Exploring Old San Juan and the notorious La Perla

As explained in my previous post about a crazy plane journey from Jamaica to Dominica, (link here -http://tinyurl.com/zu5wxp5), I was stuck in Puerto Rico for two nights due to a cancelled flight.

Most people on the flight were in a complete state of panic and distress that this was happening, but I found it kind of funny and the big plus side for me was that it meant I’d have a day to explore San Juan, a city in Puerto Rico.

It was about 9am by the time I’d sorted everything out at the airport for my new flight etc, and I’d booked a hostel for San Juan for the night. I didn’t want to spend much more money because I’d already lost a lot from the flight cancellation, so I decided to try and take the local bus to San Juan instead of a taxi.

With the help of a few of the airport staff, I successfully located the bus stop and had the exact change in my hand to pay the driver (I went to an airport bank to change a $5 note into separate change). I honestly think I have a guardian angel who always makes me meet the right people because after a few minutes at the bus stop, a girl who looked about my age appeared and asked the other lady sitting there if she knew what time a certain bus would come.

In the end, the three of us started talking together, and it turned out the Puerto Rican girl my age works in the airport in Starbucks and had just finished her shift. I explained to her what I was doing, and she said her girlfriend was about to pick her up and they’d happily give me a lift to my hostel.

I didn’t even think twice about accepting or not. People’s kindness when I’m travelling never ceases to amaze me, and I think it’s quite easy to tell (normally), using your instincts, if someone is genuine or not. She definitely was.

Her girlfriend drove us to her workplace (a supermarket) and started her shift, then the girl from the bus stop started driving me to San Juan. She even went a longer way just so that she could drive past certain landmarks and explain their history to me, like a tour.

We had the name and address of the hostel but it was practically invisible from the street. If you ever book to stay in the hostel called Posada San Francisco, be warned that it is not easy to find! You have to just go to the San Francisco street and then ask people until someone directs you to a random small doorway between two restaurants.

After locating the strange door while my new friend waited in her car, I went back to say goodbye/thank you, and we wrote each other’s Facebook names in our phones so we’d be able to add each other on there.

After you walk in through the small door, things don’t really get much easier with regards to finding the hostel. This is what you see when you go in:

It was completely deserted and slightly creepy, and to me looked nothing like a backpackers hostel. After going around the bottom floor searching for a sign or entrance, I found nothing so decided to venture up the stairs.

They seemed to be never ending, but I had no choice but to keep walking up. I passed floor after floor of random things, primarily law offices… and eventually, on the top floor, I found myself in the hostel reception, thank God!!

The hostel was clean and the front desk staff seemed helpful. Here are some pictures of my room (4-bed female dorm) and the view from the balcony beside the kitchen and common area:

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As you can see, the view was pretty decent and the location is very central, perfect for exploring San Juan. I decided to go on a hunt for some (vegan) lunch, hoping to find some kind of ‘hole-in-the-wall’ or shack type of place serving cheap Puerto Rican food. After about two minutes of wandering around, I realised that this was unlikely and that I’d unknowingly come to a place where pretty much everything is aimed at tourists.

Almost every restaurant I walked past had someone outside trying to lure me in with happy hour cocktails or something similar, and to be honest my heart kind of sunk when it dawned on me that it was actually going to be potentially hard to discover the ‘real’ (not for tourists) Puerto Rico during my short time there.

I decided to ask some taxi drivers where they go for takeaways, explaining to them that I was interested in eating where Puerto Ricans eat, rather than an expensive restaurant for tourists. They seemed happy that I was speaking to them in Spanish and wanted to taste their country’s food, and they showed me their favourite place.

Unfortunately I don’t remember the exact name, but it had ‘Taste’ in it somewhere – something like ‘Tastees’. Anyway, just do what I did and ask a working class local person to show you their favourite spot.

It was a small cafe type of place with a lot of different options behind the counter, so you just tell them which ones you want in your takeaway container. Most things contained meat so I just got rice, beans and plantain. In case you want this, rice and beans in Puerto Rico is called ‘arroz y habichuelas’, and ripe fried plantain is called ‘amarillos’ (literally ‘yellows’). I paid $5 US and most meals with meat there are $7 US, a lot cheaper than the restaurants I’d previously passed which were more in the $20 range.

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I sat on the cafe’s outdoor chairs for a while, trying to just people watch and maybe learn something just by observing. I soon realised I was sitting almost next to one of the ‘trolley stops’.

Basically, San Juan has a ‘trolley system’ made by the government for the convenience of tourists. In my head, a trolley is that metal thing you push around the supermarket, but apparently that’s not what their trolley system refers to.

The trolleys are basically some trailers with seating being towed along by a driver at the front. They remind me of those ‘trains’ at funfairs and theme parks which go really slowly to drive children and their parents around the park, sometimes with noises to imitate actual trains. Honestly the trolleys look exactly like those ‘trains’, except they aren’t painted to fool children into thinking they’re real trains. I found it so funny seeing these little trolleys driving on proper roads with proper cars, being overtaken by everything except the other trolleys.

