REEL GAY TV is just back from filming pride in Puerto Rico, including the parade and festival in San Juan, as well as the Beachfest in Boqueron, Cabo Rojo. Look for the volume coming in September.
I don't know why I had never been to Puerto Rico in all my years of travel. After all, it is a tropical destination, tucked neatly into the beautiful Caribbean between the Virgin Islands to the east and Haiti/Dominican Republic to the west, and a United States territory at that. No passports, no translations, no dysentery, what's not to like? There aren't any malaria or dengue fever warnings emanating from PR. Hello, Hawaii!!!
We chose pride season to visit, June 7th in San Juan, but we quickly learned pride in PR was much more than a parade and festival. Our first stop was the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, about 10 minutes from the airport, and sitting smack dab on the beach.
The place was buzzing, with 2 rum cocktails awaiting our arrival in the thriving lobby bar, casino beckoning as a backdrop; a water park for a pool; and the white sand and blue Atlantic as our backyard paradise. At night the lobby bar is blaring with some of the best local Latin bands you've ever heard. It's steps from the local gay beach, just in front of the Atlantic Hotel. The place is ideal.
The Marriott is located in Condado, the trendy district of bars, restaurants and shopping just out the front door. San Juan's gay nightlife is all situated in Condado, a comfortable walking distance away. And, the pride parade route charted right past the Marriott's grand
entrance. What a treat!
As parades go, San Juan Pride was a solid "B". The "A" grade is reserved for those cities who exhibit their pride at night (Hi, Houston), or with 10,000 entrants (Hello, Sydney), or with 500 floats (Never again, Toronto, though I adored it, once). Festive, with blaring rhythms, this parade meandered down Ashford, the main drag in Condado, past "family" out to view, past beach-goers pleasantly caught off guard, and workers gawking from kitchen
doors, snapping pictures like giddy teenage school girls. It was a party, as pride parades should be.
The moving fiesta snaked down the thin street, over bridges, past shoreline parks until it culminated in a hilly oceanfront space, Tercer Milenio Park, with a glorious view and plenty of room for the party to unfold. The event, contrary to what we were told, was quite well attended, with thousands of people partaking in food, drink, drag, dancing, and general sunbathing in nearly naked attire. Again, what's not to like?!?!
As for nightlife, Condado has a range of thumping options. In preferential order, the scene goes like this: everyone starts their evening at Tia Maria’s Liquor Store. Once a convenience store, this tiny but hopping space is the friendliest bar in town. Run by two lesbians who pour the strongest, and cheapest drinks you can imagine, this is the spot to get your even jump-started. And since no one goes out to the other places before midnight, spend your early hours here, getting sufficiently lubricated with the locals. It is a ball.
It is a short walk to La Placita, reminiscent of the street parties in Rio, a collection of bars and restaurants, all gay friendly, where the revelers spill out into an open courtyard in the middle of the madness, creating an enchanting environment that is a mixture of gay, straight, and fun fun fun. You can buy drinks from a stand here, and peruse the rambunctious crowd. In all of San Juan, there is very little resistance to carrying your drinks into the street, even from bar to bar, though it probably is not officially sanctioned. But certainly in this 4-square block space, the party is on, and it is mobile.
From La Placita make your way to S/X, a hybrid of a strip club and dirty darkroom bar. It is like nothing you've ever done before (unless you've been to Berlin.) The bar is inhabited with a half dozen or so "dancers" who engage you if you show any interest. (They engage even if you're not interested, but it's easy enough to send them on their way.) Friendly and frisky, the dancers are not like the high pressure, 'come to the backroom with me' dancers of other strip joints. They flirt and tempt right there in the bar space, with a couple of veiled couch rooms available at the rear if one wanted to get a bit more intimate. It's fun, not creepy, and a harmless, sexy romp.
But the real fun is outside where a smoking patio disappears into a dark space where Puerto Rican dreams come true. Nuff said. Again, more fun than sleazy, and a change of pace from the attitude dance clubs that we are all too used to.
Speaking of dance clubs, just around the corner are Scandulo, VIP and Circo, the latter, sort of a collecting bin, open until 6am, where everyone ends up by the end of the night. This is a high end dance spot. All the best guys and girls are here, as well as all the rest you have been chasing or running from all night. The dance floor is through some easy to miss doors, off the smoking patio, and it is an entirely mirrored room, making it look like there
are thousands of people in there, especially after hours of partying, and a jump-start at Tia Maria’s. It is great fun and not to be missed!
Not content with parades, and bars, and beach, and dancing, we thought we would check out nearby Vieques Island, part of a group of islands sometimes referred to as The Spanish Virgin Islands. Vieques Air Link got us there in an exhilarating ride in a 6-seater plane that was akin to flying a Volkswagen Bug for the 30-minute flight. It was fantastic, kind of like flying in the cockpit, with tremendous views of the coast, and the string of islands, and the
landing as we floated down onto Vieques.
Once a US Navy bombing range and testing ground, Vieques is now a national wildlife refuge, with amazing beaches, snorkeling, sailing, and a authentic island in the stream feel unlike any other island I have experienced. Horses roam free here, and there hardly seems to be a tourist around. It is idyllic.
Our home away from home here was the Casa de Amistad Guesthouse, gay owned and operated by Owen and Dan in Isabel II, the one main town on the island. Owen greeted us, and gave us the royal treatment, sitting us down to go over our itinerary, offering us full use of the gourmet kitchen, beach towels, coolers, sunscreen, snorkeling equipment, and any other needs we might have. It's like staying at your eccentric beach bum uncle’s
hideaway on a remote deserted island. And it was fantastic.
