Saturday Night At The El San Juan

By Ron Bernthal

“The action in San Juan doesn’t begin until long after the sun sets,” says Jose Cedeno, a 24 year-old Puerto Rican from the Santurce district of San Juan.

It is close to eleven on a recent Saturday night and Jose is primping in front of the full-length mirror in his parent’s suburban-style ranch house. His boom box belts out merengue as Mayito, Jose’s 16 year-old sister, dances around the room, often stopping in mid-step to call out of the open window to her friends on the street, her high-pitched Spanish lifting several screeching decibels above the music.

“Perhaps we are lazy during the hot days,” Jose says, “but at night in San Juan everyone goes out dancing.”

Well, not everyone. Sebastian and Carolyn Cedeno are in their living room, trying to watch TV above the din, and Mr. Cedono’s 85 year-old mother is bent over the kitchen sink, scraping the bottom of a cooking pot.

Outside the house, beyond the stunted palm in the front yard, past the locked metal gate, the street activity is frenetic– small kids ride bikes in speeding convoys, teenagers sit on the hoods of cars, smoking cigarettes and discussing sex, twenty-something girls, with long black hair and skimpy little black dresses, patrol the street corners in tight wolf packs, awaiting boy friends to come by with cars, and adults stroll arm-in-arm, taking a late-night paseo in the sultry winter evening.

Some of the young couples will soon drift over to nearby nightclubs and discos, places like Planetarium, Egipto, La New York, and the El Recreo Club. Others, the young and attractive Puerto Ricans who shun jeans and t-shirts on Saturday nights, have some money in their pockets, and perhaps the keys to a sporty BMW or Jeep Cherokee, will drive to Isla Verde Avenue, near the airport, and spend the rest of the night in a hotel lobby.

Yes, a hotel lobby! Although technically it is a “lobby,” the first floor public space at the Wyndham El San Juan Hotel has been the “in” place of the moment for several years now, the trendiest gathering spot for thousands of Sanjuaneros seeking the best party in town.

From the San Juan neighborhoods of Miramar and Ocean Park, Monte Flores and San Juan Antiguo, from the tourist hotels along the beach in Condado, and from the outlying towns of Bayamon, Rio Piedras and Dorado, locals and tourists flock to the 13,248 square-foot Palm Court lobby of the El San Juan.

Now known as one of the grandest resorts in the Caribbean, the hotel was opened by Pan-American Airways in 1958, under Pan Am’s trademark Inter-Continental hotel group. In those days, the area around San Juan’s airport was underdeveloped and run-down, but with the introduction later that year of the first jet plane service from New York to Puerto Rico, the hotel’s 300 rooms were soon filled with sun-starved tourists from the Northeast. San Juan quiukly became a glamorous and exotic Caribbean destination, an inexpensive island where the lure of American culture, Spanish history, and warm Christmas weather attracted millions of visitors.

The property became the El San Juan Hotel & Casino three years later, and thrived during the economic boom of the 1960’s. In the hotel’s famous Tropicoro Club entertainers like Sammy Davis, Jr., Nat King Cole, Eddie Fisher., the Supremes, Johnny Mathis, and Paul Anka helped create an atmosphere similar to Las Vegas.

The Tropicoro itself was a glitzy silver rendition of Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rain forest, decorated with silver vines and concealed shower heads, where light “rain” would sometimes fall from the “jungle” overhead.

The high-life came to an end in the mid-1970’s when the Middle East oil embargo cut deeply into tourist arrivals, and other Caribbean islands began to compete for vacationing Americans. By 1978 the hotel went belly up, finally closing its doors in 1980.

In 1984 a private San Juan-based hotel company bought the property for $7 million at a sheriff’s sale, and then spent another $50 million restoring the El San Juan to its former splendor. The hotel reopened in 1985 with 389 rooms, and has been a Caribbean favorite ever since. It was recently purchased by Wyndham Resorts, but through all the changes, the hotel still manages to exude an atmosphere of luxurious tropical decadence.

The lobby, with its hand-carved cherry mahogany panels and columns, 250 year-old French tapestries, and rose-colored Carrera Italian marble floors evoke images of 1940’s Havana, or the time when guests like Elizabeth Taylor, Rita Hayworth, and Liza Minelli would sweep through the lobby, followed by an adoring entourage and hundreds of pieces of luggage.

By midnight, the Palm Court Bar is a beehive of activity with well-dressed politicos, yuppie couples, single men and women giving each other the once over, glassy-eyed tourists from Connecticut and Virginia who seem lost amid the background hum of salsa and fast Spanish, and grim Mafia-looking types, laden down with heavy jewelry, cell phones, and thick wallets, all topped off with layers of hair spray.

