Cuba, Jamaica, Bahamas… it’s no secret I am an island boy at heart, despite being raised in New York. A naturalised Jamaican citizen, with a business in Nassau, Bahamas, if I am going to book a flight somewhere I prefer it be a place where I can soak up the sun on white sand beaches, drink in hand. I have been to all of the locations in The Beach Boys’ famous song “Kokomo” except the fictional titular island. Seeing as it is meant to be set in the Florida Keys – only a hop away from my Miami home – I am sure if it existed I would have found my way there too.
I make the most of Miami’s convenient location, only a short flight away from some of the world’s most beautiful and entertaining tropical locales, and often spend my long weekends exploring the Caribbean. This past Memorial Day Weekend, I took the invitation of a friend and spent some time in America’s largest territory, Puerto Rico.
I have been to Puerto Rico twice before, both short trips earlier this year, and the country certainly inspires repeat visits. Friendly people, lovely beaches, verdant rainforests, rich history and culture all around you, and of course amazing food – Puerto Rico has so much to offer. On previous trips I have of course lounged at the beach, but also explored the colourful Spanish Colonial architecture and quaint cobbled streets of Old San Juan, an American National Historic Landmark, one of very few found outside of the continental United States.
I have discovered the charm of Mayaguez, “The Sultan of the West”, with its college town feel, and revolutionary history. I have road tripped along the north-western coast, the surfing capital of Puerto Rico, admiring the surfers, nearly acrobatic in their agility, and of course eating delicious seafood. Naturally, I was excited for a return visit to the country over the Memorial Day weekend.
I generally prefer to stay at boutique hotels when I go to Puerto Rico, but as a change of pace, I bucked the trend and stayed at La Concha Renaissance , the ultra-modern resort and casino in San Juan, rated number four in the city on TripAdvisor. Situated in the Condado area of San Juan, the surrounding neighbourhood was reminder of how close Puerto Rico is to mainland US; there is a Starbucks on the corner and a large American expatriate population. It is one of the more modernised areas of the city, Americanised but still very Puerto Rican; with everything you need within walking distance, it at times reminded me of my neighbourhood in Miami.
The majority of the people were bilingual, so I barely got to practice my Spanish at all. A pity, as I had been taking beginner Spanish lessons for the past 5 weeks in Miami. Italian is my native tongue, and I speak a bit of Portuguese. I had thought it would make learning Spanish easier, but with the similarity of the languages, I often reference Italian words and grammar while speaking Spanish. All that to say, I would have welcomed getting in a little practice.
As luck would have it, the friend that originally extended the invitation got detained on an urgent family matter and I was left to explore on my own. Fortunately, there is no lack of things to do or people to meet in San Juan. I occupied myself investigating the nearby restaurants and two local spots truly stood out. Spagetele, an Italian eatery with incredible pizza – high praise coming from an Italian – and Pinky’s a café across the street that soon became a favourite of mine.
Pinky’s has some of the most delicious mallorcas in San Juan, which keep the place so packed I had to wait in line for a seat. I was first introduced to the mallorca at my favourite breakfast spot in Old San Juan, the aptly named La Mallorca. Named after the Spanish Island where they originated, mallorcas are sweet, fluffy buns stuffed with ham and cheese or buttered, pressed, and showered in confectioners’ sugar for the purists. Delicious. If you have never tried these soft treats, fresh from the oven, I suggest you book a flight to Puerto Rico post-haste.
Not long into my wandering, I met a fellow New Yorker and trader living who was living and working in San Juan. Struck by how much we had in common – he too owned a broker-dealership – we became fast friends and that evening I found myself out with him and his entourage of New Yorkers at La Placita de Santurce, or “La Placita” for short.
The party is outside in San Juan. La Placita is the main market square by day which transforms at night into the city’s most exciting neighbourhood for nightlife. Tourists, locals, and revellers of all origins hop between the rows of restaurants, bars, and market stalls, turning the main square into a huge street party. Through my expat friends I continued to meet new people – everyone was incredibly friendly – and by the end of the night my once empty itinerary was full.
The very next day we took a daytrip to the Rio Camuy Caves, a large network of limestone caves formed by the third-largest underground river in the world – The Rio Camuy. While navigating the caverns and tunnels of the cave, we planned to all go to La Factoria in Old San Juan, a rustically, hipster cocktail bar recently named one of the top 50 bars in the world. However a few of us, myself included, were too exhausted after a day of spelunking to follow through. I suppose I will add it to the list of reasons to find my way back to San Juan.
On lazy Sunday we drove east. We piled into jeeps with a cooler of drinks in tow, headed to Puerto Del Rey Marina, and set sail on a private yacht. You don’t need much else when you have good drinks and good company, but the crystal clear waters, beautiful reefs and world class snorkelling made it a day to remember.
Or perhaps it was the BBQ? On the way back we stopped at La Estacion for what is hands down some of the best pulled pork I have ever had. Located in a renovated gas station, El Estacion is at once cool but quaint featuring an eclectic mixture of modern, island, and lounge décor that somehow comes together seamlessly to embody the laid-back ambiance of Puerto Rican.
But we didn’t come for the décor. Opened by two New Yorkers, La Estacion prides itself in taking advantage of Puerto Rico’s abundant natural resources using fresh, local products from the Island. Freshly ground spices season the native fruits and vegetables strewn throughout the dishes. The fish are all local catches. And like with their décor, La Estacion mixes traditional with innovative, reinterpreting Puerto Rican cuisine for a flawless, flavourful fusion. Also, if I haven’t already mentioned it, try the pulled pork.
On my last day in Puerto Rico, like the rest of Americans, we watched the game at a friend’s condo. I decompressed from an action packed weekend with a beer watching Golden State Warriors edge out the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 7 to go on to the NBA finals… with people I am happy to now call friends.
My love for Puerto Rico only grows with every visit. I have for a while been considering buying property in Puerto Rico, there are excellent buying opportunities in real estate. With the local economy under duress, it is amongst the few places in America and its commonwealth where real estate is undervalued.
My Memorial Day weekend only reinforces my opinion that Puerto Rico is an undiscovered gem. The large expat community – often traders and equity managers taking advantage of the lack of capital gains tax for residents – show that with investment, Puerto Rico has the potential to be the Caribbean’s Singapore. If they directed their advertising to entrepreneurs on the main land, attracted new capital and investment, implemented better banking infrastructure and mobilised smart entrepreneurs on the ground they could turn the economy around. In the meantime, this island boy will continue planning his next trip to Puerto Rico – I think perhaps this time I will try the south.