Two blocks down from Amistad we snagged a delicious lunch at Cafe Mamasongas, with a great view of the ocean and a family of iguanas living in the trees. Two blocks in the other direction is an authentic Italian place, Taverna, run by the team that does Spiritus Pizza in Provincetown. Talk about dancing in heaven, wow! After lunch, we boarded a rowboat, powered by Captain Judy, the coolest mom in the whole wide world, who runs Sea Vieques, a sail/snorkel tour that found us on a catamaran catching the gentle winds out to a reef with some of the best collection of corals I had ever seen. The tour is intimate, with 4 guests and Captain Judy's friendly crew of 2 guiding, entertaining, educating, and making for a truly wonderful experience.
When the sun goes down, a “must do” on Vieques is a bioluminescent tour. Several operators take kayakers out on a mangrove-lined bay where the water is 90 degrees, the sky sprinkles shooting stars, and the sea is filled with light emitting organisms that will blow your mind. Literally everywhere you touch, the water lights up, every movement emits shiny white light, so fish swimming by look like brilliant fireballs speeding through the water. You can put your hand in the water and lift up a fist full of light, watching in awe as the sparkles spill down your arm back into the water. If you saw Life of Pi, it's just like that,
but without the whale. It is breathtaking.
The next morning we had a tremendous breakfast at Panaderia Viequense, which makes the best breakfast paninis you could imagine, before heading off to the refuge side of the island for a sailing/snorkeling tour with Little Boat Sailing. This time the catamaran was "little", barely room for 4 guests and our gear. We tacked out to a reef on the Caribbean side of the island where we snorkeled with turtles, barracuda, and even a 5-foot nurse shark. Our guide showed us another side of tropical snorkeling, along a mangrove bank, which was truly a unique experience. The mangrove trees, with their maze-like root systems, are the nurseries of the reef. Nearly every species of wildlife, including birds, utilize the mangroves to raise and protect their young. So, nestled among the roots were big schools of
adolescent fish, and larger predators, hanging around slyly, waiting for them to venture out. It was enlightening, and amazing!
From Vieques, we just had to hop over to St. Thomas, so courtesy of Cape Air we were off on another white knuckler, 8-seater flight. Woohoo! Part of the US Virgin Islands, St. Thomas is like the jewelry island in the Caribbean. Cartier, Rolex, Tiffanys all have showrooms in the quaint shopping village on the picturesque bay lining Veterans Drive. If you're looking for a romantic getaway to propose to that special someone, and buy that once in a lifetime diamond, at a discount with no sales tax, then St. Thomas is the place.
We, on the other hand, were still into adventure touring. So, Virgin Islands Ecotours was our destination. Again, a small tour, with three kayaks of two passengers each, and a knowledgeable guide who took us paddling through a mangrove bay; snorkeling with baby sharks and spotted sea snakes; and, hiking with an army of hermit crabs with a ravenous appetite for Kit Kat bars. If on St. Thomas, check them out! Our lodging on this beautiful island was a grand old guest house, just up the hill from the shopping village, aptly called The Crystal Palace. The house opens up into large stately rooms, living, dining, sitting, all leading to a deck with a stunning view of the harbor. We spent our first evening having a beer(the first drink at Crystal is on the house) and drinking in the amazing view as the sunset gave way to twinkling lights amidst a cool Caribbean breeze. In the morning we picked mangos from one of several trees loaded with fruit, on the property. Priceless.
But back to PR we went, as Beachfest, the "better half" of Puerto Rico pride beckoned for the weekend. It seems all of Puerto Rico's gay and lesbian community books accommodations on the west coast of the island in Cabo Rojo for a festival on the beach that gets going Thursday and goes through Monday. Talk about a party! But before we could get our heads around that, we had new digs to check out in San Juan. If you are a fan of the "Housewives" you might recall NENE and the gals stay in Puerto Rico. It was at a boutique hotel where the girls couldn't refrain from the usual screaming slapfest, and yes, we had to stay there! The Olive Hotel is a toney little boutique hotel, run by a newly married couple who inhabited the place with a bevy of beautiful pieces so unlike your standard hotel fare, you'd think you were staying at Ari Onassis' private villa. The pictures on the walls are all shots from the owners Mediterranean wedding and the apparent year they spent on their honeymoon. Who lives this way????? I hate these people! But I love their hotel.
Friday morning we met a charming young lady, Caroline, who works for Spoon Food Tours which hosts a fabulous tour of Old San Juan, its postcard pastel architecture, and some wonderful restaurant operators who fed us coffee, pastries and rum to die for. We had some of the best fish tacos I've ever imbibed, and a thoroughly informative and enjoyable time.
But the time had come for our trip to Boqueron! Saturday, on a spectacular palm-lined beach, the bears of the region convened for a day of sun and fun in the sand. When we arrived the waters were filled with beefy, hirsute, drink-holding men, cackling just like a school of flamingos in the middle of a Serengeti watering hole. The sound was deafening. The entire beach, some 2 miles or so, was packed with gays and lesbians loaded down with umbrellas, coolers, boom boxes, volleyballs, paddle-boards, and skimpy swimwear. Talk about a party. As the sun set, everyone retired for a nap and a meal before re-emerging at a tiny village steps from the shore where djs and stages pumped out music and entertainment until the wee hours of the morning. The place was packed. Think Provincetown, with a Latin-American flair. It was unbelievable. Sunday saw a cute parade down the main drag, with another day of paradise on the beach. It was so different than the festival, which seemed like a year ago Sunday in San Juan, and the perfect finish to Pride Puerto Rico. If you've never been, you must go. But be sure to book your stay in Cabo Rojo early. The town was completely booked, and for good reason! Ole!