Someone said I should go to the primary party area of San Juan. So I went. This is what I found there.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico- “If you’re looking more to have fun you know, at night, you know, nightlife, visit La Placita de Santurce. That’s the spot to eat and drink. You can listen to music. They got salsa. Sometimes they got, uh, like, people start dancing in the square. You know, you can visit around the afternoon hours, like 3:00, but the real deal all starts at night. You’re gonna see a lot of things in there.”
“You’re gonna see a lot of things in there.”
This line gets me every time.
And so I went.
My plan was just to walk there from my room near Ocean Park. That’s generally my MO, even though the cost of an Uber was literally $5. It was around nightfall when I set off and by the time I was at a pedestrian bridge that crosses highway 26 it was completely dark. But when I got to the center of this bridge a realization struck me: there was absolutely nobody around anywhere. There were a lot of cars zipping by on the highway below, but no pedestrians. I’d walked for ten minutes without crossing paths with anyone and when I looked across as the other side of the highway the streets were dark and empty.
People drive everywhere in San Juan. Outside of a few tourists and bar areas there’s simply not any pedestrians — almost without hyperbole. This leaves the sidewalks eerily deserted. Coming from NYC and spending most of my travels over the past three years in Mexico, I wasn’t used to this. I just stood there on that bridge and took it in for a moment. It was peaceful, but I also felt like a sitting duck. I credit this feeling to starting my travels in South America in the early 2000s. While San Juan isn’t a particularly scary city — it actually feels almost too safe — the traveler sense in you kicks in and says, “just pay $5 for a fucking taxi.”
It was still a little early in the night to head to the placita so I randomly selected what I thought was a bar a little ways to the south of it and called an Uber. I arrived and realized that it was actually an unmarked club that had two hip looking doormen / bouncers flanking its door. It didn’t seem to be my scene, so I just started walking around. For some reason I thought the area would be full of nightlife. I was wrong. I walked around the dark, empty streets by the Walgreens and Walmart, watched a dude pick up a fat street walker, then watched as a pair of transvestites approach an idling car. The dude rolled down his window but when he got a closer look he stomped on the accelerator. On the next block I was approached by a spindly street walker with a sunk in, desiccated face who asked for a cigarette. When I said I didn’t have any she began yelling at me. It was time to go. I spun around and began walking towards the placita.
A couple blocks later I was still the only person walking on the streets but the status of the neighborhood began changing. Modern, luxury-ish high rises began replacing two story strip housing and small block-like apartment complexes. And then at the top of a hill I saw glimmers of light and the beginning of a crowd. It soon became apparent why the rest of the city was so empty: everyone was here.
The scene was very much as it was described to me. Thousands of people were out laughing, drinking, and dancing — literally — in the streets. The bars were overflowing, and where the clientele of one ended and another began was anyone’s guess. It was a big street party, kind of like a mini-Mardi Gras or Bairro Alto on a Saturday night.
The placita itself was pretty much just a small elevated cobblestone platform that ran along the west side of the Santurce market. It was packed full of people — mostly tourists — who were drinking and dancing. A busker tried to clear out a circle for himself and get people’s attention, but nobody was interested. After centuries of seeing the same act I believe the world has finally tired of these dudes — how many times do you really need to see a juggler, a prop comic, or a guy playing multiple instruments at once? Drunken revelers kept stumbling through his performance zone and he eventually gave up.
I walked around the market to got a feel for how big this area was. It was only a couple of blocks but every single business was a bar and all the doors were wide open as crowds streamed in and out. The cobblestone streets were full of tables packed with people and a torrent of drinkers just flowed around them like bounders in a river.
I don’t really drink too much these days, so I just walked back and forth across the zone a couple of times taking it in. I then stopped for a moment on a busy street corner and watched a bunch of scantly dressed obese women shake their stuff. Good on them. But I have to say that it reminded me of that movie WALL-E where the humans of the future evolved into blobs of fatness that forgot how to walk and needed to be transported around in these vehicular reclining chairs. Whenever I leave NYC I’m reminded that we’re getting there. In the 1950s obese people were rare. In the 1990s they stood out. Today, it’s just normal. But what’s interesting here is that it seems as if our standards of physical attraction have changed right along with body composition. Traveling perpetually between the years of 2000 and 2020 I got to watch the world adopt a heavily processed, “American-ish” diet. I got to watch the proliferation of multinational fast food chains and the conception of a zillion local copycats. The world urbanized, began eating different, and bodies have changed. I don’t particularly care too much — other than finding the phenomenon fascinating — but you’re not going to get me to say anything positive about metabolic distress …
It was then time for me to decide what I was doing. Was I jumping in or going home? There really isn’t much that is interesting about American tourists on benders in San Juan. But leaving this night with simple observations of streetwalkers and obese people seemed like a wash.
I then remembered noticing a woman in one of the bars that was sitting by herself at one end of a bar hunched over he phone. I could only see her back from my glances in but something about her seemed out of place. I’m not sure what it was. Was it her rather drab dress that extended down to her ankles when everyone else here seemed to be wearing short skirts and booty shorts? Was it her age? She seemed a little older than most of the crowd. Was it her disposition? Was it the fact that she was all alone in a place where everyone else seemed to be with groups of friends? It definitely wasn’t the fact that she was obese — that’s for sure. She seemed as if she was plunked out of a Capital One commercial and airdropped into a San Juan dive bar. I’m not sure what it was but I decided I would swing by again and if she was still there go in and see if there was a story.
I strolled in, stood at the bar next to her, and ordered a gin and club. I began talking with her. She told me that she had just arrived in San Juan earlier that day. She told me that she was from DC but was born in Guayaquil, was in her early thirties, worked as a receptionist in a dental office, and seemed to like talking about the fact that she’s bold enough to travel alone. She told me about her solo trips to Colombia and Bali. She told me that she doesn’t tell her parents when she travels because they will be angry. She told me about the septuagenarian African immigrant dentist that she works for that has 20-something girlfriends that he buys cars for. She told me about how she got a divorce a month ago and how he took the kids but didn’t really seem to care. “I just really like being free, you know.” As she spoke she was almost obsessively checking her phone. So far, so normal.
It was probably 45 minutes into our conversation when she finally mention what happened:
Apparently, she’d been talking to a guy in San Juan for over a year. Right after her divorce was finalized she came to Puerto Rico to meet him and …
And that’s how she found herself sitting all alone at that bar.
Dude hasn’t answered her calls. Hasn’t responded to her texts.
“Uh, can I buy you a drink?”
It was the least I could do.
I then proposed a game: we’ll take turns randomly select a number between one and five and we’ll go that number bars down the road and get a drink until we reach the end of the strip. We ended up at an empty bar, a narrow little booty bar full of Afro-Caribbean women with giant bottoms twerking, a bar packed with drunk Americans, and a trendy kind of hipstery bar. She got all smiley faced and began talking and taking selfies with everyone … and seemed to have forgotten about being epically stood up for minute because she stopped compulsively checking her phone. At a bar at the end of the strip I went to the bathroom and when I came back to find an older local guy talking to her and it seemed like a good opportunity to handoff and split.
You could call me a mensch if you’d like, but I was really just trying to extract a little sap out of the night — find people to talk to, maybe hear a story, dive into the place a little deeper. Each time you leave your room when traveling you have no idea what’s going to happen — who you’re going to meet, where you’re going to end up, what you’re going to do. You just stroll around looking for stories and go wherever they take you.