Lonely Planet has partnered with San Juan-based travel community Platea to provide comprehensive guides, curated lists and insider tips for your next trip to Puerto Rico.
Travelers today recognize there’s more to visiting a destination than ticking boxes and stamping a passport. It’s all about slow travel – taking time to connect with the people, culture, food and music. If you're seeking story-worthy experiences, Puerto Rico’s San Juan is teeming with them. By joining a local workshop or class, you can enjoy authentic travel experiences that will remain with you long after you leave.
Here are a few ways to embrace the art of slow travel, learn new things and create a meaningful visit to the Island of Enchantment.
Try dance lessons in the capital of salsa
This spirited and slightly seductive dance originated in Cuba and rapidly spread throughout the Caribbean and into the United States, particularly within the Puerto Rican and Cuban communities living in New York City. Salsa is a blend of Cuban dances like pachanga, rumba and mambo, with a little American swing added to the mix.
While salsa dancing is popular anywhere Latin culture thrives, it’s especially popular in Puerto Rico (so much so, the island is known as the capital of salsa). It also plays host to the internationally attended Puerto Rico Salsa Congress, a week-long celebration of all things salsa dancing.
It’s probably no surprise that finding a spot in Puerto Rico to salsa the night away is relatively easy. Many nightclubs boast designated salsa nights, some offering lessons to first-timers. Thursdays are salsa nights at Piso Viejo, an eclectic vintage-inspired bar and tapas club situated in the historic neighborhood of Santurce. Free hour-long salsa lessons begin at 9 pm, backed by a live orchestra.
Seasoned salsa enthusiasts flock to La Factoría, known for its six-clubs-in-one layout, insanely creative cocktails and internationally recognized bartenders.
Join a mixology class at the largest premium rum distillery in the world
Rum and Puerto Rico are almost synonymous. Production of the spirit dates back to the early 16th century; what better way to experience Puerto Rico’s rum culture and learn its history than by making two of the country’s iconic rum drinks: the piña colada and mojito.
The birth story of the piña colada is a little fuzzy. One version credits a San Juan bartender with its creation in 1954. Another account claims it originated in 1963 at a restaurant in Old San Juan. No matter which account you go with, it became Puerto Rico’s national drink in 1978.
Most of the muddled stories of how the mojito came to be, point to Cuba. However, it’s been widely adopted throughout the Caribbean and is a natural fit for any of Puerto Rico’s premium white rums. Learn to make them both with a mixology class at Casa Bacardí.
Though Cuba-born in 1862, Casa Bacardí expanded with additional distilleries in Mexico and Puerto Rico in 1930. Today the Puerto Rico facility is the largest premium rum distillery in the world.
In addition to honing your drink-making skills, you’ll learn the backstory of both cocktails and dive into the history of Bacardí. The class also includes a tour of the family museum. Tickets ($75) are available on the website.
Take surf lessons with a pro at Playa Isla Verde
Aptly named, Surf With a Pro takes novices – and experienced – surfers to the best beaches in Puerto Rico, the “Hawaii of the East Coast”. Owned by Puerto Rican pro-surfer Alejandro Moreda, a national surf champion and recent contestant on ABC’s reality show The Ultimate Surfer – Surf with a Pro is located at Playa Isla Verde, one of the most popular beaches in the metro area.
The waves here are ideal for beginners – surfable, yet forgiving – but Moreda also takes his more advanced students to Escambrón Beach or La Punta where they are more challenging waves.
Newbie surfers learn the basics, beginning with a warm-up jog and a few exercises to loosen up the knees, hips and ankles (important for balance and injury prevention). Prior to hitting the waves, Moreda audits your balance on the board, showing the proper way to get up and position yourself while standing.
Sign up via the website where lessons will be tailored to your experience and goals for your trip.
Sign up for a cooking class and learn about Puerto Rico’s sustainable farming renaissance
Puerto Rico has rich culinary heritage. One of the joys of traveling here is discovering the cuisine of each region you visit – a blend of Taíno, Spanish, African and American influences. Each dish featuring ingredients like cacao, nispero fruit, coriander and plantains, tells a different facet of Puerto Rico's history.
Launched in 2012, Spoon takes visitors beyond a restaurant meal with an intimate cooking experience. Through this personal hands-on experience, travelers acquire a deeper connection to the island, taste authentic food and experience Puerto Rico’s culture through the senses.
Puerto Rican-trained chef Nivia "Kitty" Villanueva meets participants at San Juan’s farmers market to purchase fresh, locally grown ingredients, providing an opportunity to chat with the merchants and hear their stories.
There’s been a renaissance in the island’s farming community over the last four years. Prior to Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico imported 85% of its food due to government policies. However, the hurricane so severely damaged the ports that ships delivering food could not dock.
Farmers who were able to rebuild their farms fed their communities in the aftermath, resurfacing Puerto Rico’s need for agricultural independence. The number of local growers has increased, fueling an ongoing movement to balance the island’s food distribution through sustainable agriculture.
After the farmers market, the class joins Villanueva in her home to create an appetizer and entree. The menu changes regularly, using what’s abundant and in season. As you prepare the meal, Villanueva shares insight into the history of iconic Puerto Rican dishes.
Students can also enjoy a signature rum cocktail, an original recipe developed by Villanueva and her daughter (a mocktail version is available too). Private classes can be customized based on your group’s dietary needs. Classes are $95 per person and are capped at six participants (eight in a private group). In addition to the cooking class, Spoon offers other San Juan-based food and cocktail tours.
Enjoy a yoga class with panoramic views of Old San Juan
Although research relating to the benefits of yoga is ongoing, scientists agree that yoga can have a favorable impact on our health and temperament. Perks to a consistent yoga regimen can include improved flexibility, strength, brain function and mental health, as well as stress relief, a reduction in anxiety and better sleep.
Reap those health benefits during your stay in Puerto Rico by attending a yoga class with Santosa Yoga and Health. Led by studio owner Daniella Gould, sessions are mostly conducted outdoors – as they should.
What better way to begin a day than a meditative hour on a breezy beach or atop a roof with panoramic vistas of historic Old San Juan? And with the health and social distancing benefits of exercises outdoors, it’s also a somewhat pandemic-proof activity.
Each class can accommodate all skill levels, as poses and movements are modified as needed. Gould encourages participants to listen to their bodies, finding their comfort (or challenge) within themselves.
Local residents who attend regularly and usually up for some post-class banter, which is a great chance for travelers to glean endorsements for spots to eat, drink and explore around the island.
Public classes take place twice weekly ($10 per person), with dates, times and locations updated regularly on the website. Although you can just show up, it’s best to book ahead, especially if you’ll need to rent a yoga mat ($5).
Look out for specific workshops focusing on breath healing, meditation and other practices. Private classes at your accommodation can also be arranged, a fun activity for health-minded friend groups or families traveling together.