Lonely Planet has partnered with San Juan-based travel community Platea to provide comprehensive guides, curated lists and insider tips for your next trip to Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s love affair with coffee dates back to 1736 when the Spanish first arrived on the island. The amazing bean quickly became one of the country’s dominant cash crops, filling San Juan with the rich aroma of coffee. The industry is still going strong, despite many setbacks over the centuries, most recently Hurricane Maria, which ravaged many coffee plantations on the island in 2017.
Today, Puerto Rican coffee is once again flourishing and coffee lovers can savor its deep, sweet flavor and robust aromas all over the island. From simple kiosks in the middle of popular food markets to historic farms in the mountains, there are plenty of places to enjoy a great cup of locally-grown coffee.
Here’s a guide to the best coffee shops and cafés in San Juan.
Café Regina – big coffee flavor in a small package
Café Regina started out as a modest kiosk at Lote 23, a thriving gastronomic park in the heart of Santurce. This open-air food market is home to around a dozen kiosks serving interesting and varied treats, from poke bowls and pizza to burgers and mofongo (mashed plantains).
The kiosk quickly became known for its espresso and experimental coffee drinks such as the Café Regina, a blend of the shop’s cold brew, ginger beer, lime and housemade coconut and cardamom syrup. Another reputation builder was their insanely good cashew iced milk latte, crafted with their own cashew milk.
The popularity of the Lote 23 kiosk compelled owner Kali Jean Solack to open a second location in Ocean Park, providing a chance to expand Café Regina’s food menu. At 58 Calle Taft, you can kick-start the day with caffeine and a papaya bowl, a firm fan favorite.
Locally sourced papaya is topped with freshly made granola, queso fresco crumbles, honey and lime zest, and served with pecan butter from Spread Happiness, a local company specializing in small-batch nut butter. At lunchtime, pickled radish and black garlic make for an interesting twist on their avocado toast; garlic is fermented underground until it becomes black, imparting a uniquely sweet and earthy flavor.
787 Coffee, ethical brews from modern coffee pioneers
It all began with an abandoned farm in the hills and a passion to revitalize and promote Puerto Rico’s coffee industry. In 2014, Brandon Pena and Sam Sepulveda took a leap of faith and purchased a defunct coffee plantation in the mountain region of Maricao, one of Puerto Rico’s poorest communities.
Fueled by a mission to provide employment opportunities, practice agricultural sustainability and follow higher than fairtrade standards, the farm was rebranded as “Hacienda Iluminada.” So began the 787 Coffee brand, which now manages 14 coffee shops in Puerto Rico and New York City.
Hacienda Iluminda’s farmers all hail from Maricao (located in the western part of the island) and surrounding communities, and Pena and Sepulveda’s business model promotes gender equality within the industry. Responding to the poor representation of women in the coffee business, they hired a female roaster and women make up 75 percent of the 787 Coffee leadership.
In San Juan, you can caffeinate at the conveniently located 787 Coffee shops in Santurce or Isla Verde (plans to open a new location on the Hacienda Iluminada plantation are in the works for 2022).
Their coffee’s distinct flavor profile – rich with dark chocolate, citrus and butter notes – garnered the coffee-maker the first place Best Coffee-People’s Choice Award at Puerto Rico’s Coffee and Chocolate Expo in 2021.
Patrons tend to gravitate to the coquito latte – a traditional holiday Puerto Rican drink made with four different kinds of milk, a blend of spices, two shots of espresso and (according to Pena) plenty of love! The cafe also has a light food menu featuring quesitos, traditional Puerto Rican pastries filled with guava or almonds, as well as perfectly baked empanadas (savory stuffed pastries) served with their scratch-made chili sauce.
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Gustos Coffee Company, San Juan’s coffee professionals
This homey cafe’s ambiance and tempting pastry aromas provide a cozy contrast to the bustling San Juan industrial district in which it’s located. The strong and flavorful coffee they serve is quite a lure, too. The beans are 100 percent Arabica, plucked from Puerto Rican farms in Yauco, Las Marías and Adjuntas.
Gustos coffee is roasted fresh each day in small batches. If your visit coincides with roasting time, you can watch the process through a window that reveals the roasting and packing areas.
Whenever you come, linger over an artfully poured espresso or latte, likely produced by a graduate from Gustos’ barista training school. Based at the coffee factory, their training program teaches staff superior brewing skills, and Gustos also hosts a variety of workshops for all coffee lovers on subjects such as milk texturing, latte art, pour-over brewing methods and more.
Alongside a reviving brew, tuck into warm apple cinnamon cake or choose from a selection of breakfasts and snacks – sandwiches, salads, wraps and more. The reach of the Gustos Coffee Company extends beyond the doors of their popular neighborhood coffee house; they also create artisan roasts for local restaurants, hotels, cafeterias and bakeries.
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Café Don Ruiz, rich brews in a historic location
It feels only fitting that a fourth-generation coffee grower should have a cafe in one of San Juan’s most historic landmarks, the Cuartel de Ballajá (Ballajá Barracks). Built between 1854 and 1864, the military barracks once housed Spanish troops, but behind the utilitarian facade of this imposing building, Café Don Ruiz is a modern haven, with a slight European cafe feel.
Convinced that Puerto Rico was one of the best coffee-growing locations in the world, Eugenio “Don” Ruiz began cultivating coffee in the town of Yauco in the late 1800s. The surrounding mountain slopes hover at 3000ft (914m) above sea level, providing ideal temperatures for prolonging the development of coffee berries.
The longer maturation process makes for deeper and more complex flavors in the final brews. The Yuaco hacienda is still family-run today, and the beans are still plucked by hand by local pickers. Most of the beans are roasted onsite in Yauco, but small batches are roasted on the coffee shop premises, and visitors can watch the process.
These traditional methods translate into beautifully flavorsome cups of coffee. Café Don Ruiz coffee is considered among the world’s best, and their coffee shop serves brunch all day. Take your pick from paninis, pastries and the iconic Mallorca – a Puerto Rican ham and egg sandwich nestled inside fluffy, buttery bread and dusted with powdered sugar.
If you swing by for a cup, take time to explore the small coffee museum, with its well-curated collection of antique coffee-making accessories and roasting equipment.
Cuatro Sombras, modern coffee know-how in Old San Juan
Opened in 2011, Cuatro Sombras was Old San Juan’s first micro-roastery, but this is coffee with heritage. Pablo Muñoz, who co-owns the coffee shop with Mariana Suárez, can trace his coffee-growing lineage back to Domingo Mariani, who settled in the mountains of Yauco in 1846 and established Santa Clara, a coffee venture that thrived internationally for decades.
The couple revitalized the defunct Santa Clara hacienda, renaming it Cuatros Sombras, translating to “four shades” – a nod to traditional methods of growing coffee under the shade of four different species of trees.
Today, the plantation supplies fine beans to the Cuatro Sombras cafe on Calle del Recinto Sur, conveniently located for easy access to shopping in the historic heart of San Juan. With its prime location and near-perfect coffee, the cafe is an incredibly popular rest stop for both locals and visitors.
Don’t be deterred by the long line – the coffee will be well worth the wait. If you like an extra kick, go for the pour-over or French press-style coffee; both brewing methods bring out the chocolate and caramel notes of the beans.
The drinks menu also features plenty of familiar coffee shop offerings, from Americanos, lattes and espressos to macchiatos. Consider a coquito shot, a caffeinated twist on Puerto Rico’s version of eggnog. However you take your coffee, supplement a cup of Joe with freshly baked pastries, waffles, croissant sandwiches and paninis.
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