San Juan is full of surprises. Off the beaten path, you’ll find stunning collections of artwork and a historic area café that serves a delicious, authentic Puerto Rican coffee roast.
San Juan keeps surprising us. Two urban finds we recently discovered are the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico (MAPR) dedicated to the island’s visual arts and Espresso Art Finca Cialitos, a historic area café devoted to serving Puerto Rican coffee picked according to standards the owner learned at his grandfather’s farm.The 130,000-square foot museum opened in 2000 in Santurce, a San Juan district typically off the tourist trail. Come to the MAPR for the galleries, the sculpture garden and to dine at Laurel Kitchen: Art Bar, the trendy restaurant operated by chef owner Mario Pagán.
The MAPR’s collection of 1,100 works dates from the 17th to the 21st centuries. The permanent exhibit provides a perspective on Puerto Rican art by detailing Mexican, American and European influences and also by showcasing paintings and prints that reflect the island’s politics, geography and culture.
Viewing the works in this context offered new insight. To the traditional portrait of the Spanish governor’s daughters, noted 18th century painter José Campeche added the island touches of a pineapple and a maraca. Francisco Oller, a 19th century artist, positioned soursops, an island fruit, at the center of his still life.
In the poster gallery, circa 1950-1970, see how island silkscreen artists manipulated design and color to convey educational messages and movie themes, and later, political commentary. In a 1994 mixed media installation No Crying Allowed in the Barbershop, Pepón Osario staged a New York City shop whose hubcap-lined walls, pool table, and mural size “tattoo” of roses encircled with “Perdóname Madre” (Excuse me, Mother) convey machismo mixed with mawkishness.
The 2.5 acre sculpture garden is a serene spot with a pond and waterfall. Contemporary pieces bloom amid the bamboo, ferns and palms. For children, the MAPR offers activARTE, a colorful, interactive space where kids can draw and paint. At select times, the museum hosts family programs.
Unlike many museum restaurants, Laurel serves tasty fare. Iron Chef participant Mario Pagán labels his food as the “new Caribbean cuisine,” one that adds fresh, native ingredients to international items. We recommend the sirloin steak served with a sweet plantain mousse and red wine reduction.
For another authentic island taste, stop by Espresso Art Finca Cialitos, Old San Juan. To serve a truly Puerto Rican cup of coffee, owner Joaquin Pastor selects only certain beans, hand-picked from his grandfather’s farm and from the fields of a few other local growers.
Pastor roasts the beans in the back of his shop. “We do not use flavors – vanilla, hazelnut – to hide the defects of the coffee,” said Pastor. “Puerto Rican coffee has traces of chocolate. In a balanced roast, you can taste a little bit of chocolate.”
The coffee, like the day of island finds, is delicious.
A note about Zika. Puerto Rico appears to have a handle on the problem. The number of confirmed new cases throughout the entire island has dropped considerably, from an October 2016 peak of 5,317 to 502 cases on December 16.
Nonetheless, avoid Puerto Rico if you’re pregnant or if you and your partner are thinking about becoming pregnant. Travelers should heed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s advice that includes using mosquito repellant and wearing long sleeves
You need to make your own informed decision about visiting Puerto Rico and other affected Caribbean islands. If you do decide to travel, you will find plenty of good deals.