Puerto Rico Cultivates Its Own Kind of Pride

A June 2 parade, rally, and festival on San Juan’s famed Condado capped a weekend of Pride celebrations in Puerto Rico.
KELSY CHAUVIN

Pride runs strong in Puerto Rico. That goes equally for the LGBTQ community and for the “fuerza Puerto Rico” power that rallied the island after 2017’s devastating hurricanes.

For this year’s Pride Puerto Rico celebration, the force drew thousands of participants and spectators to San Juan, pushing through flashes of tropical rain for a colorful parade and festival. Following a weekend full of Pride events, the June 2 march kicked off at Condado’s Parque del Indio, launching floats, bands, activists, and queens down Ashford Avenue. They landed at Parque del Tercer Milenio for the big Pride stage’s rally and performances, organized by Colectivo Orgullo Arcoiris (Rainbow Pride Collective, orgulloarcoiris.com).

Occasional showers didn’t dampen the celebration in San Juan.
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Despite passing storms, the local pride was clear as ever in 2019. Puerto Ricans and visitors filled Millennium Park to see two dozen different stage acts, including fabulous drag queens Maravllosa Placer, Catalina Tyrrell, and Miss Shalae Michaels and drag king Dingo Konpé, as well as other local entertainers.

The day’s true beauty, though, was the show of collective strength. Puerto Rico’s queer community is growing and gaining momentum, especially in the capital city of San Juan. Spots like Oasis Lounge (facebook.com/oasiscondado) stay busy into the late hours, and its prime location on Avenida Condado marks the local gay-beach area.

The queens were out in full fuerza.
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Meanwhile, the Santurce neighborhood is booming with restaurants and nightlife. Much of the action is centered around La Placita (la-placita-historical-landmark.business.site), where you can browse the farmer’s market by day, and on weekends check out nightlife at the little bars that spill onto the plaza. Friday nights are especially busy, with gay tipplers congregating at El Patio de Lila (elpatiodelila.com). For Pride season and beyond, LGBTQ parties roll out to nearby Toxic Night Club (toxicnightclub.com) and Santos Rooftop (facebook.com/SantosRooftop).

Puerto Rico also is home to a second June Pride, in the southwestern region of Cabo Rojo. This year, Boquerón Pride (discoverpuertorico.com/event/boqueron-pride/308) spanned the weekend of June 6-9, taking over the city’s beach scene and rivaling San Juan’s big event in size and enthusiasm.

San Juan’s Pride was one of two big celebrations on the island — the other in Boquerón, on the southwestern shore of Puerto Rico.
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Island Spirit

The overall appeal of the “enchanted isle” is tied to a proud Puerto Rican history that’s grown even stronger since Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck. The storms seemed to have sparked a renewed island spirit that’s led to scores of new businesses, many of them helmed by native-born entrepreneurs reinvesting in their homeland.

Colorful wall murals dot the Santurce neighborhood.
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Among them are two award-winning chefs, José Enrique and José Santaella, both of whom have made their Santurce restaurants (which bear their respective names) anchors of San Juan’s gastronomic renaissance.

But there are so many genuinely delicious restaurants cropping up in the city. One smart way to sample some of the best local fare is on Spoon Food Tours’ (spoonfoodtours.com) new Loíza Food and Street Art tour. The itinerary covers Santurce’s longtime-favorite spots like Kasalta, San Juan’s beloved cafeteria and bakery — made even more famous when President Barack Obama joined the governor for lunch there in 2011.

Competing murals can be seen in a single glance in Santurce.
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Strolling past street murals painted by Puerto Rican artists adds color to a Loíza visit, where you can stop along Calle Loíza for unforgettable vegetarian dishes and drinks at Cocobana Café; fish tacos and local brews at Pal West surf bar; Puerto Rican and Korean dishes at Volando Bajito; and delectably inventive treats at Double Cake bakery. More traditional fare is the highlight of Ana’s Café, whose namesake owner/ chef makes some of the island’s best mofongo (mashed fried plantains) and other homestyle favorites.

At the converted shipping container that now anchors an open-air café, Tresbé puts suave twists on simple foods, like the tamarind-BBQ wings, catch-of-the-day fish skewers, and empanadillas with fillings like octopus and conch. Tresbé owner and local celebrity chef Mario Ormaza shares the terrace restaurant with a craft-cocktail and juice bar as well as fresh Japanese eatery Dospalillos. Ormaza has also built a strong following at his bistro Sabrina and his Caribbean-traditional Azucena Fonda, each across the street from Tresbé.

A view of San Juan’s Condado.
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Local historian and Spoon guide Pablo Garcia Smith is the Loíza food tour’s enthusiastic champion. He said Santurce’s booming culinary scene began around 2012, leading to at least 25 new restaurants opening in the compact neighborhood in the past few years. Thankfully, longtime treasured haunts like pocket-sized bar Nancy’s Place and Murphy’s Law Irish Pub are still going strong.

Condado, too, is seeing a surge of new and rebuilt businesses in recent years. In 2017, the new AC Hotel by Marriott (achotels.marriott.com/hotels/ac-hotel-san-juan-condado) opened in a newly converted beachside tower, featuring a rooftop pool and lounge, plus the speakeasy-style Spanish restaurant La Bodeguita de Manolo.

One of several Marriott Hotels on the Condado.
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In central Condado, just steps from Oasis Lounge, the Marriott San Juan Resort & Casino (marriott.com/hotels/travel/sjupr-san-juan-marriott-resort-and-stellaris-casino) will soon wrap a $30-million renovation of its 556 rooms and suites, nearly all with private balconies. The hotel has a prime spot on the beach and a sprawling pool area, plus live salsa music Thursday through Sunday at its Red Coral Lounge as well as the refined oceanside restaurant Gingambo.

Tourists often consider Old San Juan the place to soak up original Puerto Rico. And while the area remains a landmark district full of Instagram-worthy architecture, it too has been re-energized in recent years. Among the highlights are the irresistibly inventive ice pops of Señor Paleta, and the craft cocktails of La Factoría, which have earned it world’s-best-bar accolades far and wide (as does its Santurce tiki-style offshoot, Jungle Bird). Meanwhile, restaurants like Bluefin Scratch Kitchen, serving Puerto Rican–Asian fusion dishes, are redefining the ways local ingredients are interpreted for traditional cuisine.

The Tresbé open-air café in a converted shipping container on Calle Loíza.
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There’s an unstoppable force that fuels Puerto Rico. It could be the soul-restoring Caribbean sun or the inspiring food that’s being cultivated island-wide. Or, more likely, it’s the natural enchantment that earned the island’s nickname and the pride of place that makes anyone who arrives in Puerto Rico feel wonderfully at home.

Kelsy Chauvin is a writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, specializing in travel, culture and LGBTQ interests. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @kelsycc.

The Oasis Lounge in central Condado.
KELSY CHAUVIN

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