San Juan is a rainbow-friendly place for a week of kicking back Drinks with Ricky Martin? Sign me up!
When we heard that our favourite Puerto Rican celebrated his birthday at La Concha Resort on San Juan’s Condado Beach, we had to head down to this tiny U.S. territory to scope it out. Happily, we discovered our new favourite spot, with the flight a mere four hours and change. Extended long weekend, anyone?
Truthfully, I once Googled “best places to SCUBA dive” and “best gay-friendly sun spots” and put the results together: Puerto Rico was in the top five on both lists. Puerto Ricans are a relaxed bunch, and this includes their government’s attitude on homosexuality. With so much boycotting of islands with anti-gay laws on their books, it’s nice to find a relatively safe spot to not worry about your glamboyancy. Ever since Puerto Rican boxing featherweight Orland Cruz came out of the closet last year, and didn’t, you know, get beat up, this city is buzzing. Give it 10 years, and we could be looking at the new Puerto Vallarta.
Condado Beach has a quiet little strip of gay, right in the middle, at the foot of Calle Vendig, where there are two terrific café bars to prop up, morning, noon and night. Unlike a more secluded resort beach where you see the same tourists getting redder and redder every day and the same tanned torsos jogging every morning, the people-watching varies by the minute, with the San Juan population mixing right in. There are hours of fun to be had taking in the tiny trunks (gay or European?), the ass cheeks (gym or implants?) and the May-December couples (what’s going on there?). You can make an entire day of this, as we often have, all the while creepily taking clandestine shots of the tall, dark and tanned with our phones. A word of caution: This is a city where girls make their men wax their eyebrows, so when you see a group of well-groomed brows, don’t assume you can bat an eyelash.
Ocean Park Beach is just a bit further east, attracting a younger crowd out for the rec activities (volleyball, paddleball, etc.) and a louder good time. Windsurfers head further east to Punta Las Marias. Feel free to wander over.
Perhaps because this is America, interesting ex-pats abound, and they often have a good life story to tell. These are the ones you need to latch on to for info on what’s hot and what’s not.
Though there are multiple types of cuisine to tempt you when mealtime rolls around, keep one thing in mind: You don’t go to Puerto Rico to eat Italian or Thai, you go for the home cooking.
The cuisine in San Juan is largely geared to tourists, particularly the cruise-ship crowd which docks in the Old Town. This is a good thing, because you won’t tire of the fresh seafood platters, salads and the infamous mofongo: fried green plantains mashed with garlic and olive oil, and served with crab, shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetables and broth, or any combination of the above.
If you come across fried chicken on any menu, order it. And if your idea of a good time is enjoying a nice basket of ribs and a bit of local colour at the same time, the crowd at Mango’s at
Ocean Park fits this bill to a tee. Be prepared for acid-wash miniskirts and almost-cool mullets, gaudy cougars and fresh-faced twentysomethings. With food this good, everybody wins.
Old San Juan makes for plenty of roaming, so carve out an afternoon to explore it. Many shops cater to the aforementioned cruise vacationers, so dip your toe in that water if it suits. A few hours at the old forts—Fort El Morro and Fort San Crisóbal—will yield a small peek into the town’s history. Founded by the Spanish in 1521, this thick-walled museum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and well worth a visit.
In places as tiny as San Juan, your best bet is to head for the cooler straight places that actually have a scene. This is where you will find the local upscale population, gay and straight, along with sophisticated travelers who did their homework. And if you tend to make friends easily, remember: Before you go inviting people you meet on the beach out for cocktails or dinner or both, make sure you see them in their street clothes first.
Swim trunks really are great ice-breakers, aren’t they? Particularly at the pool at La Concha. And while my travel mates all nixed my pleas for dinner in the giant beachfront shell, I will persevere next time. If it’s good enough for Ricky Martin, it’s good enough for me.
There are plenty of nice spots to lay your pretty little head near or very near the gay beach, including plenty of condos for rent.
• A restored former convent, the El Convento Hotel (below) is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World. Three restaurants and excellent Trip Advisor reviews. (elconvento.com)
• The Atlantic Beach Hotel used to brand itself as gay, but has branched out to include everyone. Still the same excellent value. (atlanticbeachhotel.com)
• Entering the lobby at Hotel Casablanca is like stepping into an art gallery. Very old and right in Old San Juan, so you can stumble home after dinner. (hotelcasablancapr.com)
• Before or after your city sojourn, maybe there’s time for a week of full-on royal service pampering that only the luxe Gran Meliá Resort Puerto Rico can provide? It’s worth the short drive. (granmeliapuertorico.com)
• La Concha (below) is a Renaissance Resort. Everyone who is anyone will eventually turn up at the lobby bar. When was the last time you went to the Caribbean and bothered to pack a Prada shirt? No worries here. (laconcharesort.com)
• For a relaxing overnight or two, ferry it to the pristine island of Vieques, just off the eastern shore. There’s a W Hotel, so you will be in good hands.
• Scuba diving is stellar around Puerto Rico. Divers head to the southeast side of the island for the most relaxed diving: relatively shallow, uncrowded and undamaged. Fahardo is a major dive centre, as is Vieques.
• Mona Island, off the west coast, is a designated ecological reserve offering pristine wildlife and cool cave exploring.
• Ask your hotel doormen for the newest spot to hit for drinks after dinner (which is late, by the way). Tiny bars pop up and the latest and most fun hole in the wall won’t be obvious during the daytime.
• On the other side of the scale, conveniently located right on the gay part of Condado Beach at the foot of Calle Vendig, is Oceano—with a very hip mixed crowd. Terrific for lunch, dinner and after dinner.
• The small but lively Splash Lounge is a great place to start your night, not that far from the gay beach (6 Calle Condado). A younger crowd congregates for a meal or a round or two of drinks (or 10).
• Though much further east in Isla Verde, the San Juan Water & Beach Club is stylish and dramatic with two bars: Liquid, on the main floor, and Wet on the roof. Keep an eye out for celebs. (waterbeachhotel.com)
• Circo is the most popular dance club, with a bit of everything going on, from drag shows to go-go boys with lots of tourists thrown in (650 Calle Condado in Santurce). Take a cab there and back, because the surrounding area can be a bit sketchy. Don’t be fooled by the smallish outer ante-bar upon entering: there’s a small courtyard that leads to dance-floor action further inside. I kissed a girl and I liked it.