San Juan, Puerto Rico Report of what it's like to live there - 06/16/13

Personal Experiences from San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan, Puerto Rico 06/16/13


1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

This was our third overseas post, though technically the State Department considers it a domestic assignment. We've been in north Africa and another Caribbean assignment in addition to this one.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

We are based out of DC though we occasionally fly out of Florida. There are non-stop flights daily, and are usually about 3-4 hours to the east coast of the US.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Nearly two years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

My spouse is an employee of the USG.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Most families choose to live in gated suburban neighborhoods in Guaynabo, Trujilio Alto, Bayamon, Carolina and Montihedria. Condado would probably be more appealing to singles or couples with out kids, although there are a lot of expat families living in Condado. But because there is NO HOUSING ALLOWANCE here the more beachy areas can get very expensive when going past one or two bedrooms.
Houses are concrete block construction and vary greatly. It is not hard to find one with a pool, though with utilities so high it is also not uncommon to find one without basic appliances such as an oven, clothes dryer or dishwasher. Most houses have mini-split A/C units. A lot of houses have security bars over doors and windows and house alarms are strongly encouraged.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

As stated earlier, because much of the food here is imported it is expensive. There are several grocery chains on the island, as well as Home Depot, Sam's Club and Costco. There are specialty foods such as gluten free, lactose free, etc. etc available at Freshmart stores. We have a peanut allergic child and buy sunflower seed butter there. Just about anything you need or want is available, you just have to ask around. Someone will know!

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Nothing really. Between Walmart, Costco, Sam's, Kmart and Freshmart you can find pretty much everything you need food-wise. It has taken a while, but I've been able to find cloth diapers, craft supplies, etc.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

Every sort of US fast food is here. There are also food vans, roadside pincho (kebab) places, and truly 5 star fine dining. The costs are comparable to DC area prices. A really fun way to discover the foodie delights of Old San Juan would be to take a tasting tour with You can do tours of food, tapas, rum, coffee and desserts. The owner is a US expat and can do general tours as well as things specialized for vegetarian, gluten free or allergen free diets.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Dengue, dengue and dengue. Mosquitoes are a big problem! People also have the occasional cockroach, spiders and most everyone has ants at some point. Just about everyone also has those little fruit flies that are a pain to get rid of but not really dangerous. Fleas and ticks are a problem but preventative pet medication and treatments are readily available. Termites can be a problem, too.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Good old regular US Mail. Some stores will not ship here (Target, for example).

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

It varies. I have some expat friends who have a housekeeper come twice a month, and she gets $60- $80 a day. I don't know the costs of having someone every day. Lawn care once a month for us costs $70- $90 depending on how messy the yard is.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are several. I go to a ladies-only gym that is a little worn down but has child care included in the very reasonable membership cost. My husband works out in the gym at Ft. Buchanan. There are some nice new high-end ones opening up now.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

They are widely accepted. Debit cards are referred to as ATH and most stores accept them, too. There have been stories of credit card numbers being stolen from gas stations. You have to pay before you can pump gas here, and there are no pay-at-the-pump machines in use. This means you have to go inside the store, hand over your credit card, go pump gas, then come back and pick up the card.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Yes. Catholic, non-denominational Christian, Baptist, and Jewish services in English. I'm sure there are probably more.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

We get Direct TV from the US for $70 a month. There is the San Juan Star, USA Today and Caribbean Business news that are all M-F daily papers in English. They run about $1 a copy. The Spanish language dailies are given away for free in the streets.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

LOTS. It is absolutely essential and don't let anyone tell you it's not, because they obviously haven't lived here if they say that! While many Puerto Ricans do speak at least some English, it is not as common as you would think. Making appointments, dealing with service people, getting help all requires Spanish. You may be able to find plenty of doctors that speak English but if the receptionists don't then you have a big problem.

