Snapshots of San Juan: La Perla

by Gray Cargill on March 19, 2010

La Perla

The word most frequently used to describe the barrio of La Perla  (“The Pearl”) in Old San Juan is “slum”, though oftentimes it is tempered with the backhanded compliment “the prettiest slum in the world”.  It is beautiful in its own way.  It has an enviable view of the ocean and of the forts of Old San Juan, as well as direct access to the lovely Viejo San Juan Cemetery and a beach where residents go surfing.  The houses, while rundown, are colorful and picturesque, stacked as they are in tiers along the side of the cliff on the outside of the city’s wall.  This location–outside the city’s wall–is telling.

One of the first things you learn when you start researching a trip to San Juan, Puerto Rico, is to avoid La Perla.  It is known as a hotbed of crime, murders, and drug dealing.  Everyone warns you about it, both online and offline.  I’m sure half of those delivering the warning don’t know a thing about it, they’re just repeating what they’ve been told.

It didn’t take much for me to heed the warnings. As a solo female traveler, I am very aware of my own vulnerabilities when traveling to a new place.  I have no desire to put myself in unnecessary danger.  Especially when the locals tell you that the neighborhood is controlled by the drug dealers and that even the police don’t go there.  Yet, I went as close as I could.  I snuck as many glimpses of it as I could from the walls of El Morro and San Cristobal.  I walked up to the entrance, without actually stepping foot within its boundaries. It fascinated me.  What is it about wanting to go where common sense tells you not to?

Entrance to La Perla

Entrance to La Perla

Perhaps it was the paradox of the beauty of the area known as a “slum” that fascinated me.  Last year, Calle 13 produced a video for their song “La Perla” that I found very appealing.  I don’t know enough Spanish to know what the lyrics say, but it seemed to me they were trying to point out the “other” La Perla, the one most people don’t talk about when they warn you not to go there.  The one made up of everyday average people eking out an existence and just trying to live their lives.  How do those people feel, knowing the reputation their neighborhood has? How does  a child overcome the stigma of having grown up in La Perla?

La Perla

La Perla and Old San Juan Cemetery

I know what 99.9% of all people who don’t live in La Perla think of it.  What do the people who live there think?  What are their lives like if it’s true that the drug dealers control the barrio?  What do they think of this reputation they have?  I wish I could hear their stories.

Gray January 29, 2012 at 9:55 am

I think I’m just going to take your word for that, billy. :-)

billy January 29, 2012 at 9:15 am

I’ve been to La Perla quite a few times and they are friendly. The ‘creepy’ is really good smoke, too!

Gray January 4, 2012 at 6:41 pm

Roger that, Karin! :-)

Karin January 4, 2012 at 6:28 pm

I lived in Puerto Rico for many years. When we moved there in 1953 there was a La Perla, there will always be a La Perla. Like you , I would love to hear their stories. I would love to be able to walk through there incognito, like a ghost, just to get a feel for the place. Yes, they are poor, yes the housing is really sooo sub par and yes, they continue to live there, to love there to raise a family there. As poor as they are thought they have got some PRIMO real estate!

Gray September 25, 2011 at 9:22 am

Yeah, I’m still not sure I would, RICAN, despite James’s experience.

RICAN September 24, 2011 at 8:49 pm

I KNEW I SHOULD HAVE GONE IN.

NEXT TIME FOR SURE…

Gray August 16, 2011 at 5:24 pm

Thanks for the advice, James! Sounds like you had a great experience.

james August 16, 2011 at 6:05 am

La Perla… What can i say?? Went there in April while visiting Puerto Rico. Me and my son were there skateboarding and had heard of bowl (old pool) we could skate in La Perla. We we asked a few locals we were given some tips…

1. If you go there go early in the morning (like around sunrise) most of the unfriendly people usualy are not up yet.

2. Do not wear expensive looking jewelry. (even if it is fake)

3. Do not take expensive cameras or cameras with large lenses OR video cameras. You could be mistaken for undercover drug inforcement agents…(NOT KIDDING!!)I would suggest a camera phone or small pocket camera.

4.Never go alone!

Once down there we actually enjoyed ourselves and the experience. The area was beautiful! The colors of the buildings, the ocean, and the people we met (mostly older people thus being morning, were very friendly and inviting.

So follow those simple rules as i did and you may not attract as much attention to your selves..

James

Gray August 6, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Thanks for your comment, Jessica. I don’t know about anyone else, but I would love to know more about La Perla and what it was like to live there. Did you grow up there, or live there as an adult?

jessica August 6, 2011 at 2:22 pm

i used to live in la perla and it was the most incredible thing in the world. i loved it there, the people, food, music, views, and how the community was so strong. you will never find anything else like it in the world. its indescribable.

Gray July 30, 2011 at 6:59 pm

Julie Ann – It’s good to know I’m not the only one who is a bit captivated by La Perla.

Julie Ann July 30, 2011 at 6:21 pm

i personal love the story of La Perla. im a puerto rican and im actually in puerto rico right now and i got close enough to la perla as i could and i felled in love with the town inside of a town. they have there own little markets. i think its a good part of history even if the stories are bad but it wouldnt be the same if it was a good city

Gray July 4, 2011 at 8:30 am

Folks, I do NOT recommend you visit La Perla. Jack’s just having a little fun with us.

