If there’s one thing every Caribbean island offers (besides a beach), it’s kitschy souvenirs. From shot glasses to “All I got was this lousy…” t-shirts, these mass-produced trinkets aren’t hard to find. But if you’re looking for something beyond the typical keepsake, you’re going to love what Puerto Rican artisans make by hand. The arts and crafts tradition here goes back centuries and is part of its cultural expression. From fantastical folkloric masks to decorative artwork to the island’s favorite spirit, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the skill and quality of these five wonderfully Puerto Rican souvenirs.
Without a doubt, the single most colorful and iconic souvenir made in Puerto Rico is the vejigante mask. You’ll find these wild-looking and brightly painted masks at stores all over the island, and they deserve a bit of back-story. The vejigante is a folkloric figure whose origins date to medieval Spain. An exaggerated and demonic representation of the infidel Moors, the vejigantes were the highlights of an annual procession. There were precious few moors in Puerto Rico, but the tradition of the vejigante remained and, like so many colonial imports, was given a local twist. It took on African and native Taíno cultural influences, and the vivid colors and characteristics of the masks you see on the walls (beaks, horns and teeth) are unique to the island. It’s a lot of fun to browse the souvenir shops until you find a mask that appeals to you. Masks are made from papier-mâché, coconut shells and gourds, and range from tiny and roughly made trinkets to elaborate creations.
If the vejigante mask is the most iconic souvenir from the island, santos are their most revered. Santos are hand-carved wooden or ceramic figurines of religious figures. The most common are of the Three Kings, who play a prominent role in island lore. The best santos are made by santeros, skilled artisans who are dedicated to this craft and well respected for their skill. The best of these artists have workshops where they teach others their craft, and whose works fetch a premium price. More than souvenirs, these are considered true works of art. But you can also get more affordable santos at most souvenir stores.
The pastel-hued colonial houses and buildings of Old San Juan have helped make the old city one of the most picturesque destinations in the Caribbean. It’s a little cumbersome to take one of these buildings back home with you, but you can bring home a miniature ceramic replica of the old city’s architectural treasures. These hand-painted wall hangings are another common sight at souvenir stores, and range in size and detail (many come with miniature flower beds or other adornments).
It’s no surprise that more than one Pirates of the Caribbean movie was filmed in Puerto Rico. This island has plenty of rum! The greatest rum barons in the world—Bacardi—opened the largest rum distillery in the world in Cataño, across the Bay of San Juan. Bacardi may sell more rum, but if you want a true native product, take home a bottle of Don Q. Other local producers include Ron del Barrilito, which is made in Bayamón, and Caliche Rum, which is from Ponce. There’s only one definitive way to choose your favorite: sample them all!
Guayaberas are certainly not limited to Puerto Rico, but they are widely available and once you wear them you may want to make them part of your daily wardrobe. Ideal for the warm climate of Puerto Rico, these loose-fitting shirts are both stylish and very comfortable.
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200 Convention Boulevard, San Juan, Puerto Rico, United States, 907, (1)(787) 993-3500
Steps from San Juan Bay, our hotel and casino has plenty to offer, from a rooftop pool and full spa to restaurants and meeting spaces.