San Juan is the oldest city in US territory, and the second-oldest in the Americas. It stakes its claim as the cultural and economic hub of the Caribbean. With high-end designer and jewelry shops, more than 30 limousine services in the phone book and more banks than you would want to count, it displays all the trappings of the wealthiest large city of the Antilles. It is also probably the world’s greatest example of combined 20th-century North American and Spanish colonial influences – from the paella served at the Marriott and other high-rise hotels in Condado and Isla Verde, to the historic neighborhood of Old San Juan, where Chryslers and Buicks squeeze cautiously through cobblestone streets built just wide enough for the axle of a Spanish carriage.
Despite outside influences, the allure of San Juan today is pure Puerto Rican. The city breathes – practically pants – with the energy of a cosmopolitan center flourishing in the gentle climate of the Caribbean. A new style called nuevo Latino is reinvented daily by those who create music, art and cuisine here, making San Juan one of the most happening cities in the Americas. From the colonial tourist center of Old San Juan to the beach neighborhoods of Condado, Ocean Park, Isla Verde and beyond, the city has treasures, both obvious and hidden, to delight any traveler.
Nearly two million people live in the greater metropolitan area and, like any city its size, San Juan has its share of problems. Many of the outlying areas have grown too quickly for responsible planning. Traffic reaches nightmare proportions at rush hour, and housing projects in poorer areas suffer from the related afflictions of drugs and gang violence. On the other hand, San Juan has undertaken an incredible renaissance during the past 15 years. Recently little more than a slummy relic of colonial power, Viejo San Juan – and increasingly the rest of the city – has transformed itself from a conquistador-era military outpost into the single most visited tourist site in the Caribbean.
Many visitors think of San Juan as one big beach with an appendage of charming old buildings. And while it’s true that a visitor can spend a weeklong vacation doing nothing but lie in a chaise longue, soaking up sun and rum punches until the casinos reopen, there is much more to do.
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