Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Festival of San Sebastian

When my friends Mandy and Nick were first planning their visit to Puerto Rico, we had planned on spending Sunday and Monday in Old San Juan, sightseeing and enjoying the picturesque city.  As we discussed what we’d do when they came, this idea became more of a possibility and less of a sure thing, because we had so many options.

Not three days before they arrived, I found out that the weekend Mandy and Nick would be in Puerto Rico, an enormous street festival would be taking place in Old San Juan.  And I don’t mean an oversized arts and crafts fair.  I mean that the Festival of San Sebastian is one of the biggest events of the year.  Tens of thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of people flock to OSJ for the festival, which includes artisans, food, parades, and LOTS of partying. 

After a bit of deliberation, the three of us decided that despite the crowds, seeing Old San Juan was a can’t-miss attraction, and that the cultural aspects of the festival were most likely worth it.  We decided to go into the city Sunday afternoon, and stay in San Juan (not Old San Juan; we stayed on the beach in a quieter section of the city instead) that night. 

The crowds were intense.  By 1pm on Sunday, it was pretty much impossible to drive into Old San Juan.  Traffic was too far backed up.  On Calle de San Sebastian, it was shoulder-to-shoulder people drinking, eating, and waiting for the parade to begin.

Walking to Old San Juan from where we parked.

Calle de San Sebastian...BEFORE the parade.

When the parade did start, it was not at all what I was expecting.  It took place on the narrow street of San Sebastian, which has barely enough room for a sidewalk, let alone room for 100,000 people to get out of the way of a parade.  The streets were not blocked off, and the crowds did not get out of them when the “parade” came through.  There were no beautiful floats, motorized vehicles, or marching bands.  What there were were groups of people walking en mass in matching t-shirts, carrying billboards advertising whatever company they were promoting, and sometimes wearing masks or walking on stilts.  Some groups had a few people who played music or drums as they walked along, which was cool.   But mostly, I was not impressed.

The parade.  Absolut Vodka making their way down
the street.

On stilts.

After almost 40 minutes of being jostled by crowds and seeing maybe 4-5 groups parade by amidst the mobs of people, the five of us (me, Mandy, Nick, Rachel, and Danielle) cut away from the hustle and bustle and headed to San Cristobal fort.  There, admission was free (due to Martin Luther King Day), and there were no crowds.  We passed a peaceful hour roaming the fort walls and taking in the late afternoon glow that coats the city around 4:30pm. 

View of the city from the WW2 bunker

Perfect perch to watch the city

We finished out the evening as far away from Calle de San Sebastian as possible—eating dinner in a restaurant on Paseo de la Princesa, near the waterfront. 

Though the festival was not my cup of tea, and I didn’t stay to experience the wild nightlife, I did enjoy the day, and I am glad I went.  I just realized I never made it to the square of all the artisans… maybe I’ll just have to go again next year, after all.  

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