As the centerpiece of the lobby, set down one step from floor level, the bar is enclosed by a brass railing. Suspended above the bar, which has been called one of the most beautiful hotel bars in the world, is a 144 square-foot chandelier, constructed in Czechoslovakia in the late 19 th -century, with 1,000 lights and 5,000 dangling crystals.

Surrounding the Palm Court Bar are numerous other activity centers, each with its own dynamics and crowd. The Bistro is a sit-down desert cafe, serving hand-made chocolates, and a variety of coffees and liquors. The Cigar Bar, with its unique ventilation system, is packed with customers buying Cohiba cigars, vodka Martinis, and Louis IVX cognac. Private humidors here rent for $1250 per year, if you could get one. At the El Chico, a cozy dance club that opens onto the lobby floor, the house band “Extasis” performs the best latino music on the island, and in between all these venues other parties are forming, often involving strangers, who come together for impromptu dancing on the marble floor. And strolling throughout the lobby are beautiful, buxom young women, in low-cut dresses and high heels, selling cigarettes and cigars from old-fashioned 1940’s style body-trays.

At one end of the lobby the James Bond Casino draws in the high rollers, as well as the $5 blackjack players. Open until 6 a.m., the casino has been featured in several James Bond films, and is the largest and busiest casino on the island.

At the other end of the lobby a long line has formed for Club Babylon, a below lobby-level disco. Jose Cedeno had said it was the hottest spot in Puerto Rico, and now he stands with friends at the end of a long ling that snakes its way our of the lobby door, and under the swaying palms by the side of the hotel’s swimming pool. When the young dancers reach the entrance door the bouncers make sure they conform to the strict dress code, which includes “No Camisas de Cuadros” and “No Prendas Exageradas.”

As the evening continues past three a.m., the ballrooms off the lobby floor are packed with other social gatherings, including an “el quinceanero” ceremony, celebrating Vivania Rivera’s 15 th birthday, and a festive group of employees from Supermercados Amigo, a large Puerto Rican supermarket chain, about to dine on four whole pigs roasting over charcoal grills.

In a nearby hotel corridor several restaurants are beginning to empty their tables, and the last tequila drinkers are coming down the elevator from the rooftop Tequila Bar & Grill, where the stunning view of the coastline is now tinged pink with the promise of sunrise.

It is close to five a.m. when Jose Cedeno leaves Babylon and hands his parking ticket to the valet. The drive back home, through the quiet Sunday morning streets of San Juan will take only 20 minutes, although on some mornings he will go with some friends to the nearby Golden Bagel Bakery for an early breakfast of bagels, lox and cappuccino.

It is difficult not to be mesmerized by the non-stop action in the El San Juan lobby.

The enthusiasm is contagious, and for people-watching, it just can’t be beat. Choose a two-person sofa, or a cushiony easy chair, order the popular Bloody Mary or Pina Colada, and feast on the colors, sounds, and dramatic gestures of the hottest place in San Juan.

Traveler’s update:

The Wyndham El San Juan Hotel & Casino is located just five minutes from the airport, with hotel vans providing complimentary shuttle service. Until April 30 th , high season rates are in effect, ranging from $325-495US per night. After May lst, room rates drop to $250-395. Lanai rooms and suites are also available. The hotel’s lobby, of course, is open to the public, but dress codes are enforced. In addition to the normal Saturday night lobby activities, Thursday and Friday nights are special “Havana Nights” with salsa and meringue dancing; and Sunday evenings feature the Puerto Rico Philharmonic Orchestra Pops Concert. (Room Reservations: 800-468-2818 )

For further information on visiting San Juan and Puerto Rico, contact the Puerto Tourism Company, 575 Fifth Avenue, 23 rd Floor, New York, NY 10017 (800-223-6530)

The province of Santurce:

The province of Santurce is a very popular tourist destination and is one of the highest populated places on the island. Other areas within the island include Miramar, Loiza and Isla Grande. It is known for its culture, its art, music, cuisine, fashion, multimedia, film and textiles. Around 94,067 people living in an area of 5.24 square miles which makes it one of the most densely populated areas of San Juan.

The night life differs to that of Western Europe. The city doesn’t liven up until much later, which gives people a lot of time to get ready, have a long pre-party, maybe play Party Poker or discuss where they want to go for the evening. Restaurants and shops stay open well in to the morning as a lot of people are out and about. Tourists can take advantage of this; during the day they can explore the art galleries and the University of Puerto Rico , the oldest university on the island and still have enough time in the evening to do other things.


© Ron Bernthal – No editorial content, portions of articles, or photographs from this site may be used in any print, broadcast, or Web-based format without written permission from the author or Web site developer.

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