That said, most Puerto Ricans have very little patience with anyone who doesn't speak 'Bourrican' (PR Spanish). Native Spanish speakers from Mexico and Guatemala have told me that the second a Puerto Rican hears them speaking Spanish they (the PRian) switches to English. Again, it is one of those weird things about Puerto Rico. In my experience there is a common disbelief that a person living here would not speak Spanish. I've had many people state to me that I really do understand more than I'm letting on, and their suspiciousness boarders on hostility. Kind of a 'yeah suuuuure you don't understand Spanish. Right. And you've been living her HOW long?' attitude.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

I would say that there are probably more places here that are ADA compliant than in many other non-CONUS posts, but there are a lot of cobblestone roads with tiny or non-existant sidewalks, old historic buildings full of shops and restaurants with weird nooks and crannies and uneven flooring, and teensie tiny bathrooms.

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1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Both safe and affordable. We have used taxis for getting to and from the airport. Make sure they turn on the meter or agree on a price ahead of time.

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

The roads have really big potholes and sinkholes. And the driving is like nothing I've seen before. I just pretend that every other driver on the road is drunk and texting -- and take it from there. Most every other place I've lived or visited has weird traffic, but if you pay attention and watch long enough, it is possible to figure out the unwritten local rules of the road. Here I can't seem to find a consistent pattern. It is just a bunch of randomness, and getting into an accident isn't a matter of 'if' as much as a matter of 'when' and to what degree.
You will see every kind of car imaginable in every condition imaginable. From Ferraris and Teslas to rusted out beaters with the front grill off and a three-inch-thick chain and padlock keeping the hood down. (all in my neighborhood!!)

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Yes, it is available and is $55 per month with the basic phone line included.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

Don't carry it in a place that thieves can easily access. I've had several friends get their phones stolen right out of their purses and diaper bags.

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1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?


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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

There is high-quality pet care available. We have used our neighborhood vet for vaccines, and the 24-hour vet when our dog bit a bufo toad, which is often deadly. They were able to treat him. We have boarded our dog at a small pet boutique, at the vet, and at Petsmart.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Many of the expats in my social group are here with an employed spouse, often with the government, upper education, construction, medical or pharmacudical industry. The trailing spouses seem to struggle to find jobs. Some have started their own business, but many are frustrated.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Clothing here runs the gamut of very dressy to very, very casual. Many women seem to favor platform stiletto shoes and very tight flashy clothing. Most work places have business attire dress codes. On more formal occasions men can get away with wearing a guayabera and slacks instead of a suit.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

It is really sad that Puerto Rico has a tremendous crime problem, and according to the locals it is getting worse. There are more murders per capita than in NYC, LA, etc. Corruption is also a huge problem. Carjackings are frequent, as are home invasions and attacks on law enforcement officers. Here is a link to an article in the Caribbean Business online news source that lists crime statistics Drugs, drug trafficking and the related crime are a very real problem as well.

On a personal note, a real estate agent thought it was a great selling feature to show us how the hinges on the outside doors of a house were hidden, thus making them less vulnerable to a home invasion. A newly arrived agent here had his hotel room robbed **while** he and his family were asleep in the room. Several expat wives have been mugged while jogging in busy and touristy areas in Condado, and and a senior at my daughter's school was murdered during a carjacking when returning from a beach weekend with his family. His mom, grandma and little sister were in the car behind him when it happened. At Plaza Las Americas a friend witnessed a carjacking outside of PF Changs. The really scary part is how under-reported the crime is here.

