From The Slums To The Sun — A San Juan, Puerto Rico Visual Recollection

San Juan, Puerto Rico proved to be one of the most beautiful places on earth, even after the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria.

However, amongst all beauty lies a less attractive reality that must be kept hidden so that the beauty is able to shine brightest.

This is La Perla. The Puerto Rican slum known for being the backdrop of the much less intimidating hit single Despacito — which became the most viewed music video of all time in August 2017.

That’s just a month prior to Hurricane Maria.

Against the advice of many locals, we decided to venture into La Perla on our own in order to uncover what little beauty may be left. On top of that, we made it a goal to find our own way into a small neighborhood called Old San Juan. A gorgeous part of San Juan that one must travel through La Perla in order to truly enjoy.

This was a difficult adventure due to the fact that we were told that locals would grab phones/cameras out of the hands of whoever they deem fit (something which did happen to me) and never give it back (something that didn’t happen to me). Whew!

This is a visual recollection of From The Slums To The Sun.

What was once a vital part of Puerto Rico’s rich Art Deco past — now beaten and battered due to environmental wear and tear — Condado’s Miami Building meets us on the way to La Perla. The dark ominous clouds above act as a narrative device, foreshadowing today’s mission.
A quick peek into Condado beach gave us our last glimpse of the simple tourist experience before delving into La Perla.
An introspective sailor hoists his sail and prepares himself for another new adventure into the unknown. A feeling all too familiar.
An extremely narrow tunnel creates the opening for La Perla’s entrance. The task of dodging oncoming traffic made it impossible to pull out a camera but once inside, it becomes obvious how much the domestic infrastructure has changed in comparison to houses we are used to growing up in back home.
When you bring your sites closer to the actual living conditions, the word “slum” finally begins to hold weight. However these are still homes, and with that being said privacy remained an issue here. One woman in specific wanted us to come onto her property for a better look but most did not.
A full overview of the terrain shows these tiny colorful homes known as “shanties” piled on top one another due to the overpopulation and poor quality construction.
The citizens of La Perla remain divided on the attention Despasito has brought to their home. Some say it brings tourists like us who only venture to say they have been where a famous video was shot —and I can’t say I disagree. Others who are happy about the newfound popular have put up this poster in a center square declaring “Welcome to La Perla, the filming site of Despacito” (or at least I think).
The longer we stay, the more the locals begin to give us attention, both positive and negative. A man instructs to travel between the shanties through deep winding stairs for a “surprise”. We get to the bottom and are then instructed to walk through a hole in the center of a decrepit home. We comply…
We enter on the other side to be brought into what looks like a man-made swimming hole, filled with locals young and old having an unfiltered amazing time. I asked what was the point of building something like this literally right in front of the sea when they could just swim there. I was told, The sea is endless. This is small. This is where we can feel close to each other.
The swimming hole they had built acted as a reminder to me of these resident’s ability to enjoy life on a beautiful island despite the heartache that unkept living conditions and natural disasters may bring.
Before we could fully whisk away to Old San Juan we walked through a tiny strip of what seemed best described as La Perla’s downtown. Expensive motorbikes littered the streets. Music was loud and inviting. And the people began to smile more. This was much different from the ambiance of the slums.

Old San Juan was beautiful and well worth the wait. The walls of antipolitical graffiti. The strong standing Albizu University. And my personal favorite, The Caribe Hilton Hotel where you get to sip on a Pina Colada while sitting in the very same bar that Ramon Portas Mingot created the first ever Pina Colada.

But even as I was leaving the safety and beauty of Old San Juan, a part of still felt a strong connection to the realistically grounded slums of La Perla. With that, I looked back once more to see if the slums were visible from where I was. Instead, I saw the most beautiful couple draped in yellows walking towards what could either be the slums or merely just the sun.