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Sexy, Stylish
SAN JUAN
by Mark Chesnut

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Or check out Dragonfly, where Southeast Asian cuisine is balanced with Caribbean elements including yucca, plantain chips, and pork rinds. Next door is Aguaviva, literally named after jellyfish, where you can take a seat beneath lighting fixtures shaped like, you guessed it, jellyfish, to enjoy creative seafood dishes including paella, shrimp salsa, and seafood enchiladas.

Just a couple blocks away is El Asador, which opened in 2007 in an historic building with highly arched ceilings and minimalist furnishings reminiscent of a trendy monastery. This handsome eatery specializes in grilled meats and other Latin American favorites.

Old San Juan is also a great place for small-scale, boutique shopping. International brands like Guess are visible along Calle Fortaleza, but so are small shops with handcrafted masks, original paintings, and other fascinating creations. For ready-to-wear designs for men and women created by a local designer, head to Capalli, a lovely shop with fascinating work. Or check out the bizarre creations at Butterfly People, where elaborate, framed displays of colorful (but dead) butterflies are the draw.

It’s Saturday night, and I’m sweating on the dance floor at Starz, the newest gay and lesbian dance club in Santurce, the neighborhood adjacent to Condado, where most of the gay nightlife is now found. The basic décor and black walls won’t win any awards for design, but the club packs in a young crowd that enthusiastically enjoys the techno and pop dance tunes. My boyfriend and I take a break on the balcony that overlooks the street, then come back in for what proves to be a rather extravagantly costumed drag show that is Asian themed with flowing gowns, robes, and even a male performer waving flags. Every week they have a different theme, but I don’t know where the budget comes from for these terrific costumes.

San Juan’s gay scene may not be on par with New York City or Miami, but it is by far the most sophisticated in the Caribbean, with a vibrant nightlife and increasingly organized community. Style-conscious local gay guys and girls are just as likely to head to the growing number of nightspots that aren’t exclusively gay, such as the bars at the city’s trendiest hotels. These include La Concha, where the lobby bar packs in well-dressed revelers every weekend; the San Juan Water & Beach Club, where the lobby bar and rooftop lounge are the ultimate in chilled cool; and El Convento, the beautifully restored former convent in Old San Juan, which has a variety of lovely corners in which to enjoy a drink.

For those who prefer bars or nightclubs that are all-gay (or predominantly so), the San Juan area offers plenty of options. Across the street from Starz, dozens of guys (and a few women) frequently gather on the sidewalk outside of Tía María’s Liquor Store, which, contradicting its name, is not a liquor store, but one of San Juan’s most reliably popular small gay bars. With two pool tables and a friendly crowd of mixed ages, it’s a good place for an early evening drink or a final nightcap.

Unless it’s a weekend night, when dance clubs like Starz and Krash are happening, the next logical local stop on the gay bar circuit in Santurce is Junior’s, a comfy bar with a good jukebox, pool tables, and occasional drag shows. Just a couple doors away on the decidedly downscale block (if you drive there, homeless people will offer to help you find a parking place) is VIP Bar, a tiny but attractive venue that draws overflow from Junior’s as well as young crowds who come to see the extremely talky drag shows.

It’s impossible to talk about gay nightlife in San Juan without mentioning the Atlantic Beach Bar, the city’s only open-air, beachfront gay bar. Located in Condado and overlooking the gay beach, it sorely needs some new décor (as does the Atlantic Beach Hotel, the gay hotel that runs it), but the bar remains a nice place to enjoy the breeze and a drink after a day on the beach.

Visitors with cars who want to wander a bit further may head to S Lounge in the neighborhood called Hato Rey (near the massive Plaza Las Américas shopping mall). With two bars, a small dance floor, and even occasional live performances, it’s a good option for both men and women.

A bit further out is Male Depot, a men-only bar that opened this year, with strippers, a large dark room, and private cabins providing a rather sexually explicit ambiance. Since the Steamworks sauna closed in Old San Juan, this is the only place targeted at randy locals and visitors. Membership is $25 a year, but admission is just $6 for non-members (the biggest challenge is finding the place; check out the map on their website, and remember to turn right at Burger King).

Meanwhile, anyone planning a visit in June should try to check out San Juan’s annual Gay Pride celebration, an increasingly large affair with a parade in the Condado district followed by outdoor festivities and indoor parties at all the bars and clubs.

Of course, sometimes the most enjoyable experiences are the simplest. On our final Saturday night in San Juan, my boyfriend and I take a seat outside at Café de la Plaza, a mid-priced restaurant in Plaza del Mercado, which by day is a busy produce market in Santurce. At night, the small restaurants that line the market are open for all to enjoy. We savor mounds of white rice and red beans accompanied by steak and onions. Jazz music wafts out from the live band inside, and the music of a live Cuban band floats over from another restaurant a block away. Across the street, three guitarists are playing old-fashioned Puerto Rican ballads as an older couple dances on the sidewalk. It may not be the most stylish moment of our recent visit to San Juan, but it certainly is one of the most memorable.

[Published: November, 2008]

Continued
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For me PR has become completely boring. The crusing bars are closed. There is no crusing anymore period. Just another follower of the sterile US I'm afraid. Had a lot of fun 15 years ago though
- Steve Alexander , New York

I enjoyed a mix of gay friendly beaches, some local culture, and the gay night life while in San Juan. I stayed at a smaller hotel, Coqui Del Mar, and loved it. I really recommend the Plaza del Mercado that Robert writes about. Fruit smoothie is a must
- Jeff , San Diego, CA, USA

I just went 2 SAN JUAN in early Oct. and I had a blast. I stayed across the sreet from La Concha @ the Holiday Inn Exp. and I was very impressed w/ the area. From the hotel I walked 2 Juniors(B+) & Krash(C-).
- Abraham , Brooklyn, New York USA

You sould come back to Puerto Rico, but hearing every Wednesday night Saliendo del Closet (Comming out of the Closet) with Cecilia La Luz and some colaborators. And you sould get out of the metropolitan area of San Juan.
- Jason Anthony Pineiro , San Juan, Puerto Rico


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