Honestly if it weren't for the crime this would pretty much be paradise. The warm weather, kind people, ability to get familiar products and food (Hello Nestle morsels! Hello Clorox in eleventybillion scents!) all make for a great place to live, until you consider you might get carjacked getting the groceries, phone snatched from your stroller bag while you shop, etc.etc.etc. It is very unfortunate.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

Dengue is a HUGE problem.
Medical care here is OK. It is not like going to the doctor in the US. Most doctors claim to take appointments, but will tell you to come in at either 9AM or 1PM. When you get to the doctor your name goes on the list and the doctor takes patients on a first come-first-serve basis. This leaves many people sitting in waiting rooms for several hours. Plan accordingly with snacks, cell phone chargers and toys if you have small children.
Nursing care is a joke at best. Nurses do not usually use a stethoscope when attempting to take your blood pressure, nor are they allowed to administer IV medicines in the hospital.
If you are in the hospital you will need to bring your own sheets, pillows, blankets and towels. In order to keep infections down they keep most areas of the hospital so cold you need to bring a winter coat. I'm not exaggerating, you will see people going into the ER with down parkas.

I add this story only to highlight the nonsense that is medical care in PR. For emergencies with children I recommend San Jorge hospital in Santurce. We had a medical emergency and went to the ER at Centro Medico (because it was the closest) and waited over 7 hours for treatment (as in: not even seen, not on a gurney, sitting in the waiting area holding my child in my arms for that long) and only got treatment by threatening to leave, which at that point they threatened us will calling Social Services for leaving without having been seen. At the end of it all, I had to give my daughter medicine from my purse because they didn't have it at the hospital, and the nurse chewed me out for it being generic and not name brand.

Compare that experience to a few months later when our youngest broke her arm and we were in and out of San Jorge in 4 hours, sadly her broken arm was misdiagnosed as nursemaid's elbow, which was discovered in follow up care with the orthopedist the next day, an appointment I called and INSISTED on. Lucky us, we only had to wait 1.5 hours to be 'fit in' for that. As I said, a big bunch of nonsense. Don't get sick or hurt here.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

The air quality is good to moderate, unless there is a sandstorm in Africa that then blows over here. It has only happened once or twice while we were here. The sea winds usually blow pollution away. Given how damp it is, there is a great deal of mold and mildew on the island and many people have had respiratory issues. Colds can be hard to shake.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Warm, hot, then hurricanes, then hot again. Our first 'winter' here it got cooler in the evenings, what I'd call light jacket weather. Everyone said it was unusually cold. This year we had no real winter to speak of. People wear jeans or long pants in air conditioned buildings but it is pretty much spring and summer weather all year round. I think it is lovely, aside from the hurricanes.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I don't know if the bidding tool has been changed yet, but State is NO LONGER ALLOWING people to cost-construct schooling. That means the only option available for school-age kids is to send them to the DODD school at Ft. Buchanan. Here is a link to Antilles School: I cannot comment on the school because none of our children went there. It has a good reputation in the community.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

Antilles School would be able to best answer that question directly. I know a family with a special-needs child who went there and received services.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are many preschools available, some in home and some in centers. We chose to send our 3 year old to PPP (Parent's Participation Preschool) located on the same campus as The American Military Academy in Guaynabo. The school is mostly taught in English, though our daughter picked up a lot of Spanish there as well. The teachers and assistants were kind and loving with the children. It was not what I was expecting from a 'parenting participation' standpoint. I guess I had expected a bit more of a hands-on atmosphere, where we would be expected to volunteer in the classroom. Instead, we volunteered on committees and to be quite honest they pretty much only wanted us to decorate and donate $$$. There wasn't any real time spent actually helping out in the classroom.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

There are sports programs through the schools and independent ones as well. There are many martial arts studios, yoga for kids, gymnastics and dance schools.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Very large and active. I've joined a playgroup for my kids, a swap-meet group and a book club. There is also a very active Newcomer's Club that is very welcoming. There are jogging clubs, too.

