Wednesday, December 3, 2014

San Juan: Representin' the Gay Capital of the Caribbean

Colorful Streetscape of
Old San Juan
Walking through Old San Juan feels like an old town on the Spanish coast – except with even more color and heat (plus, the over-sized cars hardly fit on these cobblestone streets)! San Juan, Puerto Rico offers (even) warmer beaches and people, and a touch spicier food! This island get-away while not economically booming or particularly organized, is typical of any beach-touristy-town with some incredible historic highlights combined with a thriving local culture. For the easiest, most inexpensive beach get-away from the US anytime of year, San Juan should be your go-to gay spot!

Book your beach trip now! gAytlas tours “Alumni Spring Break” March 26-30th!

Checking Grindr at gay Atlantic Beach in Condado
Let’s start with San Juan’s most attractive resource, it’s beaches! Ripped kite-surfers fill the waves between the main gay hot-spots that attract locals and foreigners alike (though don’t look for locals when it’s cooler – like 80!). The water is the perfect bathwater-like temperature, the waves typically provide fun, but not danger (but swim with a buddy!) and the sandy beaches are well maintained. Alongside what used to be a gay-operated and frequented Atlantic Beach Hotel, which is now a mediocre and restrictive (no guest policy!) inn, the beach remains very gay daily – but best of course on weekends (or even at night!). Ocean Park beach, near Numero Uno Guesthouse also attracts the rainbow especially in high season (Dec – April).

Beach-ready boys arrive at Ocean Park
During the peak season in March, I’ve organized a gay group trip to San Juan – “Alumni Spring Break” at a gay-owned guesthouse near Ocean Park. Come stretch your legs on sandy beaches – and your dollar on the inexpensive drinks! Reviewers called the cozy Coqui Del Mar a hidden gem because it’s still close to everything, with private apartments with kitchens, jacuzzi and of course that local feel you get from staying on a real street in San Juan – not tourist-land! For less than a weekend at Fire Island, enjoy a short weekend break where the only ice is in your margarita. Of course, if you wanna spend g's and be fancy then drop some at the beautiful La Concha – the premier spot on Condado – also not far from the traditional gay Atlantic Beach.

The Gayographer at Castillo
de San Cristobal
Traversing San Juan is easy by foot or bike – it's a compact area and taking a lovely beach stroll basically gets you where you need to go. Yet, if you want to move fast – you can't rely on public transportation – unless you really want to get to know the locals (which I did) waiting for buses; better to cheaply rent a car or use taxis. Though cabs do (unsurprisingly) take advantage; it's $15 to go just about anywhere between Old San Juan and the airport. Please negotiage – though you may get a “well the standard rate...” but they will be friendly and may come down a bit. The airport is close to everything, practically on top of (beautiful, but touristy) Isla Verde beach and just a few minutes to Ocean Park – so renting a car is both cheap and practical since everything is close.

Old San Juan holds the main historical (and must-see) sites, including El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal – the largest fortress system in the Americas (which adequately protected San Juan for centuries!). Allow about 3 hours to see all of both – and enjoy a meal to stay motivated in between – bring lots of water and sunscreen (they are huge places)! Nothing could be finer than walking the old cobblestone streets inside Old San Juan with the warm tropical breeze blowing in! Swing by La Taberna Lupulo afterwards for the best fish tacos I could find in the whole city, local Puerto Rican rum and dozens of beers on tap.

View East from El Morro
Along with fabulous drinks the island comes truly unique food, a fusion of African, latin and north American cuisines. Here plantains are key; be sure to try mofongo and tostones. Mornings (for the beach-conscious) start with an Acai bowl – fruit, nuts and coconut mix – a easy breakfast or snack. Quick meals out can be spent at the local La B de Burro (2 for 1 Wednesday margaritas) Obama-visited Kasalta Bakery or try Cueva del Mar for reasonably priced seafood. Beachside Oceana provides a great meal in style; make an early reservation to catch sunset (between 5:30 and 6:30pm in high season) next to Atlantic Beach - you likely won't be able to get a later reservation anyway! In Old San Jan, Drink at the Parrot Club and try those duck nachos at Dragonfly, incredible latin-asian fusion.

Tia Maria's "Liquor Store" bar
Weekends the gay bars are semi close to the general party square called La Placita in Santruce. For a local (str8) start to the evening (late, around 10 or 11pm) with live music, dance with the locals at Taberna Los Vazquez and get yourself one of the best-made mojitos in the world! When the music ends – head over to Tia Maria's, a classic gay dive and after to Circo where all the gay boys always end up.  La Jirafa Verde (Green Giraffe) is another venue (if you like EDM) but it never seems to get too busy, despite its class and superior decor. Oasis (formerly Splash) is near the beach if you don’t want to bother traversing inland. If you make a friend a bit quicker, cut to the chase at SX bar around the corner from Circo. While outdated, this map provides a good overview and directions!

Don’t tell mom, the other alternative way to get around – no, it’s not Uber – is Grindr. Guys here are extremely friendly – and I owe them a debt of gratitude. They will often not mind giving you a lift and there need not be strings attached, though here you might want them to be! Grinder, Scruff, Adam 4 Adam or ManHunt – this is how I had a truly local experience – though I was a touch worried driving downtown as I watched my little blue dot float inland away from the beach, with someone I just met. But then he pointed out (in Spanish) the largest mall of the Caribbean – Plaza Las Americas and we got out and saw (very) local El Cojo and La Esquina de Polo, both gay bars – and even a lesbian spot here called Flavor – the local hangouts, away from tourists (but never fear, they'll buy you drinks if you make it here!).

Sunset cuddle at Atlantic Beach
And San Juan isn't the whole island! Puerto Rico has even more in-store for day trips or longer. From pristine beaches on Culebra, iconic “Gilligan’s Island”  to the only tropical rain forest within the US – El Yunque and the incredible bioluminescent Mosquito Bay in Vieques – a whole other blog’s worth of info for next time!

From the beaches, people, historical sites, food and the nightlife, San Juan comprises the best combination (at a much lower cost) for a gay get-away! No-where else can you find constantly warm temps (80s) and warm water so close to home. I look forward to seeing you in March!

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