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The New York Times

A Rich Spanish Heritage, Good Snorkeling And A Very Convenient Airport


April 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The New York Times. All rights reserved. 

Puerto Rico -- like Guam and the United States Virgin islands -- is in a fuzzy middle ground of national identity. Its 3.9 million residents are American citizens, yet are unrepresented in Congress, making the statehood movement a perennial political hot potato. The language and heritage are Spanish, but the currency is the dollar, and visitors from the mainland do not need passports.

International companies, particularly those in the pharmaceutical industry, have long had factories in San Juan, though some of these have migrated to countries like Costa Rica and Mexico, which have cheaper labor and less restrictive employment laws.

One project generating a lot of buzz at the moment is the Tren Urbano, a $2.2 billion rail project begun in 1996 to ease highway congestion. Its first line is scheduled to open in the fall.


The LUIS MUNOZ MARIN INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT is practically on the the beaches of Isla Verde, and it is possible to have a meeting at your hotel a half hour after your flight lands. If you're heading downtown or to Old San Juan, the trip is still less than a half hour.

Bucking the trend of airports becoming destinations unto themselves, San Juan's is purely an in-and-out experience for most business travelers. ''I get to the airport a minute before the flight closes,'' said Manuel Ortiz, a political consultant in Washington. ''And even with the heightened security, the lack of long lines mean you can get to your gate in a few minutes.''


Andrea Torres, a real estate broker who caters to business people moving to San Juan, says the hotels in the Isla Verde section are a big part of the business culture of the island. ''I've signed many a contract in the lobby of the EL SAN JUAN,'' she said.

To experience the San Juan scene, some say, nothing beats the WYNDHAM EL SAN JUAN (787-791-1000, from $315). ''With dark mahogany paneling, huge chandeliers and live music in the lobby, it reminds me of what Havana must have been like pre-Castro,'' said Mark E. Evans, senior director of business administration with Siemens, who splits his time between San Juan and California. ''It's where the beautiful people of San Juan go to socialize.''

Mr. Ortiz, who travels frequently to San Juan, says he avoids Isla Verde and its traffic congestion, preferring the CARIBE HILTON (787-721-0303, from $170) between Condado and Old San Juan for its convenient location and private beach. ''It's central to Hato Rey, the business district, and Guaynabo, where all the yuppies now live,'' he said.

Carlos Nido, vice president for sales at El Nuevo Dia, the largest-circulation newspaper in Puerto Rico, puts out-of-towners doing business with his company in the EL CONVENTO (787-723-9020, from $160). A boutique hotel housed in a former convent that dates back to the 16th century, it is a good choice for people who prefer an urban, rather than a beachfront, setting. ''It's in the old city, and lets you get a taste of the culture,'' he said. ''The only bad thing is that it's hard to get in and out of Old San Juan, especially on a Friday night.''


For breakfast or a quick midday meal, stop at one of the panadarias, Spanish-style bakeries in neighborhood locations. ''These are the epitome of the Spanish influence in Puerto Rico,'' Mr. Ortiz said. ''With five bucks, you can get a sandwich, a Coke and dessert.'' One of his favorites is KASALTA (787-727-7340) in Condado.

Mr. Ortiz, the political consultant, says the spot for a power lunch is undoubtedly COMPOSTELA (787-724-6088, about $90 for lunch for two).

In Old San Juan, Mr. Evans suggests IL PERUGINO (787-722-5481, about $120 for dinner for two including wine and tip), an Italian restaurant in a historic building, for its ''local flair, a bit of fun, superb food and outstanding service,'' adding, ''You really get the feeling you're in another century.''

Puerto Rico is known for having some of the best Cuban cuisine in the world, but don't expect an upscale dining experience -- it's generally all about the food. Neil Kantrow, a New York-based travel agent, says that clients have asked him to arrange a layover in Puerto Rico just so they can have a meal at METROPOLE (787-791-8883, $70), across the street from the Ritz-Carlton in Isla Verde. ''It's certainly not chic and intimate, but it's great for some real down-home Cuban cooking,'' he said.

If you want a taste of authentic Puerto Rican food, Mr. Ortiz recommends AJILI MOJILI (787-725-9195, $120). ''I personally like the sea bass with rice and beans, but it's the appetizers that draw everybody there,'' he said. ''Get the combination -- it's hog heaven for people who like fried food, but it really captures Puerto Rico. Be hungry because they serve a lot.''


Have your hotel concierge book you on a catamaran day trip to ICACOS CAY, a tiny island about an hour off the northeast coast of Puerto Rico. With a spectacular coral reef, the island is a must-see for snorkelers and scuba divers. It's also an idyllic spot to enjoy the desert island fantasy and a picnic for a few hours.

This feature about places to stay, eat and visit in leading business destinations appears every Tuesday.

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