Pushing tropical club sounds in the Caribbean is a bit like trying to sell neon plastic ice cubes to an Eskimo. It takes a damn good sales person and to get that good you have to know your consumer. While on a reconnaissance mission to get a lay of the musical landscape in Puerto Rico recently, I got to talk to bar owners, promoters, local celebs and and visit some key places. I got an insider peek at current hot spots and transcribed it into a useful travel guide for your visit this summer.
These are places to hit during your trip:
La Calle Loiza
La Calle Loiza is the new Bedford Ave. Let this article be a time stamp and come back in five years and tell me how it reminds you of Williamsburg so I can serve you an I told ya so. People are riding fixies, eating veggies and making some damn good edible pot treats. For eats visit La Chola, a Peruvian cevicheria. Want a slice of home away from home? Loiza 2050 serves quality pizza and carries the only decent bourbon selection I could find. Add bonus points for being one of the first venues to start carrying Mezcal and European beers and for being run by one bad ass mujer, Thelma Cabrera. There’s also Puzzles and El Viaje (formerly Pal Cielo) basically on that same corner so it’s a busy intersection to swing by on the weekends.
Further up the road on Calle Loiza you if you want to catch one last drink on the way home visit Candela Shot Bar – not to be confused with Don Pablo’s VSJ location of old (no relation), the new Candela Shot Bar features one of the largest flavor selections of chichaito shots on the Island. No frills here just deep house music and a warning from a night owl like myself: they don’t have a last call here so as we say in Colombia, es un salsipuedes.
Los Aguacates aka Placita en Santurce
Moombahton was blasting out of a couple of the doorways in Placita De Santurce, a club crawl with music everywhere. Open container laws be damned, in PR you can drink and dance in the street the way Papasito Dios intended. This is a great place for people watching; you’ll see vijeitos dancing out in the street with their wives and usually these vets make the dance-on-2 salsa class instructor types look lame. You can’t learn sabrosura. I spotted some gorgeous single men and women, and queer couples out on the town having a great night. Grab a cup of octopus or shrimp at one of kiokos on the plaza and mingle for a while or walk back to HP Tavern after midnight to catch a Lucha Libre DJ Set.
For daytime activities, keep in mind the island isn’t that big and car rentals are super affordable. There’s nowhere you can’t be in 3 hours or less. The best beaches are on the west coast by Cabo Rojo, but coming from NYC, most of us are just happy to see the sun and some warm water. Ocean Park, Escambron and Piñones are all in super close proximity to San Juan. Piñones has the most chinchorros and that same road will lead you to better beaches the further you go. Luquillo is worth the trip.
If you’re not a beach person there’s rainforest hikes and waterfalls in El Yunque. Further inland, Lago Dos Bocas features four restaurants that you can only get to via a scenic trip up the river on a small motorboat. Date level 5000 on that one! There’s also the trip to Guavate, a town known for it’s spit-roasted lechon and of course Viejo San Juan.
Pictured: Cliffs Of Cabo Rojo.
Viejo San Juan
VSJ is still beautiful. A few of my favorite spots have closed down. Lazer is now One Bar, and plays strictly house and techno. Candela’s owner Don Pablo opened up a new spot called La Factoria that specializes in mixology. Fattie’s is a hole-in-the-wall island food spot where you can get some legit jerk chicken – everything is made to order and delicious. Cafe Amapola, which sat just over La Perla, is closed, but already being remodeled and opening under new ownership this summer. It has the only ocean view around that corner of VSJ and I saw the custom woodwork that going into it which was beautiful.
Rio Piedras is the college town, so it’s a younger demographic that parties out there. Club 77 is still cracking, but there’s a newer spot I checked out called El Boricua that I liked a lot. Remember Wilkins? His son has an experimental trio called Turista that play at El Boricua every Tuesday. Synths, Bass and MIDI drums riff out ambient jazz sounds and textures that develop into weird Autechre like numbers, house riffs or guatever. El Boricua carries a selection of beers you would typically see out in the states.
The weekends pack out here but Tuesday is a great night to meet creative types. There’s outdoor seating, a pool table and a crowd that spills out into the street. Once the set is over maybe head over to El Local, which reminds me of El Puto Bar in Caracas. Think CBGB type feels. Tuesday night is a pretty hilarious Rock and Roll karaoke night. Thing is, you can barely hear yourself over the crowd that knows every word. Puerto Ricans do love a sing-a-long.
Bonus: Where to See Plena
If you survive the weekend that I just laid out and you still have one more in you, on Monday night check out Lunes de Plena @ El Bonanza –Los Pleneros de La Cresta are on average 12 percussionists on a small outdoor stage keeping it super real. Cheap beers and drinks and an all-are-welcome-to-jam kind of vibe makes this a great spot. It’s the first time I’ve seen clarinet and horns with a plena ensemble, but it really added something quite lovely melodically. Occasionally, Fania era heavy hitters might drop in and pull out a trombone or just sit in. This is one of the only places to catch quality Plena on a weekly basis and you don’t even have to sacrifice a weekend day. Afterwards, you can head over to La Respuesta for DJ Velcro or NellyLandia and pop a couple dollars en la vellonera (jukebox).