The capital of Puerto Rico, the city of San Juan Bautista, is like a big pirate trunk filled to the brim with treasures for travelers. Founded by the legendary explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who arrived with 300 settlers in1519 and who served as the first governor of Puerto Rico, San Juan is a classic walled city with centuries of history.
What To See: Old San Juan is a tourist magnet, like an open-air museum and at the same time a vital urban center. It is easily explored on foot but also there is a free tourist trolley that takes visitors around the old city – as you explore, you will spot signs on sidewalks marking its stops.
The narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan with their colonial buildings, old-fashioned street lamps, plazas adorned with sculptures, art galleries, shops and museums, as well as the Fort of San Felipe, better known as El Morro, are must-sees during a vacation in Puerto Rico.
El Morro, started in 1540 and finished 250 years later, is one of the most impressive sights in all the Caribbean. With its six levels, cannon gallery, lookout points and dungeon it is worthy of a half-day visit at least, particularly to spend time enjoying the panoramic views of San Juan Bay from its fortifications.
“Wow!” exclaimed Luis Piedra, an eight-year-old boy visiting El Morro with his family from Fort Lauderdale, at the sight of the fortress’s cannons pointing out to the sea. “With so many cannons, they did not have to be afraid of anyone!”
And so it was. In 1797, the English fleet under the command of Ralph Abercromby arrived in San Juan with 3,000 troops. At that time the city was already protected with 200 acres of castles and walls and more than 450 cannons. After an unsuccessful 17-day attack, the British retreated and Abercromby reported to his superiors that San Juan was “impregnable” and that the city would have been able to resist a military contingent 10 times larger than what he had brought.
Other points of interest in Old San Juan include the San Cristobal Fortress, started in the 17th century and part of the fortifications and walls that completly encircled the city in the 18th century; the Cathedral on the Plaza de la Catedral, with the tomb of Ponce de Leon; the Casa Blanca, Ponce de Leon’s original residence; the Plaza San José, with a statue of Ponce de Leon, the Church of San José; the Pablo Casals Museum (world-famous cellist Casals resided in Puerto Rico for almost two decades); and the Capilla del Cristo a beautiful chapel on Cristo Street with the picturesque Pigeons Park to the right. If you are traveling with children, they will love feeding the hundreds of pigeons that reside in the park and that perch on the heads and shoulders of visitors who give them food.
A popular tour is to the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño. This excursion is offered by several companies (you can arrange it through your hotel or your cruise ship if you come to San Juan by sea). The Bacardi visit – which can be combined with a tour of Old San Juan– allows visitors to see how rum is made and they can sample it, of course.
San Juan’s Condado area with its beaches, hotels, casinos and boutiques of designers like Gucci, Cartier and Louis Vuitton is another of San Juan’s must-sees. And so are Luquillo Beach and El Yunque rainforest –both can be visited in a day-trip from San Juan.
Among the noteworthy museums is the Art Museum of San Juan (299 de Diego Avenue, Santurce, www.mapr.org). This museum has an excellent collection of local art. “The works on exhibit have been selected because they reflect the identify of Puerto Rico,” said Marta, town guide. The museum also has a sculpture garden, the Raúl Juliá Theater, and an interactive museum for children. Tickets are $6 (adults) and $3 (children).
To enjoy a bit of folklore, try the LeLoLai Festival which celebrates the Spanish, aboriginal and African traditions of Puerto Rico. For information and schedules, call 787-721-2400, extension 2715, or ask at your hotel.
Where To Eat: For local and Cuban food, try Ropa Vieja, 1021 Ashford Avenue in Condado. Waikiki, steps away from Ropa Vieja, at 1025 Ashford Avenue, specializes in seafood, as does Ajili Mojili, at 1006 Ashford Avenue.
Where To Enjoy Nightlife: Among San Juan’s casinos are the ones in the Ambassador Plaza, Condado Plaza and Diamond Palace hotels. Rumba, on San Sebastian Stree in Old San Juan, offers music for dancing on Thursdays. For theater, try the Teatro Tapia in Old San Juan.
Where To Sleep: Many travelers come to San Juan via cruise ship –we did twice this season: on Holland America’s Eurodam and the Carnival Splendor, as San Juan is a very popular port on Caribbean cruises. If you fly to San Juan and need a hotel, try the San Juan Hilton (1, San Gerónimo Street; www.hilton.com), where we stayed during a previous trip. It is comfortable and convenient –only a little more than a mile from the heart of the city – and it has a private beach and 17 acres of tropical gardens. Rates start at $152 per night.
Best Souvenir: “The ‘santos’ or wood sculptures of saints and legendary figures like the Magi, which were one of the earliest artistic expressions in the island, are an ideal reminder of a visit,” Marta told us. You will find them in art galleries in Old San Juan and in gift shops in hotels and resorts.
Where To Find More Information: Visit the Puerto Rico Tourism Company website at www.GoToPuertoRico.com.
Por Georgina Cruz
Para Al Día Today