Looking at Puerta de Tierra and El Condado from Old San Juan.
Located right in between the two most important parts of San Juan to travelers, Old San Juan and Condado, 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.
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.
While the bus system is disorganized and unpredictable, a one-way ride costs only 50 cents (in exact change using quarters only), 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 and are marked clearly with the word "Parada" on the sign. Going to Old San Juan is easy, and the last stop in Old San Juan is actually outside of the bus station roughly at the corner of Calle Juan Antonio Coretejas and Paseo Covadonga (PR38).
Leaving Old San Juan, make sure to board either of the Metrobuses or the Sagrado Corazón a San Juan M3 (the first line inside the bus station) line to be dropped off by the hotels, right before the bridge. Do not take the "ME" line as that is the express line that bypasses the local stops by hotels such as the Hilton Caribe. 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 windows and patio fences, 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.
There is not much to see in Puerta de Tierra, but there are a few things of interest for the traveler looking around this area. Old San Juan is a 25 minute beachfront walk away; walk along Avenida Munoz Rivera until you reach San Cristobal fort, then turn towards the waterfront on Calle de Norzagaray.
Casa de Espana, Avenida Juan Ponce de León. Walking distance from Old San Juan, this house is literally something to see, as the average tourist cannot go in unless they are involved with one of the many events hosted there. Still, the building, which gets its name from its original purpose as a community center for local Spanish citizens, is worth a look for its architectural accents and 'old world' look. It is closer to Old San Juan than the hotels of Puerta de Tierra, but it is on the bus line. Coming into Covadonga bus station, look to your right when the bus is on Paseo de Covadonga. It will be on the next street over, but you can see it from the bus window. There is a sign out front that marks the building.
There are a few things to do in Puerta de Tierra that don't have anything to do with what is in your hotel. There is a large park, a nice beach, and several smaller walkways to take short walks on.
Parque Luis Munoz Rivera
Parque del Tercer Milenio. Encompassing most of the beach and park area of Puerta de Tierra, this park also holds an athletic club with a track and plenty of field area for outdoor napping or picnics on the beach. The Balneario el Escambrón is the most accessible area of the beach to hotel guests, being a 5 minute leisurely walk from the hotels themselves. Once on the beach, there are great distant views of not only the San Cristobal fort, but El Morro as well, if there is no fog. Closer in and right next to the Kiosko Escambrón, a snack bar often playing loud salsa and serving up drinks to locals, is a lookout point that faces the water, where romantic couples often go to privately make out and gaze off into the ocean.
Make sure you do all of your souvenir and clothes shopping in other parts of town before coming to Puerta de Tierra. If you are buying groceries, your options are slim as well. Try to do grocery shopping in other parts of town if you want any food beyond snacks. There are two options near the hotel for snacks, toiletries, and practicalities. In the Hilton, there is Caribe Sundries, which by far has the best selection of toiletries and painkillers. There is also another convenience store called Mini Mercado, which is open 24 hours and has a decent selection of food and exactly one variety of shampoo and conditioner each, for those of you who can't make it to the Hilton. It is easy to find at night; the windows are lined with green neon lights. When buying in Puerta de Tierra, (or anywhere in San Juan), look for locally made snacks and products to save a little money.
If you are desperate to shop and have a little bit of extra money, there are stores in the Hilton, although they are expensive and mainly sell jewelry and designer clothes.
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 separate 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.
Subway, Across the street from the Caribe Hilton sign, taxi parking, and Normandie Hotel. Sandwiches, wraps, salads, and cheap breakfasts with better coffee than the locations in the United States. $4-7 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.
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.
In Puerta de Tierra, you are pretty much restricted to the lounges in your hotel for drinking options, as there are no other bars in this part of town, and even if there were, it is not safe to wander around the southern end at night.
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.)
Ave. Fernandez Juncos is a major road running across the southern waterfront of Puerta de Tierra. Many buses, including a metrobus line, run through this part of the city before entering the bridge to Condado and beyond. While it is safe to ride through this part of town in the day time, it is not at any time of day safe to explore, as this is a run-down area where poverty and drug trafficking can be easily found. At night, it is probably best to take the B-21 bus back to the hotel from Old San Juan which does not go on this street.
Many of the roads that tourists use in Puerta de Tierra are high traffic roads, and the problems that pedestrians face during the daytime while sharing roads with vehicles are magnified at night. Use common sense, and if you feel like you may come to a place where you are not easily seen or there is no sidewalk, walk on lit paths that will show your presence to drivers.
This is a usable article. It has information for getting in as well as some complete entries for restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please plunge forward and help it grow!