They’re free for everyone, so this means local people can use them too, even though they were invented for tourists. They go around Old San Juan, stopping at the trolley stops to pick up and let off passengers. There are no doors so you just step on or step off whenever you want. The trolley stops tend to be next to the main attractions – the castles and ruins from colonial times etc. There are several trolleys going round at one time, so the chances are you won’t be waiting at a trolley stop for more than about 10 minutes. Even though they look hilarious, I think it’s a clever idea.

I decided to hop onto a trolley after finishing my food and I stayed on it for a whole lap of the circuit. It passed some impressive looking castles, and a few museums, but honestly I didn’t book a hostel in San Juan so I could spend a day looking at castles. I was hoping for a bit more of an adventure than that. Strangely, in the picturesque and touristy Old San Juan, I noticed a kind of ghetto-looking community almost right next to one of the castles, but down at the beach level rather than up on the street level.

I was pretty sure it was the famous (famously bad) La Perla, but I decided to go back to the hostel and do some research using the WiFi to find out some more information and to make a decision on if I should go and explore it or not.

I figured that by going into a community full of Puerto Ricans, I would engage in some interesting conversations with them about how their lives are, what their opinions are on their politicians etc., but I had to decide if it was worth the risk or not, which is why I went back to Google the information rather than just heading straight down there.

Google confirmed that it is La Perla, and that it’s famous for being a crime hotspot full of cocaine and other drugs. Some sources even stated that it’s not shown on the maps that are given out, so that tourists won’t be tempted to go there because they hopefully wouldn’t know it exists.

However, I found one article written by a travel blogger who appeared to have similar values to me (discover the ‘hidden’ aspects of each country, go to the places most people don’t go etc.). He wrote about when he went to La Perla against the advice of everyone he knew, and he said it seemed fine and the people there were friendly (although he did go with a local person who knew people from there, so he was definitely at an advantage.)

I just thought to myself “well if this travel blogger guy can do it, then so can I!”

Sometimes my adventurous spirit takes over and I just lose my sense of fear/worry. Going on adventures is basically what gives me my ‘kicks’, so I can’t really help it.

I only took about $10 US with me and hid it in my underwear so people wouldn’t see that I had any money, and I decided to leave my phone in the hostel but take my camera with me, because I’d rather my camera be stolen than my phone (it’s not a particularly expensive camera). I also did my best to hide that in my clothes… and off I went (without telling anyone where I was going, of course, because they would just try to dissuade me.)

I passed a castle/ruin on the way up so decided to be a civilised tourist for about 10 minutes and take some photos:

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If you’re here with children, don’t let them near the edges. Look how high up I was with absolutely nothing to stop people falling over the edge, not even a sign or rope:

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You can actually see La Perla from these ruins, so I peered down there for about 5 minutes first, just to make sure there wasn’t any crazy fight going on at that time or anything:

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There are various steps leading down to La Perla at different points along the road. I took the ones that take you down to the basketball court, and then I walked across the basketball court to get into the rest of the community. From what I could see, it was mainly made up of three streets – one by the beach, one in the middle and one nearer to the stairs etc.

I started on the middle street and found a fruit man (my favourite type of man!) so I bought some oranges from him, partly because I wanted fruit but also partly because I wanted to engage in conversation with someone from the community. It worked, and we chatted for 5 minutes and then he showed me his friend’s billiards bar where I then hung out for about 20 minutes with the owner who gave me free beer, even though the bar technically hadn’t opened for the day yet.

The bar owner was really interested to hear about how I was backpacking around the Caribbean etc., and he was happy to answer my questions about Puerto Rico and La Perla. Both he and the fruit man told me I could walk around the community without any problems and that I should keep walking and chat to some more people. They also directed me to a cool mini skate park on the street by the beach because they thought I might like to see it and take some pictures etc.

With regards to pictures, while I was there (apart from at the skate park), I only took my camera out while I was pretty sure no one could see me. Here’s the skate park. I thought the street art was cool:

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The bar man had now left me, so I thought this was a good moment to go along the street by the beach. It was quite quiet – different from the ghetto communities in Jamaica where I’d see kids playing outside and people drinking rum and playing dominoes. I wasn’t really sure how the vibe was… It was hard to tell because I honestly didn’t see many people. I didn’t feel terrified, but I definitely felt like I had to be alert etc., and I used my ‘purposeful, fast-paced, don’t-mess-with-me, I-know-where-I’m-going’ walking style that I perfected in Jamaica.

Nothing much happened on that street, except I took a few more photos and saw an absolutely enormous lizard which looked like some kind of creature from a horror movie that would end up taking over the world, and I said hello to a couple of passing people. One guy I said hello to told me to be careful and that I shouldn’t stay there long, but I thought to myself “well I’ve seen two out of the three streets, so I can’t exactly leave before seeing the third, seeing as I’ve come this far already”…

As I walked around the corner to enter the third street, the one nearest to the stairs and the road, I could see that it was a lot busier than the other two streets and there were quite a few groups of young men hanging out on the corners. I didn’t really have time to analyse the situation… I just continued as planned.