Jack July 4, 2011 at 1:39 am

Customer service in La Perla is awesome. I have never had a bad experience driving through there, until my car broke down one day blocking the line of customers to drive through. About 20 individuals gathered around, and helped push the car through to alleviate the traffic flow. As I was finally making my way through the tight windy street, a look out with an AK-47 strapped over his shoulder, kindly told me that if I ever returned to this area that I would not make it out alive. Low and behold, I returned 2 days later, and received the warmest welcome I had ever experienced in over 150 life time visits down there. La Perla, San Jaun is probably one of the most friendly places I have ever visited in my life. People need to realize, as long as you treat people how you would like to be treated your self, there is not a worry in the world. I highly recommend a visit to this area if you ever plan on a trip to Puerto Rico

Ace June 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I was walking to el morro on 6/25/2011 a man came to me and my brother and asked us for money while his eyes would not come off my video camera we kept on walking another man was walking down the drive to la perla and he looked at us and was waving us down to la perla to sell us drugs I would not be there after dark . Not a safe place if you don’t know the area

Gray June 24, 2011 at 2:18 pm

Yikes. At least they were “nice” enough to let you know you were in the WRONG place.

Darrell June 24, 2011 at 10:22 am

Stuck in non-moving traffic on the main road, hot, deperate for a cold drink and a parking spot, I felt lucky to find a parking spot on the angled road down into what I now know is La Perla. Me and my girlfriend walked under the arch, and it suddenly came into view, we were in a slum, with a bunch of guys sitting on the sidewalk, and several approached us menacingly. “Whatchu want!” the lead guy demanded in excellent English. I replied sheepishly we were wanting to get out of traffic and get a drink. He said “not here, up over the wall”. He never threatened me, but the menacing pose, the body language, the tone of voice were unmistakable. I have never been so scared in my life.

Gray June 3, 2011 at 11:26 am

Oh, Ale….Scary. Thanks for sharing your story.

Ale May 26, 2011 at 9:21 pm

I accidentally went there last night around 8pm. I was trying to drive by the Fort and made a wrong turn. Once my car was on the downhill I knew it was bad but I was blocked in by a car behind me and had to go forward. Once through the arch in the wall there were lots of folks using drugs and trying to flag the car down. I had to go down the narrow road with people who were all too interested in me and then (because I didn’t know the road would loop and get me out of there) had to turn around at what seemed like a dead end and be a bit more aggressive getting out of there when people were more interested. I felt scared and felt it was legitimate.

Odmichelle March 25, 2011 at 12:40 pm

well let me start by saying that im actually a puerto rican american female and mr lewis wrote the wrong concept in his book. first of all he actually said that puerto rican are ignorant in other words .he actually offended the puerto rican women were not prostitutes but we are hard working independent women.everyone goes thru struggles in life and some how you have to survive . I have never been there but would love to go .the people theyre are humble and laid back folks . very proud of their roots and traditions .

Gray March 25, 2011 at 1:19 pm

Thanks for your comment, Odmichelle. I still haven’t read Lewis’s book, so I can’t speak to that. I hope you do get a chance to go if that’s something you want to do. It seems to me that all people have lots of layers to them. It never does anyone justice to pigeonhole people. Everyone has a story.

SoloFriendly July 8, 2010 at 11:03 am

Thanks, Chris!

Chris July 7, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I happen to visit La Perla last night. If you're looking for some insight you might care to look at Oscar Lewis's book, La Vida. It's about poverty stricken Puerto Ricans in New York and La Perla. I feel as though, like any other slum, La Perla has many stories – but it's the residents of the neighborhood themselves who are the biggest propagators of the vice town image.

http://chrischilow.wordpress.com/

SoloFriendly March 20, 2010 at 2:19 pm

Thanks, Sabina. I wish I had spent a longer time in San Juan. It might have been educational to find someone who lives in La Perla to talk to and to learn more about it.

Sabina March 20, 2010 at 10:51 am

I love this topic. You're probably right about half of those delivering the stay away warning just repeating what they've been told. It's great that you went and took a look at it. It might not be so prohibitively dangerous.

SoloFriendly March 19, 2010 at 11:59 pm

I enjoyed the colors there as well. Such a contrast to our boring US cities and their blah-grey skyscrapers, eh?

joanna_haugen March 19, 2010 at 8:36 pm

Beautiful! I loved the colors we saw in Puerto Rico. The buildings were absolutely lovely.

SoloFriendly March 19, 2010 at 2:36 pm

Thanks for commenting, Steph. Exactly – nothing is ever black and white. Obviously there are people who live there who are not drug dealers, users, or criminals in any way. So what's the story for them?

Stephanie March 19, 2010 at 2:28 pm

Great! I was also fascinated by La Perla, it's so pretty yet so forbidden. On my site I wrote that it was dangerous and I ended up hearing from readers that the situation is actually quite complicated and not so black and white.

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