On the Cheap in Old San Juan

A long weekend with little money, but a desire to leave the country. Destination - Old San Juan. With little more than time and inclination, you too can enjoy the enchanted island of the Caribbean. Need some tips or some inspiration? Read on! You may learn something handy.


On the Cheap in Old San Juan

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 17, 2002

Old San Juan is, in and of itself, the highlight of any stay here. Only the most oblivious of travelers should fail to absorb a decent education in colonial history just by wandering these streets.

El Morro fortress is not only a notable historical and architectural destination, it provides its visitors with some of the most memorable views in San Juan.

Eating and drinking with the locals in a number of places provided the type of experience that never fails to please and can be had regardless of your travel budget. Just duck in to any bar or restaurant in Old San Juan and mingle. Whether having breakfast at La Bombonera or swigging a brew at El Batey, I was treated to some genuinely friendly interaction with the sanjuaneros that I met. ${QuickSuggestions} While I managed to enjoy a short trip on limited funds, it should be understood that San Juan is not what I'd refer to as a bargain destination. For certain types of travelers, there may be more bang for the buck in visiting other Caribbean locales. However, having lived and traveled elsewhere in the Caribbean, I will tell you that you will not duplicate the experience by going somewhere else.${BestWay} Arriving in San Juan, the cheapest transportation into the old city is by "limousine". A van to you and me, it costs about three dollars per head. You may wait a bit to gather a full load, but it's worth a few minutes to save several dollars.

For convenience and time efficiency, take a cab back to the airport. It's $16 from Old San Juan. Can't find a cab? Simply head for Plaza de Colon. Just south of the plaza, a taxi station has cabs lined up waiting.

In Old San Juan, consider yourself a pedestrian. Two trolley routes take you around the historic district free of charge, but properly exploring the area requires hoofing it.

For forays into greater San Juan, a bus is the sensible choice. The bus terminal is conveniently located on the southeastern edge of the old city. The fare per ride, whether it's one stop or to the end of the line, is 25 cents.

Staying in Old San Juan, renting a car is a wasted effort. The narrow, cobble stoned streets were not designed for cars and are in a near constant state of gridlock.


Guest House Old San Juan

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 17, 2002

This little-known hotel is probably the cheapest in Old San Juan, but is definitely not for everyone. It’s not the place to stay if you require room service or other such frills. If you can’t deal with staying in rather low rent quarters, and not merely in monetary terms, don’t consider it.

Located on Calle Tanca, between San Francisco and Fortaleza, you''d be hard pressed to stay closer to the action. Built in 1916, this was once an upscale apartment building. In typical style, the ground floor is commercial space. Above, the apartments have been divided into smaller lodgings. The second and third floors each have two balcony rooms overlooking the street. At $40 a night, these are the most expensive rooms. I stayed in one and would dislike settling for less. Interior rooms go for as little as twenty bucks a night, but have no windows. Splurge on the balcony room. I greatly enjoyed just hanging out over the street, soaking up the ambience. Keep in mind, it's still half the price of even modest digs elsewhere in town.

Putting it bluntly, the place is rather dirty. There's evidently no staff other than the man that runs the joint and it shows. The marble stairs are worth thousands, the tile floors are beautifully laid and the ornamentation reminds of a time when great pride was put into construction. However, this building's glory days are long gone. My room was large, but poorly lit. There was no air conditioning, but a ceiling fan and floor fan sufficiently cooled the room. The near constant breeze in Old San Juan added noticeably to the comfort level with the balcony opened up.

I don't know if all rooms have them, but my quarters had a mini-refrigerator. I was nearly ecstatic to discover this and found it handy for chilling my bottled water and a six-pack of Medalla.

The bathrooms are communal; two per floor. I knew this ahead of time, but what did not occur to me, though it should have, was to bring my own towel. I felt foolishly unsurprised at the lack of towels the first time I went for a shower.

