Forget the Puerto Rico you think you know: why rich travellers are flocking to San Juan

San Juan is exploding with art, food and new hotels

Starwood Hotels; Joann Dost/Royal Isabela; Flickr

Starwood Hotels; Joann Dost/Royal Isabela; Flickr

A perfect day in San Juan might begin with a dip in the turquoise sea, followed by a lunch of fresh fish and champagne, a gallery tour and afternoon coffee in the old town. It ends in a secret mixology parlour, surrounded by the beautiful youth of the city.

Sorry, does that not sound like the Puerto Rico you expected?

In August, Phaidon Press designated San Juan an “art city of the future.” The same month, design bible Wallpaper published a sleek guidebook to the American territory . In recent years the Puerto Rican capital has risen as a destination of choice for high-end travellers seeking contemporary art, inventive cuisine and luxurious jungle retreats. The timing couldn’t be better. The island’s current debt crisis is pegged at US$70 billion, right behind California and New York.

All over the island, the effects of this tourism boom are evident. There’s the recently opened St. Regis, tucked in a lush tropical forest with two miles of sandy beach and an art-filled restaurant by Jean Georges Vongerichten. Last year, the Ritz-Carlton inaugurated its lavish new Reserve in nearby Dorado, where Laurance Rockefeller once built his own retreat in the 1950s. A stone’s skip away from the surf mecca of Rincon is the new Royal Isabela resort off ering grand suites and worldclass courses. And in the quaint island of Vieques, a new eco hotel called El Blok will soon feature the whimsical cuisine of young Puerto Rican chef Jose Enrique, one of 10 Best New Chefs according to Food & Wine.

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Like so many of his generation, Enrique left Puerto Rico to train at the country’s best restaurants in New York before returning to San Juan. His eponymous restaurant, Jose Enrique, is hidden in an unassuming yellow shop in the gentrifying Santurce area, a gritty neighbourhood with graffiti-covered walls where most of the city’s art galleries have set up shop. He’s right across the farmer’s market, where he picks up his plantains, avocado and breadfruit and plans his whimsical takes on the country’s traditional dishes—root potato mashes, pulled pork, and steak and onions.

Next door, the restaurant Santaella also serves classic Puerto Rican fare— like empanadas and mofongo, the national dish of garlicky fried mashed plantains and seafood—in a tropicalindustrial setting with concrete, Edison light bulbs and a dense garden of banana trees. This is where the city’s designer-clad professionals and art collectors fl ock for handcrafted jalapeño juleps and tamarind margaritas amid blasting pop music.

Chef José Santaella also returned to his hometown from New York to take part in San Juan’s dynamic new energy. “It’s true that Puerto Rico is both Latin and American,” says the chef, echoing a nationalist sentiment shared across the island, “but we really feel Puerto Rican. We feel proud.”



The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson. He wrote it when he was 22 and living in San Juan.


Hotel El Convento. A former Carmelite convent (365 years ago), it has open-air terraces and killer views.


Dinner at Jose Enrique. The Puerto Rican chef was a 2013 James Beard finalist.


The candy-coloured streets of Old San Juan.

Q: Which celeb is not Puerto Rican? Benicio del Toro, Erik Estrada, Carlos Delgado, Geraldo Rivera, Joaquin Phoenix. A: Geraldo Rivera. He was born in New York City.