Puerto Rico's Noche De San Juan Is the Biggest Beach Party You Didn't Know About

How one pious tradition evolved into a celebration you need to see to believe

San Juans night
Dumont / Getty Images

When I was first invited to Puerto Rico to experience the island's Noche de San Juan festivities, I didn't know what to expect. I anticipated a quiet ceremony tied to the night’s religious roots. I imagined there might be a small prayer or blessing before midnight. I thought I would encounter a personal observance during which older churchgoers baptized themselves and recited the prayer of the rosary.

I definitely wasn’t expecting to find that this once pious tradition has transformed into one of Puerto Rico’s biggest beach parties. 

Historically a night that celebrates the birth of St. John the Baptist, Noche de San Juan is famous in Spain and many other Catholic nations. Still, the night takes on an extraordinary meaning in Puerto Rico. St. John the Baptist is not only the island's patron saint but the namesake of Puerto Rico's capital city.

While Spain's celebration revolves around a fire, with participants throwing coins and making wishes into a large bonfire, Puerto Rico celebrates the occasion with water. Every June 23rd, the night before Saint John the Baptist’s birth, the island's inhabitants head towards the beach—or a pool, if they’re not near the coast. There, at the stroke of midnight, participants plunge into the water backward at least three times—some choose to do it even more. This act is thought to wash away bad luck and ties to evil spirits. At one point, it was even believed this dunking could heal all health ailments.

I was excited to experience the meaningful evening myself. I arrived in Puerto Rico on the morning of Noche de San Juan. I checked in to the Fairmont El San Juan, where I was immediately greeted with vintage mid-century elegance and one of the largest chandeliers in the world. It’s easy to see why some of the world's biggest stars, including Frank Sinatra and Liza Minelli, were frequent guests. The afternoon leading up to the festivities was calm and subdued. Guests were relaxing and enjoying themselves in the lobby and by the pool.

By early evening, however, the hotel slowly began filling up. When I returned from dinner, there was a line to get in. A salsa band played on the stage that Sinatra once performed on while waitresses swerved around dancing guests to deliver drinks to packed tables. A fashion show was happening where models walked among the crowd, showcasing bathing suits from a local designer. A DJ was stationed outside playing Latin music.

The crowd appeared to be comprised of a majority of young locals dressed to impress in bikinis, heels, and glitter for days. The group I was traveling with seemed just as delightfully surprised by the vibrant masses as I was. We found a spot to assemble as we took in our surroundings. With so much incredible people-watching to do, my eyes didn't know where to look.

Young couples lounged on the daybeds and in the cabanas with bottle service. Groups danced to Bad Bunny in and around the pool. Near the DJ, there were fire dancers surrounded by flames. Performers dressed as mermaids lounged in the water, snapping photos with guests.

I had expected a church service. I got a party that would rival any in Miami’s South Beach. 

The crowd continued to grow as the night went on, with the energy getting more and more electric as the big event neared. Finally, with only minutes to spare, the crowd began heading toward the beach. Groups of people clamored down from other nearby hotels. The countdown started with their backs to the waves, and everyone moved backward, submerging themselves into the ocean. It felt like New Year's Eve, but the air was filled with splashes and laughter instead of "Happy New Year!" and kisses.

I plunged into the ocean the standard three times and then one more time—for a little extra luck. 

I took a stroll past the Cathedral de San Juan the following day. The church bells rang loudly as men in robes carried incense outside, and the priest blessed people who approached the church doors. It turns out I was right about the pious ceremony, just wrong about when it happened.

Back at the hotel, there were no signs of the rager that had been there just hours before. The lobby was once again quiet, and the beach was empty, with most people presumably sleeping off the previous night. I asked a few locals if what I had experienced the night before was common for the celebration. They all smiled and said the same thing: Noche de San Juan is always a party—after all, no one wants bad luck.