I was planning on writing a funny hostel related story about timing your shower to avoid the rush or stealthily hiding food in a shared (with 15 to 20 other travelers) refrigerator. If you’re eagerly awaiting those posts, just wait, I’m sure they’ll be written in the future, but for now I think this is much more interesting!
About a week before writing this a friend picked me up at the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport. He knew I’d be staying in San Juan later in the week so he kindly gave me a quick driving tour of Viejo San Juan. One thing that stuck out in his tour was this: ‘You shouldn’t go north of the wall’.
The wall in question was built by the Spanish after colonizing Puerto Rico hundreds of years ago. At one point it surrounded much of Viejo San Juan and, along with the two huge fortresses (El Morro and San Cristobal) helped fortify the island. By my estimation the wall is still about 50% intact.
On the north side of the wall, precariously perched on the slope going down toward the ocean is La Perla, a small but tight-knit community. Like many communities, the citizens of La Perla look out for each other. The town in which I grew up in rural Kansas is similar in that way. But there’s a difference. Outsiders aren’t welcome in La Perla. Not just the tourist kind of outsiders (of which there are many in Viejo San Juan), but I was told even other locals (from south of the wall) aren’t welcome.
As I was only about 27 minutes into day one of my travels abroad I agreed I wouldn’t be going there! But at the same time my interest was piqued. I was like a kid being told not to play with the dangerous fireworks (except I didn’t know the fireworks existed before I was told not to play with them). Now I just wanted to shoot off some roman candles!
Since La Perla is located on the side of the slope and the wall is above it, atop the wall is a great vantage point to peer into this interesting area. It’s not dissimilar in appearance to the slums of Rio de Janeiro, just not as massive. From the wall you’re able to gaze into the belly of the beast, so to speak. You can see the streets lined with small concrete buildings, some with metal or concrete roofs, some without. There are also some rather nice looking houses mixed in. You can see chickens, dogs and cats roaming streets alongside adults and children. You see people going about their lives. Above all, you’ll notice the graffiti. Paintings really. Artwork decorating walls, roofs. Some quite amazing, even from a distance.
As I walked along glaring down on La Perla with a friend from a nearby hostel, we wanted to go down but decided to heed the warnings and admire from a distance. And that was the end of my La Perla experience….or so I thought.
A couple days later I met another traveler, Jimmy, who invited me to join him and a friend, Susan, on a little field trip to La Perla. Susan wanted to take pictures of the wall art and Jimmy said he knew people in La Perla, that he was ‘cool down there’, and we wouldn’t have any problems. I was dying to light off some roman candles so I decided to tag along. As we walked below the wall, Jimmy suggested we avoid a certain street (the street that the drug deals happen), grab a beer at the bar and walk along the shore to take pictures. I thought this was a good plan, especially the avoiding the drug deals part. Walking along the shore with our Medalla’s (it’s like Bud Light in San Juan) in hand, we passed many buildings that were abandoned and falling down, a perfect place for locals to fill walls with their artwork. Jimmy, Susan and I walked and took pictures for nearly an hour until we found ourselves farther up the hill walking down a certain street. Yeah, THAT STREET! We were about half a block from any people and Susan tried to take one last picture of some artwork when her camera died. So I tried to take the picture and that’s when we heard two voices. ‘No pictures’…….. ‘NO PICTURES’!
As we turned to look in the direction of the voices we could see dozens of people in the next two blocks that had all stopped going about their lives and were now staring at us. We all agreed….no pictures (as if we had another choice). It was time to leave La Perla; unfortunately, the only way out was to walk through this crowd. As we did, we got nasty glares and some short comments that I didn’t need to know Spanish to understand. We got the hint. We three walked out of there without looking anyone in the eye and thankfully without anyone escalating the situation from their end. We made it out unscathed, with some great pictures, an awesome experience and interesting story.
As we were walking the road back to ‘safety’ Jimmy says one last thing to Susan and I. ‘They think I’m a cop down there and the guys I know said I should stop going’. ‘That information would have been helpful AN HOUR AGO!’ I exclaimed!! But if he had told me that, I may not have gone with them and you would’ve just finished a story about shared hostel bathrooms. So if you liked this post, thank Jimmy!
See the Spanish language version at lobu.do HERE!