Puerto Rico Diary 4: Caveat Emptor

The Church, by Wilfredo Labiosa In which we come to the final part of the journey, the part where you scour your vacation destination in search of unique swag to bring back for family and friends. If you’ve ever been to Times Square or the Theater District in Manhattan, or anywhere frequented by tourists in nearly any major metropolitan area in the United States, you’ve already got a pretty good idea of what we encountered in Puerto Rico. In San Juan, one smallish hole-in-the-wall purveyor of cheap Chinese-made tchochkes, in fact, had thoughtfully but bluntly been named, “The Tourist Trap.”

As with any other trip — whether around the world, or around the block — a little persistance pays off. If you’d like something unique from your stay in Puerto Rico, there are two places that we’d highly recommend. This will sound like an advertisement, but rest assured we didn’t receive compensation from either place; we were just overjoyed to find somewhere that wasn’t hawking the same chintzy t-shirts, beach towels, and license plates that you could probably get on the NJ Turnpike (though if that’s your bag, you’ll find no shortage, either in San Juan or in Ponce).

First, a couple of doors down Calle Teutan from the aforementioned Tourist Trap, visit the Galeria W. Labiosa. The Labiosa in question is Wilfred Labiosa, an affable American expat who exhibits the works of a dozen or a score or so local artists alongside his own cheerful watercolors. I should add that not only the scenery (buildings and street scenes from San Juan, the Festival de San Sebastian, and elsewhere on the island) but also the styles are distinctly local, which is to say you won’t find any Mona Lisas in tropical garb.

Bear in mind that you’ll see these prints and watercolors in shops all over Viejo San Juan, including one higher-end (read: pricey) shop that advertises that the works they sell are entirely by local artisans and craftspeople.¹ But they’ll be much more expensive, and you won’t have the distinct pleasure of chatting with Wilfred in his little gallery.

We chanced upon the other shop on our last, enforced, day in San Juan (I say “enforced” ’cause we’d missed our flight, and we sure as hell weren’t going to chance missing it a second time by going back whence we’d come). We must have passed The Butterfly People (257 Calle de la Cruz) three times, at a minimum, the first time in San Juan, but were glad to have stumbled upon it regardless. The first, most striking, thing you’ll notice is wall-to-wall butterflies under glass. Very artfully presented, mind you. This isn’t the stuff of seventh grade science projects (unless you were a lot more artistically gifted in seventh grade than most people); these are some serious lepidoptera.

Fear not; if insects under glass aren’t exactly your cup of tea, there’s other things besides wingèd crawlies. There’s an assortment of other bits and pieces, from silk scarves to jewelry made… well, from more crawlies, but you’ve got to see them. They’re cool. Well, if your idea of “cool” extends to wearing a scorpion in what looks like Perspex. They’ll even go with your coqui t-shirt, if you cave in and buy one.

¹ No, I don’t remember the name of the shop, and I didn’t write it down on purpose. The staff weren’t very helpful, the pricing steep, and I’m skeptical when I see a shop charging that much for things supposedly locally-made, because I always have the suspicion that the shop is pocketing a much steeper markup than they’ve passed along to the person who did the hard work in the first place.