Located right in between the two most important parts of San Juan to travelers, Puerta de Tierra is both convenient and inconvenient as a place to call home base. Puerta de Tierra itself is a middle-class to lower-class residential neighborhood, dotted with some businesses, municipal buildings, and empty museums. However, the Puerta de Tierra beachfront has two hotels, a nice beach, and a decent park that provides a welcome urban respite for both locals and hotel tourists.
While Puerta de Tierra is not a slum nor a generally rough neighborhood, it is not a tourist destination, and you should exercise some common sense and awareness when traveling through the area. If you can do this, then you should have no problems and will have a much better look at life as lived by San Juan locals, and may see many things most tourists never see while visiting the city.
More than getting around Puerta de Tierra, this part of the article will cover getting from Puerta de Tierra to other parts of town, as that is where the interesting things for travelers are.
If you think you can handle San Juan drivers and have a good road map in hand, you may want to rent a car to drive to the attractions in the city. Keep in mind that in Old San Juan and in the hotels especially, parking is rarely free. There is free parking at the Puerta de Tierra beach, however, and most of Puerta de Tierra's attractions are either on the beach or within walking distance. If you decide to drive anywhere in San Juan, however, read the main San Juan article on driving around the city and brace yourself for some very close encounters on the road!
Around Puerta de Tierra, it is only necessary to hail a cab if you are going to Old San Juan or Condado. The taxis are at their most useful at night, as the buses stop running at around 9 pm. Puerto Rico does have a set fare for taxi rides between districts, and going from Puerta de Tierra to either Condado or Old San juan is $10-12, almost always $12. Tipping cab drivers is customary, but do not tip if they charge more than $12, which is illegal! Taxis are also the best way to get to the airport, and from Puerta de Tierra it is about a $20-25 ride, depending on how many bags you have or where you want to be let off.
It is always a good idea to first ask your hotel front desk about the price of a taxi ride, then confirm that price with the actual driver before getting inside the cab, although cab drivers mostly follow the rules, and you are much more likely to be overcharged coming out of the outlying areas than going in.
By public transportation
While the bus system is disorganized and unpredictable, it is very cheap, and bus drivers are by and large helpful at getting tourists to their destination. In Puerta de Tierra, stations for nearly all the bus lines are within walking distance from the hotels because of their proximity to the main Covadonga bus stations in Old San Juan. So, going to Old San Juan is easy. Leaving Old San Juan, make sure to board either of the Metrobuses or the B-21 line to be dropped off by the hotels, right before the bridge. If you are worried you might miss your stop, tell the driver where you are going and he will let you know when you arrive at your stop that you should get off.
If you are going to Condado, you will need to board the B-21 going out over the bridge. It will take you right to Ashford Ave. To go to Isla Verde from the Puerta de Tierra hotels, you will need to walk to the other side of the large white residential building that has aqua blue accents. On the other side there is a bus stop going outbound that is served by the A5 bus. This bus will take you along Condado and the several residential areas after it to Isla Verde.
The A5 and B8 lines go through the Southern part of Puerta de Tierra, which can appear slummish in some areas. If you have accidentally gotten on one of these buses while trying to go back to your hotel, stay on the bus instead of getting off in a potentially rough area. Tell the driver where you want to go and he will drop you off at the closest stop. You should see the white building with aqua blue accents, and on the other side of that is the other set of bus stops and the sidewalk that leads back the hotel.
If you are going out on the bus and you do not plan on taking a taxi home, be aware that the buses stop running at about 9 pm. There is no designated time at which the bus will arrive at a certain stop. The information at the main bus stations will tell you that the Metrobuses come every 10 minutes, the A routes come every 15, B every 20, C every 30, but experience has quickly proven this to be a very rough estimate. Bus fare is 75 cents, with reduced or free fare during holiday times.
Combining the facts that there is not much to see in Puerta de Tierra and many that many residential areas of Puerta de Tierra are becoming more and more run-down, it is probably not a good idea to do any intensive exploring on foot throughout the area. Still, alongside the beach, the Avenida Munoz Rivera is a road with a sidewalk that gives active tourists a 25-minute straight walk into Old San Juan. Even more active tourists who know very well the lay of the land can walk to Condado, but the streets are very busy and it is easy to get lost, so this method is not recommended for most people.
