If I am being completely honest, some days it is a struggle to do the research necessary to write an article that I am proud of. I supplement in-person experiences with internet research, as well as conversations with locals and other travelers, making sure to take copious notes and large numbers of photos. It can be a bit of a burden. Today is not one of those days.
I close my eyes against the sun, warm and pleasant on this perfect afternoon in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I take a sip, then another, of the sweet, strong, cold, creamy beverage in my hand. No, today my work is not a burden. Not at all.
How and where the pina colada was invented is a bit of a debate – more on that in a bit – but a few basic facts are beyond questioning. First, it was invented here in San Juan. Second, it has spread into worldwide folklore and legend from this small Caribbean island, so whether you are like Rupert Holmes and “like pina coladas [and] getting caught in the rain” or tend toward Garth Brooks, needing “two pina coladas… one for each hand,” modern society has drilled into you the connection between this drink and a good time. Finally, it must include rum, pineapple, and coconut.
Our story begins in San Juan in 1954, at the Caribe Hilton, about two miles east of Old San Juan. Here at the hotel’s bar, bartender Ramon Marrero was asked to create a signature drink for the hotel. His result: the pina colada, one so good that hotel guest Joan Crawford allegedly declared was “better than slapping Bette Davis in the face.” The bar itself is today unassuming, sitting in a lovely half-open-air lobby. Plaques on the wall behind detail the creation of the drink, cementing the hotel’s fame. And the pina colada itself? Hand blended by a bartender who was just starting off when Marrero was still there. It is creamy and delicious, perfect for an afternoon spent sitting outside, watching the hotel’s pools on one side and private beach on the other.
Just two miles away, in the heart of Old San Juan, sits Barrachina. This restaurant also claims to have invented the pina colada, though nearly a decade later, in 1963. As with the Hilton, they also have a plaque. Unlike the Hilton, they have literally hundreds of tourists coming in for the drink daily, itching to try the “original.” I join the queue. The pina colada here is, in many ways, nearly identical to the one at the Caribe Hilton. However, due to the exigencies of volume, here it is done out of a slushy machine. Rum joins a cup, the pina colada slushy is poured over the top, and customers stir before drinking. The use of the machine causes a few things. First, the drink tastes stronger, since the occasional less-mixed sip is one of pure rum. Second, the drinks are all identical to each other, not subject to small changes in a bartender’s ratios. I take mine to nearby Plaza de Armas – San Juan is very liberal with open carry of liquor – to drink in the sun among the pigeons.
These two competing tales of the pina colada’s beginnings offer one easy method of reconciliation: try one of each! After all, just like we do here at The Royal Tour, it is necessary to have complete research, done from all sides.
The pina colada doesn’t stop there, however. Some local bars have taken upon themselves to adapt, or some would say improve, the original. It is a short walk from Barrachina to La Casita, a historic pink hut sitting alongside the harbor waterfront in Old San Juan. A small, but cute, outdoor patio with shade provided by hanging pots of ferns greets visitors eager to make their way to the bar for not one, but two, more modern pina coladas. Both are served over ice, rather than blended, meaning they aren’t diluted like the others. (Read: for lightweight drinkers like myself, they are strong.) The 1950 Hand Shake Colada is a basic pina colada served over ice. It is familiar and refreshing. The Sexy Colada adds ginger, a bit of salt, and a “floater” of Bacardi Black for an extra punch. Whichever you choose to have, you’ll be pleased, and shockingly at a price point less than the blended drinks I “researched” earlier.
System a bit full, it is time for a long walk back to San Juan’s modern and upscale Condado neighborhood. (It is also a short Uber, but the walk feels pretty good after the drinks.) Wicked Lily is a cool bar and bistro sitting inside the Tryst Hotel, overlooking Condado Beach a mere few steps down. Their take on the pina colada? Lily’s Colada, which adds cinnamon and vanilla to the original, and is served over ice with nutmeg cream (to die for) over the top. As with the ginger, vanilla is a natural partner for pineapple, and the drink is smooth, strong, and a perfect complement to the blue waters below me.
Other bars have other takes, but the rum goes quickly to my head in the humid warmth of a San Juan afternoon, and as much as I would like to wander the streets of the city trying them all, I do have other work to do, and other stories to write. But today, in this moment, my job is a true joy, one I am excited to share with all of you. I raise my final colada to my lips once more. Salud!
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