When staying at the guesthouse, you may make advance reservations, but evidently it's not required. To ensure a balcony room, book in advance. Call ahead and you'll be instructed to mail a deposit check equaling one night's stay. This place ONLY accepts cash. Once there, Enrique Castro, the proprietor, will return your check. Mr. Castro, incidentally, is quite amiable, but speaks no English. There may be someone around to translate for him, but don't count on it. If there's not, don't worry. My Spanish was little better than his English and we got along just fine.

You won't be living in splendor, but I consider the Guest House Old San Juan a real value if you're on a tight budget. My next trip to Old San Juan, I just may be calling on Senor Castro.

Guest House Old San Juan
205 Calle Tanca
San Juan, Puerto Rico
(787) 722-5436

Restaurante El Jibarito

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 17, 2002

El Jibarito is located on Calle Sol, near the corner of Calle Tanca. The decor is pleasantly old fashioned, somewhat rustic and unmistakenly Puerto Rican. The service was fine and the wait staff more than helpful, though the servings seemed a little small in relation to the price.

I have often read of this establishment being a solid example of comida criolla, or native Puerto Rican fare. It may well be, but frankly I found it a little disappointing on my visit. In general, Puerto Rican cuisine is not as spicy as that found in other Caribbean countries and can sometimes be just plain bland, despite ingredients that sound exotic to American ears. Keep that in mind when ordering your meal. The spice of Jamaica or the pizazz of Mexico are not on the menu. I knew this ahead of time and still felt a bit let down.

I don't want to cast too negative of an impression, however. El Jibarito is still worth investigating if you want to try some simple, straight forward local dishes. In my case, I took some known risks in ordering and got what I deserved. I've never cared much for plantains, so I shouldn't have expected El Jibarito to serve them in a way that would suddenly meet with my approval. I should have kept it simple, which is exactly what I suggest you do when visiting this restaurant.

If you order something that most resembles what you are used to then you should get a feel for the native touch on cooking and enjoy a satisfying meal at the same time.

I would recommend El Jibarito to anyone seeking to test the waters of Puerto Rican culinary culture in a comfortable location with an attentive staff. While it may not make my list of places to revisit, I'm certainly glad I chose to eat there once.
El Jibarito
280 Calle Sol
San Juan, Puerto Rico
(787) 724-2281

La Bombonera

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 26, 2002

I often like to treat myself to breakfast out on the weekends, so I made a point of finding a place in Old San Juan where I could do just that. Not only did La Bombonera suit my purposes, but if I lived in San Juan I would become a regular.

I'm sure there are other places to get a decent meal to start your day, but after my first morning in town I kept with the addage,"if it ain't broke don't fix it." In addition, I couldn't tell you what they serve at any other time of day. They are open from 7:30 AM to 8:00 PM and reportedly provide more than eggs and toast during the day.

Back to the breakfast, though. On the weekend you can expect a line. This seemed to be a popular place with the local middle class crowd, but a few apparent tourists were sprinkled about. The turnover is pretty quick, so you shouldn't wait too long.

The menu itself is nothing fancy really. You have the usual egg options, as well as bacon, sausage and ham. The meat pastries are quite good and not necessarily something you would get at home. Your meal will come with narrow wedges of toasted Italian bread, which may have been what sealed the deal with me. Sopping in butter, I could have eaten a double order each morning and been happy. Ah, the simple decadence. Don't miss the opportunity to swig down some real fruit juice, either. They squeeze the oranges at a frantic pace to keep up with demand and it is well worth it. You can get "freshly squeezed" anywhere, but it's the freshly picked that makes the difference.

La Bombonera is supposed to be known for its pastries, as well. I actually exercised enough self control to forego such temptation, but the treats on exhibit in the front room looked and smelled like they would be worth whatever they were charging.

The restaurant is dominated by a long formica top counter, though there are several booths. The staff wears old style diner attire, reminiscent of the 40's and 50's, including those spiffy little soda jerk hats. In fact, the appealing essence of this place is largely the throwback era atmosphere. The physical appearance, along with the efficient and friendly service, harken to times gone by. Specifically, times when going out for a meal was more pleasant than buying McAnything from a surly teenager in a drive thru window.

