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American Airlines Publishing
Benicio Del Toro's San Juan
by Mark Seal
BENICIO DEL TORO
He may be known for his smoldering, serious roles in film like The Usual Suspects, Traffic and the upcoming The Hunted, but this agile actor grew up in sunny San Juan. Tag along with him on a weekend in his Puerto Rican hometown.
This month, Benicio Del Toro returns to theaters in the thriller The Hunted, starring as an assassin hunted down by Tommy Lee Jones. Its been nothing but A-list jobs like this for Del Toro since his Oscar-winning turn in Steven Soderberghs 2000 masterpiece Traffic. But when it comes to artistic influences, Del Toro points not merely to his formal dramatic training, but the childhood days he spent in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Born in the Santurce section of the city, Del Toro, dressed in basketball shorts, would jump off a local bridge into the sea dozens of times a day, entertaining the tourists, and in the process, becoming a performer. When he later enrolled at the University of California in San Diego, he planned to become a lawyer like his father, but a freshman acting class led him back to the stage. Although this time it wasnt a bridge but a series of TV appearances (on shows like Miami Vice), then films like The Usual Suspects and Snatch, before striking Oscar gold in Traffic. Heres a weekend with Benicio Del Toro in his hometown of San Juan, the sunny capital of the Caribbean.
"El Convento, which used to be a convent, is in Old San Juan. Its a good hotel. If you want something larger, theres the Wyndham El San Juan. It has a big casino and a great beach, Isla Verde. I like the Condado Plaza. Its right on Condado Beach, which is one of the most famous beaches in the Caribbean. Numero Uno is an old guesthouse turned into a hotel. It has a restaurant called Pamelas. Its right on the beach and the food is very good. If you want to be mellow, theres the Horned Dorset Primavera Hotel. Thats more European. Theres no casino and the rooms have no phones, but they have really good service and a terrific restaurant. If youre going for golf, the Hyatt Dorado Beach Hotel & Country Club has two great 18-hole courses."
"I like the inside of the island. El Yunque, 45 minutes from San Juan, is beautiful. My dad has a little house in El Yunque, where I like to go and kick back. El Yunque is a rainforest on this little island, just green and tropical, junglelike. There are all kinds of paths where you can hike. There are hundreds of different tropical trees and the coqui, a small frog. Its protected national forest. You can also go to Rio Camuy Cave Park, which is hundred of acres of caves. Its pretty impressive."
"Theres The Parrot Club in Old San Juan. It has what they call new Latino cuisine. Its funky. Its loud. But really good food. Its a mixture of locals and tourists. The guy who owns it also has Dragonfly, an Asian-Latino place, right in front. I also like an Argentine restaurant called Buenos Aires. Great steaks and rice and beans. And not super-expensive."
"Theres a bar called Marias, which is fun. They make great banana daiquiris. Its on Calle del Cristo, where theres always some kind of nightlife. Old San Juan is pretty small. You can go from place to place and hear live music."
"All of Old San Juan was once a walled city. Every corner of it is interesting. Its got history. El Morro, the old fort, is pretty impressive. I dont think theres a fort in mainland U.S.A. that big, that old. So its a good sight to see. Theres a church, Porta Coeli, in San German, which is one of the oldest churches in the New World. And theres the capital, which is modeled after the one in Washington, D.C., but this ones right near the ocean."
Culture "The Museo de Arte, in a former hospital, is a great little museum. They show local art and they have shows from outside, too. Theres a restaurant in the museum thats fantastic. There are a lot of art galleries in Old San Juan. On the first Tuesday of every month, they have open galleries, where people can go in at night and see all the galleries. You just go from gallery to gallery. There are a lot of people on the street, and its throbbing with energy."
"Theres a hill in Santurce, where I grew up, called Miramar. Theres a hotel there called the Excelsior that has a good restaurant downstairs, called Augustos. Its an upscale, dressy kind of place."
"I like the beach at Ocean Park. Thats where everybody used to hang out. Its the one I know. I could walk from my house to there in no time. But any beach on Puerto Rico is beautiful, and the water is quite warm."
"There are a lot of shops in Old San Juan. But, when I need clothing, I go to Monsieur, in Condado, which is a good mens store. Plaza Las Americas is probably the biggest shopping mall in the Caribbean. Its huge and has everything."
"Via Appia is a good place to have pizza and a beer. Its in Condado, near the beach, where you can watch people go by. Right in front of Via Appia is Zabo, this old house they turned into a restaurant. The food is good and the atmosphere is really nice. They serve Puerto Rican food, but they get creative with their cuisine. Yukiyu is a good sushi place."
"I went to the casinos a little. Theres the Condado Plaza Casino. The El San Juan hotel has a good casino, probably the biggest on the island."
"I like going to La Bombonera. Its been around for a hundred years, maybe longer. For breakfast, its really packed. A lot of locals. You can get anything, but I like the mallorcas, which are bread and cheese with sugar on top. Its a type of doughnut thats terrific. Youll get fat quickly, but its good. Anyone who goes to San Juan should try one of those."
The island of Culebra
is really great. Its untouched, undeveloped. I went scuba diving there, and it was beautiful. The beaches are quiet and theres fluorescent water. It comes from microbes in the water, which, if you stir, light up like fireflies. You have to go when theres no moon. Its about an hour ride on a ferry. Vieques is beautiful, too. Its more isolated. Theres also Mona, which is sort of like the Galapágos Islands. There are species of animals that are only from that place. Theres an iguana from Mona and you can only find it on that tiny, deserted island, where you go to swim and see the animals. They have ferries going there. Its a trip, but its pretty impressive."
ONE SPECIAL DAY
I never really acted in Puerto Rico. I did all my acting on the street. I just had a kitsch, you know. Ill jump from the bridge. Gimme a dollar. Ill jump from here. I know theres someone who has a picture of me jumping from the bridge, which is called The Bridge of Two Brothers, that connects Old San Juan to Condado. People jump from that bridge into the ocean. Kids still do it, and I always stop and watch them jump. I was probably 11, 12 back then. There would be tourists there, and Id be going, Here I go! Watch me! I was just playing the clown. Id do it for the tourists, and Id do it for me, just to get those butterflies in my stomach. You could do it maybe 20, 30 times a day. People would take pictures and say, Jump again! Subconsciously, my desire to become an actor began in Puerto Rico.
Mark Seal is an American Way contributing editor whose work has also appeared in Vanity Fair, Esquire, Playboy, Time, and Town & Country