As soon as people caught sight of me walking onto the street, I heard shouts of “weed? Weed?” and “Hi baby, cocaine?” etc. coming from various directions. Obviously I was a bit startled… I mean, I’ve been offered drugs before but never by so many people at once, and never so loudly in broad daylight.

I soon realised that all the groups of boys on this street were selling drugs. They were mostly covered in tattoos and looked like the gangster characters from reggaeton music videos (probably because they are quite gangster, sitting on the street with hundreds of dollars  worth of cocaine IN THEIR HANDS). I’m not even joking, a lot of the men had plastic, transparent containers with dividers in them, like something you might use to store different types of beads if you make jewellery, and each section had different drugs in it (or different sized bags of the same drug).

It was honestly like something from a movie, and I couldn’t believe I was standing in the middle of it. I was literally just astonished. One of the “weed, weed” guys started walking along with me, flirting with me and asking what country I’m from etc., and he was clearly very high and he had a really serious demeanour about him which made me feel slightly uncomfortable, but I was still intrigued by the situation, to be honest.

I answered his questions and he then stopped by a group of guys sitting on some steps, and then they all started firing questions and very sexual, explicit ‘compliments’ at me. Obviously in my head I was like “Zoe, you really shouldn’t be here”, but at the same time, I couldn’t exactly just run away, and I didn’t feel like they were literally about to kidnap me… I just felt like I would never ever ever want to be in a room alone with them. I kept telling myself “ok, I’m just gonna stay two more minutes and then wait for an appropriate break in the conversation, and then tell them I have to go”

I’m always interested in finding out how other people’s lives are different from my own etc., so normally when I meet people who clearly lead a very different life from me, I’m not afraid to ask them questions about what they do etc. Normally people seem to be happy to discuss it, even if what they do isn’t legal, so naturally I started asking things like “so, how much would you normally sell that bag of weed for?” and “what would happen if the police drove past now?” etc.

Although the boys were really talkative when it came to flirty conversation and asking me about myself, they were incredibly secretive when it came to my questions. They were almost angry that I was even asking, which I found a bit weird considering they were literally holding the drugs in their hands for everyone to see, so the activity wasn’t exactly being done undercover.

They refused to even tell me how much a bag of weed would cost, and during one of my questions, one of them suddenly interrupted and pointed to the bottom of my shirt where you could see that I was hiding something underneath it (the key card for my hostel dorm). He looked alarmed and asked me “is that a phone?! What is that?!” in a kind of accusing manner.

Once I explained it was just a key, he seemed to be more relaxed, but it was clear that they genuinely thought I might be an undercover journalist or someone related to the police or someone looking for information to expose them. Throughout my travels, I’ve met a lot of people who do ‘bad’ things, but none of them ever seemed particularly concerned about what they were doing until I met those boys in La Perla. I guess it suggests that they were part of something quite serious.

At one point, a car was seen driving towards us from the other end of the street. As SOON as they saw it coming up in the distance, even though it looked like a cheap and regular car, they all (except one) ran into the nearest building (a bar). I was confused for a second and thought maybe I should hide as well, but then I figured they just didn’t want to risk being seen by this unknown car driver who could technically also be someone linked to the police.

After the car passed, they came back out and went about their business. I probably stayed on that street for about half an hour, and then I decided I’d learnt enough for one day and should probably leave before anything bad happens, so in an appropriate break in the conversation, I said goodbye to the boys and good luck with everything etc.

To leave La Perla, I had to walk all the way down the rest of the street (where the car came from) where I hadn’t walked yet, and I knew I had to pass more groups of drug boys, but there was no choice. As I passed the other groups, ALL eyes were on me, and I can’t lie, I was a bit nervous, but I just used my well-practiced ‘confident walk’ and light-heartedly and politely declined their offers of heroin and weed, at the same time as telling them I had somewhere to be so couldn’t stay and chat.

The offers of heroin were accompanied by the dealer slapping the top of his arm (where you would inject it, I guess) in quite an aggressive manner, and honestly I was quite relieved when I reached the main street outside of La Perla.

My heartbeat finally slowed down when I was back in the hostel. I’d previously planned to search for a hole-in-the-wall type place for dinner, but after the La Perla experience, I’d had enough adrenaline rushes for one day and I was ready to pretend to be a normal tourist for an evening. I made friends (temporary hostel friends) with some guys from America and had a beer with them on the balcony:

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I joined them for dinner at a Mexican themed restaurant and had an early night. My experience in La Perla satisfied my desire for adventure so much that I even decided to miss out on the ‘try and find the bus to the airport’ adventure the next morning and used my last cash to take a taxi instead.

I don’t really know what to say about whether I would advise you to go to La Perla or not. I guess you can make your own decision based on what you just read. If you do go, and you do decide to bring a phone or camera, just make sure you only take pictures when no one can see you, and hide it when people are there. I hid my camera in the plastic bag full of oranges I bought from the fruit man. If you go there, go with an open mind and try and see the good aspects as well as the unfortunate ones. Here are some of the photos I took while no one was looking:

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2 thoughts on “Exploring Old San Juan and the notorious La Perla

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