San Juan, Puerto Rico has a heartbeat. It’s a throbbing thump-thump, thump-thump, like an isolation of favorite son Tito Puente’s drumbeat in his Mambos. Only this beats a little faster. If Puente’s rhythm matched the human heart at rest, this is its running equivalent. The pulsing thump-thump follows me around the city.
When I check in to La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort, it’s after midnight and a pool party is being serenaded by a live DJ. The beat reverberates through the lobby. It ripples through the floor. I can feel it in my bones. The lyrics fall away as I enter the elevator and ride to the top floor, but the base keeps the same thump-thump. The sound follows me to my room. It’s insistent, a demanding siren call, beckoning locals and tourists alike to pick up a drink and hit a dance floor. The beat echoes in my ears all night, becoming more of a pressure of sound waves than an actual noise. I fall asleep, but the beat infiltrates my dreams.
One of two pools at La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort
By the morning I’m pretty sure my heartbeat has changed. It now keeps time with the music exuding from the Condado Beach resorts and playing on my Uber driver’s radio as he drives to Old San Juan. At Plaza del Quinto Centenario, I climb the steps to the thump-thump, thump-thump. There’s no music here, but my brain keeps it going like the ghost buzz of a cell phone already turned off.
I arrive at the Totem Telurico, a clay sculpture that towers 40 feet into the air, which was designed by Puerto Rican artist Jaime Suarez for the island’s 500-year anniversary celebration. It honors the Indigenous people of the Americas. Not far away are colonial fortifications, embodying the forces that displaced or enslaved so many native to the Americas. Out over the open ocean rises the first of many rainbows I see on my visit, like a queer welcome to the island.
A rainbow flag flies over Old San Juan
The Old San Juan Walk & Taste tour from Spoon (thespoonexperience.com) starts daily at 10 a.m., which to San Juan’s night owls passes as perfect for “early birds.” The three-hour tour keeps a brisk pace, but makes regular stops to enjoy delicious Puerto Rican treats. As we walk, our guide shares Puerto Rican history and architecture, and while we nibble and sip, explains the Taíno Indian, African, and Spanish influences on the island’s gastronomy. Although the food is delicious, it’s the drinks that move me: the locally grown, freshly roasted, small batch, hand-picked coffee at Café Don Ruiz is smooth and sweet with chocolate undertones; the local rum drinks delicious; but the chocolate martini at Casa Cortes ChocoBar is exquisite. The tasting tour is truly a delicious way to immerse in Puerto Rican culture and history.
Resorts along Condado Beach
After the tour, as I walk on the beach, I pass a number of queer couples. I’ve traveled frequently in the Caribbean, but this was my first time on the island. I’m struck not just by gay men who walked the streets holding hands but also by the number of Black lesbians I see poolside and lounging on La Concha beach chairs. The Condado area is known as one of the city’s gayborhoods and feels much like similar districts in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Poke salad at Condado Ocean Club
After a delicious dinner at Serafina, I walk to Oasis Tapas & Lounge, a queer bar just off the beach. It reminds me of a dive bar from my Idaho youth. Fewer than a handful sit at the bar. It’s 10 p.m., early here, and Oasis is known as a place to start the night before moving on to more lively venues like SX The Club (a gay stripper bar) or Toxic Night Club (dance club & drag lip synch battles). In between, visit Tia Maria Jose de Diego (formerly Tia Maria’s Liquor Store) or El Techo Rooftop Bar, both in Santurce, San Juan’s other queer quarter.
Condado Ocean Club suite
The next day I move to La Concha’s sister property, Condado Ocean Club. Just a short walk up the road, the Condado feels a world away. The thump-thump, thump-thump of the pool parties fades away. At the smaller adults-only Condado, my room has a generous balcony overlooking the ocean. The beach here gives way to rocks, and the soundtrack that plays is a natural one of surf crashing. A storm blows in, offering another rainbow. I leave the sliding door open to enjoy the bouquet of ocean and rain. The romantic setting of the Condado, and its SOCIAL restaurant is perfect for couples.
Mangroves in nearby Condado Lagoon
On my last day I take advantage of Condado and La Concha’s sibling status to soak my aching legs (all that walking!) in the latter’s hot tub, drink piña coladas, and lounge on a deck chair. I head back to Condado to meet Betsy Mujica, the resort’s director of sales. Over lunch at the resort’s Sandbox, the spunky Mujica tells me of a new LGBTQ+ nightclub her gay friends are raving about. Kweens Klub was opened by Christian J. Marcano and Dr. Jesus Hernandez-Burgos, two former queens. It features drag pageants and shows, and a large dance floor where the Puerto Rican heartbeat thumps three nights a week.
This piece initially appeared in Out Traveler print issue Summer 2022.