Walking along the beach in Puerta de Tierra is safe, and will lead you straight into Old San Juan. The views are nice, of both the water and the two forts you will see once you reach the center of town. Also safe is walking through the Luis Munoz Rivera Park, which has many wide concrete walkways and provides a nice alternative for joggers to the hotel fitness rooms.
In Puerta de Tierra, there are little to no options for eating out. If you are visiting another part of San Juan, try to eat in that area before coming back to the hotel. If your room has a mini bar, try stocking it with some bottled drinks and snacks from a mini-mart, in case you get hungry while still in the area. For breakfast, your best bet is either to eat in your hotel or to eat at your destination for the day. Along the beach, there are kiosks in small, green buildings that sell a few bottled drinks and occasionally some food, but I wouldn't depend on it.
El Hamburger, 402 Avenida Munoz Rivera. This loud burger pit is packed at dinnertime with local families and beach-goers sipping beers and munching on freshly grilled burgers. The hamburgers come with a slice of Swiss or American cheese and a seperate plate of toppings so you can decorate your burger to your liking. There is counter service and table service, but little English is spoken so order at the counter where you can point to your choice if you would like to order something other than "el hamburger." $3-7 per person.
R.E.D, inside the Normandie Hotel. This red-lit place bills itself as a tapas restaurant, but instead it is just a restaurant that encourages patrons to share the dishes among the table. The menu is a mix of Puerto Rican, Mediterranean, and other international fare. Dress is business casual. $15-25 per plate.
Rotisserie II Giardino, in the Hilton Hotel. Italian food with a good wine selection.
Madrid-San Juan, in the Hilton Hotel. Tapas.
Lemongrass Pan Asian Latino, in the Hilton Hotel. An upscale restaurant that provides a good alternative to Morton's Steakhouse. Dress is not exactly formal, but leave your t-shirt and beach jeans at home.
There are two hotels in the area. One is more of a resort while the other is just a hotel, but both are convenient to waiting taxis out front and a minute walk from buses going to both Old San Juan and out towards Condado.
The Normandie Hotel, 499 Avenida Munoz Rivera, 787-729-2929, . This hotel is a bit cheaper than the Hilton and is literally located right next to the Hilton, so guests can venture over to the other resort for the shops and restaurants. Shaped somewhat in resemblance to a ship, the interior is decorated in cool-colored art deco fixtures and paintings. The Atrium on the first floor does have a wine and champagne bar, but the N Lounge on the second floor is an actual bar by itself. Both play ambient electronic music most of the time. On Friday nights there is salsa on the 6th floor with a $15 cover charge; dress in formal wear. The Normandie does have a small beach area, but the larger and more spacious public Puerta de Tierra beach is about a minute's walk. Use the beach exit located in the back parking lot, and walk past the small beach area to the kiosk and lookout point ahead to the left. When you reach the lookout, instead of turning right to walk up, turn left and follow the little path for a half a minute to reach the larger beach. Breakfast at the Normandie is a continental buffet, with an occasional menu to order from as well. $150-$270 (Book ahead through a travel agent or by calling the hotel for the best prices.)
Caribe Hilton, 1 877-GO-HILTON, . This resort is a great place to stay if you are coming to San Juan to just shop and lounge at the beach, although swarms of taxis await to take you to other parts of San Juan as well. The Hilton actually has its own private beach for guests with beach chairs and other amenities; snorkeling gear can be rented from the hotel. A Starbucks, several expensive restaurants, and luxury shops line the ground level, along with a shop for practicalities such as bath products and painkillers. Guests get one free breakfast for two the first night in either the breakfast and brunch restaurant or your room along with a few other vouchers for on-resort services. This resort is particularly family-friendly, with many amenities for children. The talking parrots in front of check-in should entertain them at the first moment. $180-$250 (Book ahead through a travel agent or an online reservation for the best prices.)