Looking out of the aircraft window as it started its descent into Puerto Rico, I had my doubts. Some cities look impressive from the air. From 5,000ft, San Juan looked a bit, well, unkempt. There were clearly posh areas, easy to spot from above by the proliferation of swimming pools – azure blue postage stamps with the occasional cornflower coloured kidney shape. But the sight of massive tower blocks and sprawling suburbs suggested there has been some urban decay. Was coming here for four days such a great idea?
On arrival I thought that the airport needed a bit more than a paint job too. Still, I’m staying in a really cool hotel, I told myself in an attempt at self-motivation. Turning the corridor corner I smiled at the ‘Welcome to Puerto Rico’ sign. I’d made it.
But seconds later my heart sank as I saw the length of the immigration queue. It was six rows deep. Oh well, I can take this time to read up on places to go, I thought, although a uniformed immigration officer strode over and told me to put my iPad away immediately. I later learned that any gadgets are outlawed because drug smugglers entering Puerto Rico can communicate to people on the other side. So my tip is to take a book, because you’ll need something for entertainment during the 70-minute wait.
Once through, I headed for the taxi rank. Elena Mezentseva, the owner of Monastery Art Suites, my home for the next four nights, had advised me that all fares to the Old City were a fixed rate of $25 for the eight-mile ride. A taxi dispatcher directed me to one of a fleet of minivans where driver ‘Junior’ put my luggage in the boot and headed onto the dual carriageway for the city – with very loud musical accompaniment. He was listening to the most jolly radio station I’ve ever heard. I’m not sure what you’d call the music, but it would be the perfect soundtrack to a Latin American carnival, complete with whistle blowing. I tried conversation but he was playing it at volume level 10.
“You like?” he shouted. “Yes,” I lied, and immediately wished I hadn’t. He found a way to crank it up to 11.
The dual carriageway ended and we crossed a long bridge, its bright streetlights reflecting as we passed over to what appeared to be an island. The architecture changed to lower rise buildings. Then as traffic slowed, we turned right and I had a ‘wow’ moment. It lasted longer than that. More a ‘wowwwww…’
Victorian effect gas-style streetlights had replaced the functional street lighting of the busy freeway. And they revealed an historic city that was uniformly beautiful, street after cobbled street. It was stunning and distinctive and seemingly stretched for miles. Pastel-coloured and tile-roofed buildings with opulent balconies and heavy wooden doors hemmed in the narrow, winding lanes. Every few minutes the streets widened into piazzas featuring flowing fountains, parks or sculptures. This could be Lisbon or Seville. It didn’t look, or feel like, part of the States.
The cab stopped at the junction that I’d been told to ask for. Junior didn’t know the hotel, but there was a police officer standing on duty on the corner who did. The high police presence is a reassuring sight and you see it all over the Old Town. Just 30ft from the policeman I found the hotel door buzzer. And as I opened, I mouthed another ‘Wow.’ Elena has created a hotel that is an attraction in itself. Beautiful sculptures, wall hangings and lighting in every space. A series of self-contained suites, featuring unique art, each designed to be distinctive. You don’t find a ballroom in a Travelodge!
My first opinion of San Jose, formed from my view down from seat 24K had changed. Things were looking up.
To find out more about Monastery Art Suites or to make a reservation, visit their website here.