Fiestas de La Calle San Sebastian – a carnival Puerto Rican style

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Like every catholic city/country, Old San Juan in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, has most of its traditions originate through the church. The biggest one is a festival called Las Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián (The Parties from the San Sebastian St. is the literal translation).

Thousands and thousands of people from around the island and tourists from around the world as well, fill the streets of Old San Juan to take part of the festivities, that include music, dancing, crafts, food and of course, drinking. One can say that the festival is Puerto Rico’s equivalent of Brazil’s carnival and New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, minus the almost naked women, beads and the flashing.

This event started as a way to commemorate the life of Saint Sebastian, a martyr that of course died in the name of Christianity. A local priest of the San Jose Church in the San Sebastian St in Old San Juan (still existing) began the tradition in the 1950’s. Back then, the residents of the street decorated their balconies with paper flowers, do religious processions through the street and local artists exhibited their crafts (mostly paintings). During those times, the festival lasted about two consecutive weekends.

Nowadays, it lasts only four days (Thursday through Sunday) usually on the second (or even third) weekend of January.  Although it was a religious type of festival, it has evolved to a cultural event that highlights the best of the Puerto Rican food, music and art. It is the biggest street party in the island!

The party usually starts during the day, but it is at night when the crowds are alive. But, if you go, and we hope you do one day, be sure not to miss the daytime festivities where you will get a better cultural introduction to what Puerto Rico is.

During the first day of the festival, on Thursday, they have the official opening ceremony that includes a parade with the Cabezudos (performers dressed up in characters from our culture – politicians, artists and more), dance groups that shake their bodies to the bomba y plena (a typical dance/music originated by the African roots of the Puerto Ricans).  You will also see a lot of government officials and politicians doing their rounds around Old San Juan, because it is a great way to mingle with the people, and get their votes of course. 

Even thought the main location for the festivities is of course San Sebastián street, there are other streets and plazas around Old San Juan that take part of the celebration like Plaza de Armas and the Cuartel de Ballajá, that houses the most unique and extensive collection of arts and crafts.

Then, at night, is when the real party begins. The streets of Old San Juan are filled with more music, and more drinking. On the Plaza del Totem, there’s a big stage where concerts with renowned singers and bands (salsa, merengue, trova, rock) perform every night. There are also improvised shows around the city; this are guests that arrive armed with their own instruments and start singing and playing typical music and even our most famous and popular festive Christmas songs. Yes, Christmas songs. Actually, las Fiestas are a continuation of our Christmas celebration. 

Don’t be surprised if you see young children, teens, young adults and even senior citizens strolling the streets of the city. Like we mentioned, las Fiestas are a social gathering for  the people of the island. And don’t be surprised if you see girls dressed up in the most fashionable way. It is also a street kind of runway, where the ladies (young and old) exhibit the best fashion trends.

One of the most important things to do during las Fiestas is eat. Eat a bacalaito, an empanadilla (pizza, chicken or meat filling) and a pincho! That’s a chicken or beef skewer that is a very typical dish around the island. You need to drink a Medalla, the official beer of Puerto Rico or a Piña Colada. And if you are adventurous, you can order the official drink of Las Fiestas, the PapaJac. It is a mix of several liquors like rum and juices including Passion Fruit. It is sold in the bar Don Pablo on El Cristo St. The bar is always packed but it is worth waiting in line and fighting with people in order to get it. They usually make a custom made plastic cup that you can take home as a souvenir.

If you want to avoid the crowds and eating on the streets, make sure to visit some of the restaurants in the area like Amadeus in San Sebastian, El Jibarito in la Calle Sol, Dragon Fly and Parrot Club in Fortaleza St. and Raices. In them you will find the one of the best Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican fusion cuisine representation.

Here’s a video that we took during the last edition of Las Fiestas de La Calle San Sebastian.  Hope you can make it one year and visit the beautiful Old San Juan during the event to experience what a true Puerto Rican carnival is all about!

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