San Juan Mythbusters

San Juan Mythbusters

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San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital city, has a bit of a perception problem. Located in the southeastern part of the Caribbean basin, the country shares many of the characteristics of its non-Spanish speaking neighbors: warm weather, a dependence upon tourism as a source of income, and colorful, colonial-style buildings. Yet as a commonwealth of the U.S., San Juan also has much in common with "the mainland" (including the use of American currency), and it hasn't dismissed its Latin American identity, either. The island's complex political and cultural history has given rise to some persistent urban myths. Separate fact from fiction with these San Juan mythbusters.

1. Tourists shouldn't drive in San Juan.

FALSE. Well, sort of TRUE. It's not hard to see how this perception has gained traction: traffic in San Juan is crazy. More than half of the island's residents live in the metropolitan area, and it's no urban myth in San Juan to say that most of them own a car: the island has one of the highest per capita rates of car ownership in the world. Rush hour produces daily "tapones," or traffic jams, and the limited public transportation options that exist are underutilized by locals and visitors alike.

Driving in San Juan is definitely an adventure and an exercise in patience, as is looking for parking, but it's not impossible either. Just be sure to reserve a car from a reputable rental agency and select the most comprehensive insurance plan you can afford. Grab a map or a GPS, too, as signage in the capital is lacking.

2. San Juan is expensive.

TRUE. Like the driving issue, most San Juan urban myths are rooted in a degree of truth, and this is one of them. Between higher than average lodging costs, a double whammy of taxes (local and hotel), and a number of not-so-hidden fees (parking, WiFi), it's easy to exceed your travel budget by as much as $100 a day... just for your hotel.

It's not just an urban legend that San Juan is expensive. The island imports most of its goods – from food to gas – and the cost is passed on to the customer. It's not impossible to visit San Juan on a budget, however. Though the city lacks hostels, there are small, independently owned hotels offering rooms at lower rates than the hotel chains. And portions at "comida criolla" restaurants (restaurants serving traditional Puerto Rican food) are usually generous, allowing you to stretch your budget a bit.

3. Taxi drivers receive tips to make "recommendations."

TRUE. Though old news, this San Juan urban legend circulates like fresh, hot gossip among business owners. It's no myth, though; taxi drivers do receive tips to drive you to a specific restaurant or bar. If you wonder why some restaurants are thronged with people and others are completely empty, this is probably the reason. Restaurateurs with deeper pockets pay taxi drivers (and some hotel concierges) a few dollars per person for each tourist they deposit on their doorsteps.

4. San Juan isn't "exotic" or "authentic."

FALSE. Christopher Columbus arrived in Puerto Rico in 1493, claiming the island for the Spanish crown. Colonizers wiped out the indigenous Taíno population and the powers that be took a largely laissez-faire attitude toward Puerto Rico after learning the island lacked the natural resources of other colonial holdings. Puerto Rico remained under Spanish control until 1898, when Spain ceded control to the United States as a concession of the Spanish-American War. Between this complicated political history and Puerto Rico's geographical location, the island as you see it today is a fascinating mix of Spanish, American and Caribbean influences.

Visitors often lament the proliferation of fast food joints and other American brands, declaring that San Juan isn't "exotic" or "authentic" enough. If they read Puerto Rico's history, though, they'll realize this is Puerto Rico's authenticity; the intersection of so many cultural influences has produced a unique culture that's comfortable with the many different aspects of its identity.

5. San Juan isn't politically stable.

FALSE. Americans seem to love urban legends about political stability in other cities and countries, and "reports" about safety, corruption and power-grab plots pass from one person to another without being fact-checked or analyzed within context. San Juan has its fair share of political drama, to be sure. The governor who held office before the current head of state was charged with multiple campaign finance infractions (and was subsequently found not guilty). The government occasionally shuts down as legislators argue about poison-pill amendments. Teachers and other public workers routinely strike, complaining about low wages. Citizens have no qualms about protesting on the capitol's steps. In other words, democracy is alive and well in Puerto Rico.

Despite the drama, it's San Juan mythbusters 101 that Puerto Rico is unsafe to visit due to political instability. Unlike some of its Latin American neighbors, no coups occur here, and transfers of power are peaceful.
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