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2. Morale among expats:

Like anywhere, it runs the spectrum. It helps to have the grouchy friends to vent with but happy friends to help you see the bright side.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

We tend to hang out with the other FS families and expat families. Our social circles from school, work and expat groups tend to overlap, so we see the same crowd in many places and parties. Because of the lovely weather most of the year, hosting a party is a lot of fun.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

If you can set aside the crime, it is a great place to have little kids. Puerto Ricans are warm and loving towards little ones. I would not want to have a teenager here. I think singles and couples would have a great time in PR. There is a busy night life and tons of great little restaurants to go to.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

Ricky Martin. Need I say more? Seriously though, PR is a very Catholic country. Some people are going to have a problem with it, but there is an active gay/lesbian/trans community.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Does running the risk of choking to death on clouds of Axe Body Spray count as a gender prejudice? Kidding, kidding. Machismo is alive and well here. On a positive note, so is chivalry. I can't tell you how many doors I've had held for me. I've had a man help me get shopping carts apart while I was struggling in the parking lot (holding a squirmy toddler). Many of my friends have had people offer to help them load their groceries into their cars.
PR is mostly Catholic. Christmas is a HUGE deal here and you will see nativity scenes everywhere. The Three Kings, too. I know there is an active Jewish community. I have met one (!!) Muslim here. She told me that there used to be a bigger community but that it is much smaller now, and that people asked her a lot of questions about her head covering.
There are racial issues here, as well. I know an expat family that experienced not getting served in a restaurant. They suspect it was because they are a mixed race couple. There is a great deal of prejudice against anyone even suspected of being from the Dominican Republic. The Dominican drug traffickers get blamed for every criminal act on the island, weather legitimate or not.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

The beaches, going to the Aricebo radio dish and lighthouse, snorkeling in Fajardo, I really love the beach in Pinones near Isla Verde. It has a reef that protects the beach from the waves and it is perfect for little kids. You can go shell hunting, or walk along the reef and look for sea urchins, hermit crabs, baby octopi, and sea glass.
The resorts are wonderful for a weekend getaway. There are also several beautiful islands that are easy to get a ferry to.

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

One of the best things about being here are the beaches. There are beaches for surfing and swimming. One thing to be careful of are the riptides and undertow. If a local says a beach is too dangerous to swim then believe them. There have been several drownings while we were here. We enjoy picking a place from and just going to check it out. There are two children's museums, one in OSJ and newer much larger one in Carolina. Both are fun for elementary age set. If posted here, I would recommend getting a tourism guide book and marking off things to do. It is such a small island that it is easy to get to just about everything.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Coconut shell masks, trips to the islands, surfing lessons. Trips back to the US when you think you are going to loose your marbles.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Because Puerto Rico is a small island, just about everything is within driving distance. There are many fun and interesting things to see and do here, such as: museums, historical sites, art, music, beaches, the rainforest, etc. Be prepared for a lot of visitors!
There is no real way to save money here. We don't get a housing allowance, and utilities are very expensive (27 cents/KwH right now, and they sent a notice saying water was going to double). Because almost all the food here is imported, it is very expensive, too. There are rackets here that in theory are to protect PR's food industry, but in truth only keep the costs artificially inflated. For example, fresh milk is $6 a gallon no matter if you buy it at the supermarket or at the gas station. UHT milk is $1.94 a box no matter where you buy it. It goes on and on, and your money goes out, out, out of your pocket!
If you don't like cold weather then this is a good place to come. It gets cooler at night but is usually in the 80s or above during the day.

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11. Can you save money?

No, no and no. Plan to give PR 25% of your paycheck in taxes, then expect to pay no less than $500-$1k per month in electricity bills alone. Almost all food is imported, so it is more expensive. Toys are surprisingly expensive, too.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

No. Absolutely not. Given the crime, the cost of living here, and the fact that we no longer have a choice in schools there is no way we'd come back willingly.

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

Chocolate chips, taco shells and maple syrup. Yep folks, it's here! Also, don't bother with winter clothes unless you plan to travel to cold climates. My mom's group often has posts of people offering or asking for kid's winter wear for short trips. People help each other out and pass things around.

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3. But don't forget your:

Patience, dancing shoes, Spanish language lessons, if you prefer books over an E-Reader then you might want to stock up on English-language novels. There are a few book stores that carry English-language books, and a section in most libraries, but you have to go looking for it.

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