After writing about my solo trip to San Juan, I’d be remiss to not to include a post about the excellent coffee, and the excellent San Juan coffee shops. Puerto Rico produces some of the world’s best coffee beans. Each cup or espresso drink on the island is going to be strong, fresh, and expertly-crafted.
However, the coffee industry has been in steady decline due to the economy, the effects of US colonization over time, and the general population moving away from traditional agricultural work in favor of more “prestigious” higher education degrees. Demand still exceeds supply, making the cost of production and thus, the final product, higher than other markets. Translation: the US ruins everything.
Still, coffee is a large industry on the island and rooted in tradition, making it more important than ever to seek out the family-owned farms producing beans with sustainable methods and ethical labor. Coffee is a part of the local culture; there’s even a coffee festival each year in February to celebrate the harvest! Luckily, cafes in San Juan are pulling shots of espresso made with specialty beans grown as close as 50 miles away.
Over the course of a week, I tried several coffee shops, usually getting a soy latte, sometimes opting for an iced version. All of these locations are in San Juan.
1. Cuatro Sombras (259 Calle Recinto Sur, Old San Juan)
Many a YouTube travel video made it clear that Cuatro Sombras is a must visit, and after stopping in twice, I know why. Since it’s in a high-traffic tourist area, the shop can get really crowded, but it’s worth the wait for a velvety espresso drink. I brought home a bag of their beans. They’re a medium roast and make a light, caramel-y cup of coffee.
You can read Cuatro Sombras’ backstory on their website. The fair trade, high-quality beans are grown and sun-dried in small quantities in Yauco, Puerto Rico.
2. Café Don Ruiz (Cuartel de Ballajá, Old San Juan)
No photo of the iced coffee I enjoyed at Don Ruiz, but rather the architecture of the building in which the coffee shop lives. The Ballajá, formerly military barracks built for Spanish troops in the 19th century, is now home to el Museo de las Américas, music and dance schools, Café Don Ruiz, and more. Don Ruiz bills itself as a museum, as well as a coffee shop and roastery, with equipment from the hacienda on display. The indoor/outdoor coffee shop has a friendly atmosphere with equally friendly employees. They also have a rum museum is in the works!
3. Café con Cé (Calle Loíza 1765, Ocean Park/Santurce)
I’m going to give you a tip for getting to this place: it’s in the third place you’ll look. If you’re going straight to Café con Cé, skip the two converted shipping containers in the lot of Café Tresbé instead of stopping at every counter along the way and asking about coffee (I didn’t do this, no way.) Café con Cé is a tiny little spot inside a white building, with a minimal aesthetic, a couple of small tables, and an art installation space. After stopping for coffee, you’ll find indie shops and several veg-friendly restaurants all along Calle Loíza.
Also on Calle Loíza is one of the Libros Libres “take a book, leave a book” walls! It’s a really cool community project, and way more expansive than the Little Free Libraries I see in Chicago. To be fair, the open crates would not hold up to Chicago weather.
4. Hacienda San Pedro (318 Av. De Diego, Santurce)
Hacienda San Pedro is on a side street of off PR-25, Avenida Juan Ponce de León, in Santurce. The area is commercial district with schools, government buildings, museums, and healthcare offices, so most of the foot traffic was people on break from their 9-5 jobs. I found another Libros Libres wall too!
I ordered a soy latte, which tasted incredibly creamy with caramel-y notes. Hacienda San Pedro has been owned by the Atienza family for four generations, and is grown in the mountainous area of Jayuya, Puerto Rico.
Hacienda San Pedro is within walking distance from La Plaza del Mercado. It’s not the largest fruit and vegetable market in San Juan (you can walk through within minutes) but it’s nice to see at least once. While I didn’t make it out there at night, I heard that it’s a popular spot to hang out on Friday and Saturday nights with music, food, and drinks. You can certainly get by with English if you stick to the tourist areas, it’s helpful to use your Spanish here. Also, people will be generally appreciative that you tried, even if your skills could use some work.
5. Café Cola’o (Calle Marina, Old San Juan)
Café Cola’o is located on the waterfront right near the cruise ship port. Since I’d been ordering soy lattes all week, I opted for a plain espresso. I’d recommend this at least once. It looks so creamy in the photo, but there’s no milk or anything!
And some to take home…
Even though I stuffed my suitcase full of coffee beans, I quickly went through most of my stash. Luckily, many of these brands are online. The brands I brought back were Cafe Yaucono, Puya, Alto Grande, Cafe Crema, and from the aforementioned San Juan coffee shops, Cuatro Sombras and Hacienda San Pedro.
A hot tip if you travel to Puerto Rico: buy your coffee beans at CVS, Walgreens, or a supermarket. Or be prepared for a 2-4x markup on bags of beans at the airport. But do buy your take home rum―Ron del Barralito Tres Estrellas―at the duty free shop at the airport!