San Juan, Puerto Rico. Famed for its sun, is beaches, its old city of Spanish colonial architecture and cobblestone streets. . .and rum. Rum being the most important. Because of its impact on the economy, of course. Certainly not because it tastes mighty fine mixed with Coke or anything. (That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.)
Being a fan of the favorite drink of pirates everywhere, I naturally wanted to take the tour of the Bacardi Rum Factory when I was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I’d read ahead of time that the tour doesn’t go into the actual factory where the rum is being made, but they give you free admission and two free rum drinks, so what’s not to love?
As I’ve mentioned before, the ferry to Catano (where the factory tour takes place) leaves from Pier 2 in Old San Juan, which is almost directly across the street from Senor Frogs. It costs $.50 each way. Once you arrive, you walk out to the street, and someone will direct you toward a shuttle taxi to the Factory/Museum. This costs $3/person and is about a five minute drive.
What’s great about this taxi is that it’s a van, so as a solo traveler, you’re not footing the whole tab for the taxi ride yourself. And if you’re as lucky as I was, you might make some new friends on the shuttle. I met a nice couple from India, Naresh and Tejas, and we hit it off so well, we wound up spending the next several hours together, including lunch back in Old San Juan.
At the Bacardi property, you will pick up your drink tickets and have a choice: You can take the tour first, or visit the gift shop, or sit in the hospitality area and have your free rum drinks. Honestly, I’m not sure how much you’d get out of the tour if you had your drinks first, so I recommend saving that for last. The downside of this tour is that you can only take photos outside and in the lobby. Once the tour begins in earnest, no photography is allowed.
The first thing we learned was the reason why Bacardi has a bat on its label: it’s a fruit bat, a symbol of good luck. We were shown a brief film of the history of Bacardi (which was founded in Cuba, but moved for political reasons and set up manufacturing in Puerto Rico to avoid import taxes on rum shipped to the US). We viewed a museum-like recreation of a rum factory with stacks of oak casks and the executive office with historical artifacts (letters, pictures, bottles, antique office furniture). We stopped at a media center with listening booths to learn about various aspects of the rum-making process and more of the history of this company.
Even though it wasn’t an actual factory tour where you could see them making the rum, I still found it pretty interesting and learned a lot. For instance, did you know that rum doesn’t need to be aged as long in Puerto Rico because of the climate? I didn’t. Or that during Prohibition in the US, Americans would fly to Cuba so they could drink rum. (That is what I call a serious drinking problem! “Oh my God, I need a drink. Let’s fly to Cuba.”)
Finally, we went into a salon area where a bartender named Tomas (who had the most wonderful speaking voice) demonstrated how to make various drinks. According to Tomas, to make a mojito correctly, you must use spearmint leaves. Good to know. He described the history of Bacardi and Coke, which, once you add a twist of lime, is known as a “Cuba libra” or “free Cuba” and was trademarked.
Once the tour was over, Naresh, Tejas, and I headed back to the hospitality tent where we enjoyed our free drinks, a warm, sunny day in Puerto Rico, and some good conversation before heading back to Old San Juan for a late lunch. This day remains one of my fondest memories of my trip to San Juan–mostly because of the friendships I developed that day. But even discounting that, I have to recommend this tour. It’s very rare that you find a tour anywhere that is not only free, but comes with 2 free drinks attached. Add to that the ferry ride, which provides a scenic view of Old San Juan, and you definitely have a trip worth taking.