The streets of Old San Juan
The Puerto Rican capital has a history which goes back over 500 years. Founded by the Spanish at the end of the first decade of the 16th century, it was originally known simply as Puerto Rico but by 1521 went by its proper name of San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (which these days has become just San Juan). Though you could be forgiven for thinking the city’s American, it’s not quite: the Spanish eventually ceded the island to the USA at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and it’s been a self-governing territory ever since. That Spanish flair is still much in evidence in Old San Juan, however.
Within the metropolitan area of San Juan which sprawls for miles, the area of settlement that occupies a narrow peninsula on the island’s north coast, bounded by Fuerte San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro, is known as Old San Juan. The geography of San Juan naturally lent itself to providing a safe harbour. It’s still a busy port today receiving a steady stream of cargo and cruise ships.
In its early days, San Juan’s location at the eastern edge of the Caribbean led to its development as a defensive stronghold, hence the heavy fortifications that you can still see today. They comprise not only those two forts but the thick, almost impenetrable, walls that encircle the city and the imposing Puerta de San Juan located on the south western flank of the city. As the 16th century progressed, Old San Juan came under attack from numerous forces, among them Francis Drake, whose men were adversely affected by a dysentery outbreak and fled, tails between their legs. They wouldn’t be the last.
The narrow European-style streets of Old San Juan are a far cry from the wide boulevards lined with high rises and flanked by shopping malls that characterise other parts of the city. Here, cobbled surfaces bear the distinctive blue setts known as adoquines. They’re not granite, as you might think, but instead made from the slag of iron furnaces and used as ballast on ships arriving from Spain.
One of those Spanish ships brought Juan Ponce de León, whose remains can be found in front of an egg yolk yellow wall of the city’s bijou cathedral. Like many conquistadors seeking a new life in the New World, he was escaping a life of poverty and a region devoid of opportunities for the ambitious. His travels took him first to Florida and then to Puerto Rico, and it is he that is credited with the foundation of the island’s first settlement, Caparra, which predates Old San Juan by a few years though wasn’t to last.
Ponce de León was the island’s first governor but he didn’t remain long in Puerto Rico. Off exploring, he was fatally wounded by a poisoned arrow and died in Cuba. The family home, Casa Blanca, is significant as the oldest continuously occupied house in the city.
One of the great delights of a visit to 21st century Old San Juan is simply to wander. Many of the buildings are painted in bright colours, making this a photographer’s dream. Several tourist trolleys loop the old town, but to truly appreciate the architecture and atmosphere, strolling through its streets and lingering in its many parks and squares is a must.
Each has its own identity, from the tourists that feed the pigeons which flock to Parque Las Palomas, to the many characterful statues and sculptures that you’ll find camouflaged with verdant planting. The shade provides welcome respite from the Caribbean sun, enabling visitors to recharge their batteries before continuing their exploration of this delightful place.
When you do finally run out of steam, there are many cafes and restaurants where you can try the uniquely Puerto Rican dishes. Mofongo, a dish of mashed plantains topped with shrimp or chicken, is a staple and a must-taste. For a snack, the ubiquitous Mallorcas, pastries filled with cheese, guava jam, ham or eggs and dusted with icing sugar, is a tasty way of staving off the hunger pangs. And don’t leave without trying the coffee: rich and smooth, the addition of sugar would be a sin.