Every January, San Juan, Puerto Rico, opens up its historic streets to host one of the world’s largest and liveliest three-day festivals. Named after the Christian saint who was martyred due to his faith, the festival is a must for anyone visiting San Juan, and a destination for Puerto Ricans from all over the island. With street vendors peddling food and trinkets, magic shows and art displays, and several different kinds of music, there’s never a dull moment at SanSe. Of course, with every humongous street festival comes significant challenges and concerns. Here’s a list of things you don’t want—but need—to hear to play it safe and cool at San Sebastian.
Dress appropriately… seriously
It may not sound hip, but this is one place you’ve got to wear tennis shoes. Wear flip flops all day, everywhere, until you get to SanSe, and then trade them in for those ugly New Balance sneakers you never wear. The festival takes place in the streets of Old San Juan. This part of town is world famous for its old and original blue cobblestone streets. And let me reiterate – old. It’s cool and all, but the streets are in terrible shape because of it, and to avoid a lot of pain when stepping on chunks of cobblestone and tripping on the uneven pavement, tennis shoes are best. Also, this is essentially a time for people to get way too drunk out in the streets, and that leaves for a million and one ways for them to get disgusting, fast. My friend lost her flip-flops in a crowd and had to go barefoot for the rest of the night, and I still shudder at the thought.
The busiest areas, like Calle San Sebastian and the Plaza Quinto Centenario, consist of shoulder-to-shoulder people. At times, when you’re stuck in the crowd trying to move, you are going to feel literally squeezed, and hopefully you’re not carrying the overflowing nachos and cheese you just bought while trying to make your way, like I was. This is a pickpocket’s paradise, and why I suggest that if you have to bring anything of value with you at all, you wear a drawstring backpack to keep it in. Purses and pockets are too easily tampered with, and at least a drawstring bag can’t be gotten into while it is on your back.
Don’t try to hide the tourist that you are
You are a tourist and everyone knows it, so just accept that, relax, and do your thing. Luckily, almost everyone speaks at least a little English, so you can be that obnoxious tourist who doesn’t know the native language and not feel totally bad about yourself. That being said, it wouldn’t hurt you to employ the little Spanish everyone does know, because hola and gracias can go a long way at restaurants and stores.
Because of the sheer size of a festival like this, parking is a nightmare. The center of the city is completely off limits to parking, so you have to park very far away on sometimes less-than-desirable streets. Locals may want to charge you for a parking space, even if they have no right to do so or any claim to the spot, and it’s probably in your best interest to indulge them and fork over the funds to save yourself from getting into any unwanted trouble.
Back at the heart of the festival, though, when the crowds get to be too much and you need a break, duck down a side street that’s less busy. Then, head into one of the many great shops that San Juan has to offer and get all of those souvenirs that acquaintances made you promise to get them. The stores will be significantly less busy because most people are outside, and you can easily navigate all the Puerto Rican candies, jewelry, and small instruments. It might even be cooler in there, because nighttime in January could be hot and sticky in the high 80s. Places to stay away from: bars. Get your drinks and get out. All the bars are blasting their music at full volume to be heard clearly by all out on the street. Bless those bartenders’ eardrums, because I don’t know how they do it.
Pick a bench and pop a squat
Guillermo, the head chef at The Parrot Club in San Juan, told me that what makes this festival great is how it brings everyone from every class and every walk of life together, and it’s true. No “type” of person typically attends this festival, which means it is a prime people-watching opportunity. If you can seize an open bench and get comfortable, you can see some amazing sights. Puerto Ricans have a lot of pride, and it’s actually pretty moving to watch little groups start to congregate and sing songs together while waving the Puerto Rican flag. Also, a significant number of people like to bring their pets. You’ll find a fair number of dogs, sure, but keep your eyes peeled for lizards, and for snakes casually wrapped around the shoulders of nonchalant patrons.
Puerto Rico is one of the friendliest places I’ve ever been, and anyone who sits down next to you will more than likely be friendly enough to have a lengthy conversation with you. During my two weeks there, I encountered at least three people from the American mainland who told me that they came to the island on vacation and loved it so much that they never returned home. And if you can make it through the San Sebastian Festival without incident, you might just find that you feel the same way.