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Old World European Charm Meets Cosmopolitan Caribbean in Puerto Rico
Posted on September 9, 2013

Old San Juan

Puerto Rico is an easy-to-reach, but off-the-radar destination for adventure travelers. So when Eddie Bauer adventure travel guide Julia Dimon hopped a flight to the Commonwealth, we were curious to hear her response. Dimon has journeyed around the globe as a travel junkie journalist and experienced unique cultural moments, from surviving the jungles of Guyana to walking with polar bears in the Canadian Arctic. But what she found in Puerto Rico was an island with an adventurous identity and a unique cultural flair. In her first of three dispatches from the trip, she describes the old-world charm of Old San Juan and the new-world vibe of Condado. –LYA Editor

Spanish Colonial

Words by Julia Dimon, Images by Michael Hanson

The island commonwealth of Puerto Rico is a living pastoral tableau of local life. Roadside vendors hawk freshly plucked produce, the smell of guava and parcha, the Puerto Rican passion fruit, in the air. Local men don 1950s style straw hats and argue over a heated game of dominoes. Children play a makeshift game of baseball, the country’s national pastime, beneath colonial buildings rich with Spanish history. Oh, Puerto Rico. It’s this mélange of cultures and customs that contributes to its strong national identity. We’re talking about four hundred years of Spanish heritage and strong African influences that have left an eclectic mark on the island’s way of life.

I found myself in the heart of the Puerto Rican capital city of San Juan, strolling aimlessly along her winding streets, with their open squares and epic fortresses. I walked alongside imposing bronze statues, brightly painted front doors and charming, pastel-colored 16th-18th century buildings. When in a new city, I like to walk. It gives me time to breathe in the destination, to observe, to enjoy, to experience.

Walking through the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan, I started to notice a distinct interplay between modern and traditional, Caribbean soul and classic Americana. With McDonalds, Starbucks and Sunglass Hut, U.S. brands are discreetly embedded into crumbling colonial-style buildings. But fear not: Old San Juan is not a living outlet mall. These beacons of ‘burger capitalism’ are intermixed with neighborhood haunts famed for their local specialties. In terms of cuisine, vegans and vegetarians will be tested. I noticed that the food is typically Creole, with fried meat (pork is king) combined with rice and beans. Plantains are a major staple of the Puerto Rican diet, served as mofongo, a mashed mound of fried plantain with garlic and oil. Lots of deep-fried goodies, so if losing weight is part of your travel mission, PR ain’t gonna help ya.

From sampling greasy goodies, I made my way along the seawall to two must-see fortresses that are now open to the public: Castillo San Felipe del Morro (or just El Morro for short) and Castillo de San Cristóbal. With killer views overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, both are dramatic military structures built to spot enemies, but today serve as the backdrop for epic tourist photos.

With a taste of the old world of Old San Juan, I took a taxi to the “new.” In Condado, the beachfront tourist district and dead ringer for Miami, the vibe is cosmopolitan. Fancy fusion restaurants serve up specialty martinis and succulent starters (e.g., bacon-wrapped, seared scallops drizzled with truffle oil). High-rise hotel casinos lure in gamblers on vacation, while hip nightclubs provide salsa and reggaeton venues to shake one’s booty.

There’s clearly a contrasting, yet symbiotic relationship between old-world European charm and modern tourist luxury. For me, I prefer Old San Juan. I’m a sucker for crumbling colonial architecture, pink bougainvillea-covered forts and local fruit stands, especially those selling parcha. It is a cultural mix that both drew me in and made me want to experience more of what Puerto Rico had to offer.

Learn more about the Travex series of apparel Julia took on her adventure here.

 

Author: - Monday, September 9th, 2013
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  1. Domingo Hernandez

    Great article,
    I wish however that along with the Spanish and African contributions mentioned they had remembered to mention that there is still a lot of Taino Indian elements in our culture. We are one of the few places in the world where the majority population is tri-racial.

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