Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, U.S. citizens don't pay duty on items brought back to the mainland. And you can still find great bargains on Puerto Rico, where the competition among shopkeepers is fierce. Even though the U.S. Virgin Islands are duty-free, you can often find far lower prices on many items in San Juan than on St. Thomas. Since November 2006, a local 7% sales and use tax has been instituted on most goods and services.
The streets of the Old City, such as Calle Fortaleza, Calle San Francisco, and Calle del Cristo, are the major venues for shopping. After years of trying, local restrictions on operating hours of stores, aimed at protecting small businesses and the religious nature of Sundays in Roman Catholic Puerto Rico, were finally overturned in 2010. Shops and stores are now free to open anytime except between 6am and 11am Sunday mornings. In general, malls in San Juan are open Monday to Saturday 9am to 9pm and Sunday from 10am to 7pm. In such tourism districts as Old San Juan and Condado, most stores still close by 7pm, but Old City shops remain open late whenever cruise ships are at harbor. There are now more 24-hour grocery stores and pharmacies, and Walmart has instituted the concept at a few stores in suburban San Juan.
Native handicrafts can be good buys, including needlework, straw work, ceramics, hammocks, and papier-mâché fruits and vegetables, as well as paintings and sculptures by Puerto Rican artists. Among these, the carved wooden religious idols known as santos (saints) have been called Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the plastic arts and are sought by collectors. For the best selection of santos, head for Galería Botello, Olé, or Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts.
Condado also has a lot of interesting shops, most of which line Avenida Ashford, along with the restaurants, hotels and luxury condominiums.
Puerto Rico's biggest and most up-to-date shopping mall is Plaza Las Américas, in the financial district of Hato Rey, right off the Las Américas Expressway. This complex, with its fountains and modern architecture, has more than 200 mostly upscale shops. The variety of goods and prices is roughly comparable to that of large stateside malls. There are also several top-notch restaurants, a full Cineplex, plus art galleries and food stores. If you want a break from the sun (or if it's raining), there are entertainment options here for all.
Unless otherwise specified, the stores listed can be reached via the Old City Trolley. Likewise, store hours are noted only when they stray from those mentioned above.
Know When the Price Is Right -- The only way to determine if you're paying less for an item in San Juan than you would at home is to find out what the going rate is in your hometown. Obviously, if you can find items in San Juan cheaper than back home, go for it. But know the prices before you go. Otherwise, you could end up lugging merchandise back on an airplane when the same item was available at about the same price, or less, where you live.
Grotesque Masks -- The most popular of all Puerto Rican crafts are the frightening caretas -- papier-mâché masks worn at island carnivals. Tangles of menacing horns, fang-toothed leering expressions, and bulging eyes of these half-demon/half-animal creations send children running and screaming to their parents. At carnival time, they are worn by costumed revelers called vegigantes. Vegigantes often wear bat-winged jumpsuits and roam the streets either individually or in groups.
The origins of these masks and carnivals may go back to medieval Spain and/or tribal Africa. A processional tradition in Spain, dating from the early 17th century, was intended to terrify sinners with marching devils, in the hope that they would return to church. Cervantes described it briefly in Don Quixote. Puerto Rico blended this Spanish procession with the masked tradition brought by slaves from Africa. Some historians believe that the Taínos were also accomplished mask makers, which would make this a very ancient tradition indeed.
The predominant traditional mask colors were black, red, and yellow, all symbols of hellfire and damnation. Today, pastels are more likely to be used. Each vegigante sports at least two or three horns, although some masks have hundreds of horns, in all shapes and sizes. Mask-making in Ponce, the major center for this craft, and in Loíza Aldea, a palm-fringed town on the island's northeastern coast, has since led to a renaissance of Puerto Rican folk art.
The premier store selling these masks is La Calle. Masks can be seen in action at the three big masquerade carnivals on the island: the Ponce Festival in February, the Festival of Loíza Aldea in July, and the Día de las Máscaras at Hatillo in December.
The Coffee of Kings & Popes -- Of all the coffees of Puerto Rico, the best is Alto Grande, which has been a tradition in Puerto Rican households since 1839. Over the years, this super-premium coffee has earned a reputation for being the "coffee of popes and kings," and is hailed as one of the top three coffees in the world. A magnificently balanced coffee, Alto Grande is a rare and exotic coffee with a sweet, pointed aroma and a bright sparkling flavor. The bean is grown in the highest mountains of the Lares range. This coffee is served at leading hotels and restaurants in Puerto Rico. Should you develop a taste for it, it is also available at most groceries in Puerto Rico and through various specialty stores throughout the United States.
Besides Alto Grane, there are other well-known specialty brands, such as Yauco Selecto, and an avalanche of boutique coffee blends have popped up recently. My favorite is Finca Cialitos (www.finacialitos.com), which has rich, complex flavor that becomes familiar fast. It is grown by Joaquin Pastor in Ciales, Puerto Rico. Coffee lovers might want to try Joaquin's gourmet coffee and a few more of the new small labels, which manually roast their coffee to maximize flavor. The regular Puerto Rican coffee -- Café Crema or Yaucono, for instance -- is also quite good.
Shopping for Santos -- The most impressive of the island's crafts are the santos, carved religious figures that have been produced since the 1500s. Craftspeople who make these are called santeros; using clay, gold, stone, or cedar wood, they carve figurines representing saints, usually from 8 to 20 inches (20-51 cm) tall. Before the Spanish colonization, small statues, called zemi, stood in native tribal villages and camps as objects of veneration, and Puerto Rico's santos may derive from that pre-Columbian tradition. Every town has its patron saint, and every home has its santos to protect the family. For some families, worshipping the santos replaces a traditional Mass.
Art historians view the carving of santos as Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the plastic arts. The earliest figures were richly baroque, indicating a strong Spanish influence, but as the islanders began to assert their own identity, the carved figures often became simpler.
In carving santos, craftspeople often used handmade tools. Sometimes such natural materials as vegetable dyes and even human hair were used. The saints represented by most santos can be identified by their accompanying symbols; for example, Saint Anthony is usually depicted with the infant Jesus and a book. The most popular group of santos is the Three Kings. The Trinity and the Nativity are also depicted frequently.
Art experts claim that santos-making approached its zenith at the turn of the 20th century, although hundreds of santeros still practice their craft throughout the island. Serious santos collectors view the former craftsmen of old as the true artists in the field. The best collection of santos is found at Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts.
Some of the best santos on the island can be seen at the Capilla de Cristo in Old San Juan. Perhaps at some future date, a museum devoted entirely to santos will open in Puerto Rico.
A Dying Art: Old Lace -- Another Puerto Rican craft has undergone a big revival just as it seemed that it would disappear forever: lace. Originating in Spain, mundillos (tatted fabrics) are the product of a type of bobbin lace-making. This 5-centuries-old craft exists today only in Puerto Rico and Spain.
The first lace made in Puerto Rico was called torchon (beggar's lace). Early examples of beggar's lace were considered of inferior quality, but artisans today have transformed this fabric into a delicate art form, eagerly sought by collectors. Lace bands called entrados have two straight borders, whereas the other traditional style, puntilla, has both a straight and a scalloped border.
The best outlet in San Juan for lace is Linen House.