Old San Juan comes alive at night. The droves of cruise-ship tourists file back onto their boats, the sun eases up on the stifling rays it reserves especially for the Caribbean, and the quick beat of reguetón begins to dance around every corner. Conversation on the cobblestone streets transforms from English observations to Spanish exclamations; naturally, life between the colonial facades–adorned in hues as colorful as their inhabitants–gets quite a bit louder. Night falls and the cool kiss of the ocean weaves its way into the countless bars and restaurants dotting the tiny walled city, where revelers are drawn in by happy-hour specials like three-for-$5 Medalla cervezas and two-for-one mojitos. This is the Old San Juan that day visitors don’t see.
Having the chance to spend a month on one of the most lively blocks of Old San Juan means that I will come to know the rhythm of this city in a special way. Already, I’ve been surprised by how familiar and yet how foreign Puerto Rico feels; it’s America, but it’s not. You don’t need a passport to travel here, but a translator would come in handy. A Wendy’s sits across from a nameless stand in the middle of Plaza de Armas that is run by an elderly woman who doesn’t speak a lick of English. (But with a couple dollars, some pointing, and a “por favor,” that mallorca will soon be yours.) Pizza is popular, but so is mofongo. There is a recognizability to this place that makes it comfortable for first-time explorers, yet with coquí frogs and El Yunque rainforest and glowing bio bays, there’s enough quirkiness to appease even the most adventurous of travelers.
And that we are.