, unless the movie in question is Class of 1984. It’s a run-down area full of housing projects, homeless shelters, and a Catholic school with a grand building in dire need of reconstruction. But the Archivo General de Puerto Rico is there, and so am I.
Over on the north side of Puerta de Tierra there are a bunch of nice hotels. A massive tourist complex is going up on the northeastern edge. There are also a lot of signs advertising new high-rise condos but not a whole lot of condos themselves.
The south side is mostly housing projects. The first one on the island, El Falansterio, was built in 1937 and could be in Miami Beach ... architecturally-speaking, at least. El Falansterio aside, Puerto Rican housing projects, called "caseríos," mostly look like they were built on an assembly line somewhere in central California and shipped here in a pod. Most of the ones in Puerta de Tierra don’t look all that bad, until you notice the bars on all the balconies and windows.
At least they demolished the tower projects back in 2000, as part of an urban renewal program that’s still underway.
In other words, the government got rid of the arrabales by building caseríos, and now they’re replacing the caseríos with condos.
Here is a picture of a nice caserío in the suburb of Bayamón. I would have taken a picture of the ones in Puerta de Tierra, but I put discretion ahead of valor. I can disappear into a crowd here, but Amma stands out a little more.
Old San Juan-Puerta de Tierra is a little island spit that sticks out to the west, forming the northern border of San Juan Bay. Across the bay to the south is the suburb of Cataño, home of the Bacardi brewery. To the east you cross a bunch of nondescript bridges—overpasses, really, only they pass over water instead of other roads—to get to New San Juan. (No, nobody calls it "New San Juan.")
New San Juan can be roughly divided in three: the northern beachfront areas, the older city between Route 26 and the Peña Canal—neighborhoods called Miramar and Santurce, and the burbs south of the canal. Today I’ll talk about the beach.
Not as cool as Miami, not as tacky as Acapulco. Not old-fashioned enough to charm (like Veracruz), or grand enough to awe (like Cancún). It just sort of is, a kind of Platonic ideal of the tropical beachfront city.
In the Ocean Park neighborhood there are gated communities of single-family homes—gated because they would be otherwise overwhelmed with parking, not because they look or feel particularly exclusive. They’re cute neighborhoods, full of inexpensive B&Bs and beaches loaded with families. And lots of teenagers driving Japanese sedans, all of which blare reggaetón music and seem to have caved-in bumpers or mashed fenders. The driving here doesn’t seem that bad—although please note that my standards are extremely low—so I have no explanation for all the body damage.
The restaurants in the city that we managed to find are merely okay. (Although both the grub and the grumpy waiters at Barrachina in Old San Juan get two thumbs up.) Which explains two phenomena: why there are so many Mexican restaurants in Puerto Rico—including a chain called "Taco Maker"—and so few Puerto Rican restaurants in the fifty States. Oh, it isn’t that the local cuisine is bad—this isn’t the Philippines. It’s fine. Yummy, even. It’s just not really all that distinguishable from the rest of the Spanish Caribbean, or even, if you push it, Spain itself.
Croquetas are just as bad here as when Ma used to boil ‘em up in pots of oil on the kitchen stove in New York. (Say, can somebody explain to me why the Iberian peninsula’s least distinguished contribution to world cuisine is so damn popular in the Netherlands? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? Wisse?) Stew is stew, even if you call it asopado, and seafood is seafood. Mofongo is an acquired taste that I strongly recommend you acquire, but it’s not really (AFAICT) that unique. About the only uniquely Puerto Rican food that we came across was this greasy fried weirdness that you can get at a diner on the corner of McLeary Avenue and Santa Ana Street in Ocean Park. You will like it, whatever it is, although the ambience of the place will remind you of more of New Jersey than the Caribbean. They could have ended the Sopranos right there.
Anyway, the food, while very good, just isn’t special, I don’t think.
Then again, a foodie I ain’t, so don’t trust me. If I’ve missed something, and you have recommendations for dishes or restaurants, please pass ‘em on. I will be travelling here a lot in the near future, well before there’s a real Earthport.