I was surprised.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico- It has to be said: San Juan has the best urban beaches in the world. They are wider and more spacious than those of Cancun, the water is bluer than in Southern California, and they are as clean as they are in the remote reaches of Portugal.
Usually when you hear the phrase “urban beach” you make a sound that goes a little something like “eww.” These places are best known for being dumping grounds for garbage, the stomping grounds of feral dogs, and ground zero for people you don’t really want to meet. But you still go to these lackluster beaches because … why not? but then spend most of your time tip-toeing over drug syringes and used maxi pads while trying to avoid being bitten by a pack of dogs.
I mentioned this to a local friend who confirmed that the beaches here actually used to be like that before they were cleaned up. “There used to be dogs and garbage here too but not anymore.”
And that’s just the thing about Puerto Rico: It’s 100% Latin America … only without most of the stuff that sucks. So often you travel in places like Guatemala, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic and you’re like, “Man, this place would be really nice if …” Well, Puerto Rico addresses that “if.” The place has the freedoms and lack of legal nannying of most of Latin America without the things that make living and traveling there a hassle. They wanted nice beaches here, so they clean them and make them nice.
To put it another way: they care here.
It’s almost too simple.
My apartment here is two blocks from Ocean Park Beach. I have to admit that I was not expecting much when I walked over to it soon after checking in. It’s a beach two meters from a city, and experience has told me to keep expectations low. But as I walked through the opening in the narrow band of foliage that separates beach from concrete jungle I believe my jaw may have dropped.
The scene was pretty much what you’d imagine if you closed your eyes and began thinking about what a nice beach looks like.
It was the kind of beach you’d go out of your way to travel to — and it was less than a ten minute walk from the booming Loiza street and the central urban district of Santurce.
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I took off my shirt and began walking in the direction of Old San Juan. A crescent wall of high-rises hugged the contours of the beach and the golden late afternoon sun glistened on their windows. There were families and tourists and some guy sitting all by himself under an umbrella with a full sound system. The water was chock full of kite surfers. I watched as they tore through the waves, narrowly missing each other, as their sails peacefully played together in the air. There were swimmers and laughs and life. Nobody appeared worried about being mugged or bitten by feral dogs.
This was the beach at Ocean Park, and I’m told this isn’t even San Juan’s best. The beaches at Isla Verde and Carolina are even better.
San Juan is truly less of a city with a beach than a beach that has a city sprouting up around it.
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