June 9, 2016

El Batey in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Interior of El Batey in Old San Juan

photo by: Jorge Gonzalez/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The walls of El Batey are covered in the scrawled signatures of decades of patrons.

Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. So while some may look at El Batey in Old San Juan and see a cramped, seedy dive bar, others see a history-rich relic that plays host to some of the city’s most interesting characters.

El Batey is one of the last remaining bastions of the 1960s-era San Juan chronicled by Hunter S. Thompson in his novel The Rum Diary. At the time, the city was being transformed by a steady trickle of tourists from the mainland and a boom in high-rise construction that threatened to fundamentally change the island’s historic fabric. Today, the bar, notorious for $2 beers and a cave-like interior, with walls that sweat in the heat and are covered in decades of graffiti, is the exact place to go if you’re craving old Puerto Rican authenticity.

But Thompson wasn’t the only famous patron to set foot inside El Batey, which has kept its doors open for beer lovers and night owls alike since the 1960s. The Rolling Stones also loved making pit stops there whenever they were in Puerto Rico, and the jukebox reflects the era of their musical heyday; for 25 cents per tune, you can choose from a selection of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Sinatra, and others.

Exterior of El Batey in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

photo by: Jenni Konrad/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

From the outside, El Batey doesn't look like much more than a hole in the wall.

If you’re hankering for a pina colada or anything else with a tiny umbrella, you might want to look elsewhere. This joint specializes in beer and rum drinks; most notably, the El Batey-style Cuba Libre, a boozier take on the classic Caribbean combination of rum, Coke, and lime juice. Another popular choice is the local Medalla Light beer.

From around 1975 until his passing in August 2015, this classic haunt was owned by the cigar-puffing Navy veteran David Jones. His memory, though, lives on in the still-smoke-filled interior.

Here are a few things you should know before stepping inside:

Location: Calle de Cristo 101, San Juan, Puerto Rico 00901. (Located right across the street from the famous El Convento Hotel, a former convent dating to the 1640s.)

Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, 2 p.m.-12 a.m. (or whenever the bartenders decide to close); Closed Monday and Tuesday.

You’re having: The El Batey Cuba Libre, or any other rum-based drink. Ask for a local rum.

Best Yelp review: “Just amazing. Everything you read about this place’s diveyness is true and wonderful. Just go. It’s magic.” – Margarita S.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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