I definitely recommend La Bombonera, even if to just grab a cup of coffee. Incidentally, you must make a point to check out the coffee/espresso machine. It is the largest coffee making monstrosity I've ever seen and looks like it may have been there for the hundred plus years the restaurant has been in business.
La Bombonera
Calle San Francisco 259
San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00901
+1 787 722 0658

Plaza de Armas

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 28, 2002

Tourists probably visit the Plaza de Armas for its historical value more than anything. However, if you are staying in the old city, it's an excellent hub for your activities.

The square has a very European air to it and is home to City Hall and other government offices. You may see old pictures during your sightseeing showing Spanish troops on parade here during the Spanish American War. Today it has a pleasant park-like atmosphere and many locals come here to relax. Many begin and end their day here.

On my visit, I found myself drifting toward this plaza each morning after breakfast. On the northwest corner of the square, you will find a little green roofed coffee kiosk. Actually, it is an espresso kiosk, since that is your only choice of beverages. They serve it strong and they serve it 24 hours a day. The little stand does a lively business, but doesn't have a name. It's just "the coffee stand". Oddly enough, I was never charged the same amount twice, so I can't really tell you what they charge for a cup of brew. It was always cheaper than comparable servings stateside, however.

A couple of potentially useful businesses are located on the Plaza de Armas, as well. There is a Pueblo grocery store. At the Guest House Old San Juan my room had a refrigerator, so I stocked up on both bottled water and beer at Pueblo.

Incidentally, Medalla and India are the two local beers available. Medalla is more prevalent in bars, but I found the India to be a better tasting beer. Presidente is a Dominican beer widely available in Puerto Rico that I found myself drinking as any. Keep in mind that beer, rum, coffee and other such consumables can all be purchased at lower prices at the supermarket than at tourist-oriented shops. So, whether you want them while you're there or to bring back home, there's no need to squander money elsewhere.

There is a Walgreens on the square if you need to pick up medicine or duck in for the countless other items that are stocked for convenience in the modern pharmacy. Actually, I have a personal vendetta against the Walgreens chain, so if you too would prefer an alternative to that soulless corporate monolith, there is a Puerto Rico RX on the opposite corner. They carried the same things you would find at Walgreens for what I assume are comparable prices. Between the Puerto Rico RX and the Pueblo supermarket, you can take care of all your practical needs right there on the same block.

Whether for relaxing, shopping or just to get my bearings, I found myself returning over and again to the Plaza de Armas. If you are going to spend much time in Old San Juan, I'm sure you will find it a useful point of reference, as well.

Plaza de Armas
Calle San Jose
San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00901
+1 787 721 2400

The Cigar House at the Doll House

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 28, 2002

If you enjoy cigars, keep in mind that Puerto Rico is governed by the United States. So, no Cuban cigars for you. That doesn't mean that Puerto Rico has nothing to offer the visitor with a hankering for a good smoke.

There are several places around Old San Juan to purchase cigars. However, this store with the odd name is where I found myself opting to spend my money. Overall, the prices in Puerto Rico tended to be lower than they are on the mainland. You don't have to buy many stogies at your local smoke shop to realize that alone is good reason to stock up while on the island.

There are no purely Puerto Rican cigars that I am aware of. If there are, I did not find any and have not read of them. However, there are some decent brands that are manufactured there. Meaning, for the less informed, that the tobacco is grown elsewhere, but the cigars are rolled in local factories. Thus, there are Puerto Rican brand names. If you don't smoke cigars, this is meaningless, I suppose, but I probably lost you on the first paragraph anyway.

The brand that I adopted as my own is called Don Bienve. I don't recall seeing it in the other shops, which is why I found myself revisiting this particular store. Don Bienve is a low-end cigar, price wise. They are the perfect choice for when you just want a good, quality smoke without dipping into your special stash. At $1.50 a piece for a midsize stogie, you would think they stuck the wrong price tag on them if you bought these back home. I bought a fistful to bring home with me, needless to say.

