Some San Juan beaches can get crowded, especially during summer and holiday weekends, but for most of the week, they are deliciously roomy. It's rare to find yourself alone on a beach in San Juan, but if you do, be careful. Petty crime is a reality you need to keep in mind. The city beaches are actually very safe, friendly and well protected places. They are also surprisingly pretty; Ocean Park and Pine Grove are among the most charming beaches in all of Puerto Rico, for example.
All beaches on Puerto Rico, even those fronting the top hotels, are open to the public. Public bathing beaches, with lifeguards and facilities, are called balnearios and charge for parking and for use of lockers and showers. Beach hours in general are 9am to 5pm in winter, to 6pm off-season. Most balnearios are operated by the Puerto Rico National Parks Company, with others operated by island municipalities. For all balnearios, entrance is free but the parking carries a fee. So even when the beaches are closed, you can still enjoy them. There just won't be facilities open, lifeguards, or, in some cases, available parking.
There are two public beaches in the San Juan area with lifeguards, bathing and changing rooms, and showers. El Escambrón public beach (Ave. Muñoz Rivera, Pda. 8 -- that is, parada, or stop 8 -- Puerta de Tierra; tel. 787/721-6133; Wed-Sun and holidays 8:30am-5pm; parking $3.20) is right next to the Caribe Hilton and surrounded by two sprawling parks. There's a great swimming beach protected by reefs and rock formations jutting out of the water. The famed El 8 surf spot is just to the west, however. There's good snorkeling around the rocks with lots of fish. There's a snack bar and a full-scale restaurant located here. The other public beach is Isla Verde public beach (Av. Los Gobernadores, Carolina; tel. 787/791-8084; Tues-Sun 8:30am-5pm; parking $4), a huge expanse of white sand and tranquil waters between Isla Verde and Piñones. There are lifeguards; changing rooms, bathrooms and showers; and picnic areas and barbecue grills, as well as an on-site restaurant.
Famous with beach buffs since the 1920s, Condado Beach put San Juan on the map as a tourist resort. Backed up against high-rise hotels, it seems more like Miami Beach than any other beach in the Caribbean. All sorts of watersports can be booked at the activities desk of the hotels. A small beach near the Condado Plaza hotel is the only one with lifeguards, which are on duty from 8:30am to 5pm. There are also outdoor showers. The beaches in the rest of the Condado are much nicer, but because there are no lifeguards and the surf can get rough, particularly by the San Juan Marriott, swimmers should exercise caution. There are powerful rip tides here that have been responsible for past drownings. There are no public toilets here. People-watching is a favorite sport along these golden strands, which stretch from the Ventana del Mar park to beyond the Marriott. The best stretch of beach in the Condado runs from the Ashford Presbyterian hospital to Ocean Park. The area behind the Atlantic Beach Hotel is popular with the gay crowd; the beach farther along, with Marriott guests and surfers, is also pretty but has extremely rough waters at times.
One of the most attractive beaches in the Greater San Juan area is Ocean Park Beach, a mile (1.6km) of fine, gold sand in a neighborhood east of Condado. This beach attracts young people, travelers looking for a guesthouse rather than the large hotel experience, and those looking for a big gay crowd. The beach runs from Parque del Indio in Condado all the way to the Barbosa Park in the area known as El Ultimo Trolley and offers paddle tennis, kite-boarding, and beach volleyball. You can grab lunch and refreshments from several area guesthouses, and vendors walk up and down the beach, selling cold beer, water and soft drinks, and even snacks such as fried seafood turnovers. Farther east, there's no real beach at Punta Las Marías, but it's one of the favorite launch points for windsurfers.
Isla Verde Beach is the longest and widest in San Juan. It is ideal for swimming, and it, too, is lined with high-rise resorts a la Miami Beach. Many luxury condos are on this beachfront. Isla Verde is good for watersports, including parasailing and snorkeling, because of its calm, clear waters, and many kiosks will rent you equipment, especially by the El San Juan. There are also cafes and restaurants at hotels and more reasonably priced individual restaurants nearby.
Isla Verde Beach extends from the end of Ocean Park to the beginning of a section called Boca Cangrejos. The most popular beach is probably behind the Hotel El San Juan and the Intercontinental San Juan hotels. But Pine Grove beach, behind the Ritz-Carlton, is a great swimming beach and very popular as well, particularly with surfers and sailors.