The Cigar House at the Doll House also sells souvenirs, t-shirts and other gift items geared towards the tourist. Actually, most of their floor space is dedicated to that sort of thing, but I would say that the cigar trade over shadows the rest of their commerce.

The only other thing in the store I might recommend you go there for would be the hats. They had a fairly large selection of Panama hats of respectable quality, though the prices were not the best in town. Still, they did carry more styles than some of the other stores.

As with so many things, I couldn't help but notice the oddities of this retail establishment. Given the name of the place, I really did expect to see some dolls in the store. Nope...not a one. Also, there are three locations in Old San Juan. Two of them are on Fortaleza, directly across the street from each other. I never noticed them both being open at the same time and I passed by on several occasions during my ramblings. At first I thought maybe they were just moving from one building to the next, but both stores on listed on their business cards. Odd, I thought.
Cigar House at the Doll House
255 Calle Fortaleza
San Juan, Puerto Rico

Club Gallistico de Puerto Rico

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 19, 2002

The ancient sport of cockfighting is alive and well in Puerto Rico. For the adventurous, you can easily investigate this activity for yourself. Just head for Club Gallistico de Puerto Rico, one of Puerto Rico's premiere cockfighting arenas. It's a slice of culture you certainly won't get elsewhere.

Gallo is Spanish for rooster and the ring they fight in is the gallistico. Club Gallistico is the only one in San Juan, to my knowledge. Typically a rural sport, you may notice that much of the clientele appears to be in from the country. Judging by the vehicles out front, however, either farming pays well or there is money in fighting roosters. In either case, these gentlemen were not complete yokels.

You can reach Club Gallistico from Old San Juan for 25 cents each direction. The A5 bus will take you from the main bus terminal right to the arena. Expect a 30-45 minute ride, but you can't beat the price. At sixteen dollars, a cab wouldn't be much faster. On Saturdays the fights go from 2-10 PM, but the A5 makes it's last run at 7 o'clock. The club is on Isla Verde Avenue, at the corner of Los Gobernadores Avenue. On the bus, just watch for the Hampton Inn. Club Gallistico is practically next door.

As a tourist, you pay $5 and receive a special sticker. They allow you to sit anywhere you please with this sticker. In reality, however, you probably won't squeeze into the first few rows. These are filled with the hard core types; mostly high rollers, bird owners and various "insiders".

Admittedly, this can be a brutal sport, so the action outside the ring may possibly draw your attention from the gamecocks. The betting is highly animated and serious. You simply yell out your wager until you get a taker. All bets are on the honor system. If you're unfamiliar with the protocol, you'll likely not manage to bet.

In each bout, you have two roosters that are presumably fighting to the death. In reality, one of them doesn't necessarily die, but I digress. One has a black band around his legs and one doesn't. This differentiates between them, much like identifying boxers by the color of their trunks. At the beginning of each bout, gamblers verbally haggle over the odds. Once that is established, the bets are yelled out. The betting tends toward the high side. As often as not, I saw wads of hundred dollar bills passed about. If you're not intimidated and want to risk some cash, just ask for assistance. Guides and translators are available upon request.

Aside from the fights, you can watch the birds being prepared for their matches. There is also a modest souvenir stand. The beer is relatively cheap, but the eats seemed to be limited. The facility is entirely smoke free, quite clean and well kept. So, if you're game for adventure, nothing about Club Gallistico itself should deter your curiosity.
Club Gallistico de Puerto Rico
Isla Verde Ave. (at Los Gobernadores Ave.)
San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Batey

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 28, 2002

El Batey, on Calle del Cristo, is one of the better known bars in the old quarter. This little joint enjoys a certain amount of legend. It was once used in a movie as the setting for a haven of gunrunners and drug smugglers. I'm not sure it lived up to its hype, but I do consider it a cool bar. They are evidently aware of their own notoriety, judging from the t-shirts for sale behind the bar.

The rooms are small and have an unfinished look to them. Perhaps unfinished isn't the correct phrase, though. They look as if they may have been gutted at some point in the past and then had some rudimentary furniture thrown in when they decided to open a bar. The main room, of course, houses the actual bar. Behind that is a small room with a pool table and there are two smaller rooms off to the side with tables and chairs.

You can feel free to scrawl graffiti on the walls here, assuming you can find a spot that hasn't been covered already. If not, just write over someone else's. You wouldn't be the first to do so.

After you leave your mark, check out the tunes. I have to give El Batey kudos on their jukebox, which I had heard beforehand warranted inspection. It's quite an eclectic array of music, but leans more toward the classic rock era. As with most of the bars in town, don't waste a lot of time looking for Latin music. The bars and pubs tended to churn out American music, though I have to point out that it did not seem to be for the benefit of tourists.

The crowd here was on the younger side, but not exclusively so, by any means. I was there a bit on the early side, but I would imagine that El Batey gets cranking quite nicely as the night wears on. Given its small size, it wouldn't take much to fill the place. I enjoyed myself when I was there, but next time around I will make a point to drop in at a later hour. Somehow I think El Batey would be best experienced around midnight.
El Batey
Calle Del Cristo
San Juan, Puerto Rico, 00901

Don Pablo

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 28, 2002

Don Pablo is located on the northern end of Calle del Cristo, right next door to El Batey. It is not much different in size than its neighbor, but the atmosphere is considerably different. I must admit that I did little more than give the place a once over. It was cleaner and more spruced up than El Batey, but the techno music was turned up to mind searing levels even at the early hour I dropped by. It was really more than I was up for at that moment, so I drifted on. I passed by the place a few times on my meanderings and stuck my head in more than once to see what was shaking. If not for their penchant for mind numbing decibels, it looked like a decent place to hang out.

It appeared that many of the revelers strolled back and forth between El Batey and Don Pablo, however the mood hit them, though the Don Pablo was generally a tad younger and a hipper. Maybe that is the key. You stick around Don Pablo until the volume drives you out, head next door to pull yourself together and then dive back in for more.

I would not label Don Pablo a nightclub, but given its choice of musical genres and the look and attitude of the clientele, I would recommend it to those who enjoy the club scene. It wasn't quite my style, but a few years back I probably would have given it more of my time and attention.
Don Pablo
Calle del Cristo
San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Lingua Franca

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by thedrifter on February 22, 2002

Most anyone who has traveled outside of the United States, or is from outside the United States, has likely had the opportunity to note the almost painfully monolinguistic nature of the average American.

If it's not English, we Americans don't want to hear it. If we must go abroad, the presence of other languages is simply an inconvenience we are forced to deal with. With a little persistence, we will badger the locals into learning English on the spot for our benefit if it comes to that.

In all seriousness, it is true that most Americans are ill equipped to function outside the English speaking world. For good or ill, this is the reality and is understandably of concern to many Americans heading out of the country. For those who wish to venture outside our anglicized borders, but are intimidated by communications barriers, Puerto Rico is a great destination.

It has been said that Puerto Rico is one of the most solidly bilingual places in the world. It's hard to say whether this is true or not, but milling about San Juan certainly lends credence to that argument. By far, most of the people I met or came in contact with in San Juan were fluent in English. As often as not, these folks spoke perfect English with a typical American accent.

Of course, if you speak Spanish there is no reason not to. Even if you are not fluent, it would certainly seem respectful to at least attempt some rudimentary usage of their language. In any case, however, you will find the sanjuaneros are generally more than willing to lend their friendly assistance in English if that's how you will best understand them.

Thus, San Juan gives you the best of both worlds, in a sense. While you have all the benefits of visiting a place with a long, rich Spanish cultural heritage, there is also a linguistic safety net for we language impaired gringos. This should certainly make Puerto Rico a viable and alluring option for even the most timid of travelers.

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