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Old San Juan, Puerto Rico Travel Guide, touring Old San Juan, visiting Old San Juan - Indian Chief Travel
PUERTO RICO  |  San Juan, Puerto Rico Travel Guide
Sunday, September 15, 2019
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Old San Juan

Cobblestone street in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
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Old San Juan

As the Caribbean sun strikes its first assault on the bright townhouses of Old San Juan, the seductive smell of coffee and freshbaking bread leaks from the doors of the city’s bakeries. The historic quarter lurches awake. A queue of cars forms outside the multi-story parking lots, as city employees and other commuters press into town. On a street corner facing the port, a vendor hawks African masks, pretending to carve them by hand for the sake of passersby. In the Plaza de Salvador Brau, next to the Church of San Francisco, foursomes of retirees sit on stone benches, slapping dominoes onto a table. Leaning over her balcony to attach a laundry line, a young woman pauses to call down to her lover on the narrow cobblestone street. The deep moan of a ship’s horn announces the arrival of a cruise line, and several hundred map-wielding passengers spill down the gangplank onto Plaza del Puerto. Already, it’s hot. The piragua man is doing brisk business, selling shaved ice cones by the dozen. Lunch hours are long, and the courtyards and patios of the old city’s eateries throng with diners who linger over coffee until mid-afternoon.

Later, when the sun finally softens and dips below Isla de Cabras across the bay, a different city comes alive. Couples stroll arm in arm along Calle Norzagaray, for views of El Morro and the Atlantic. Restaurants and art galleries fill with patrons who dress to be seen. The after-dinner crowd hits bars and clubs along Calle San Sebastian, which invite customers with dueling blasts of salsa music.

Every moment in Old San Juan is a snapshot for the senses. The best way to experience the historic quarter is to slowly explore its narrow passageways, stopping whenever a detail inspires you. Take a walking tour of Old San Juan, which has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

In any event, here are the highlights of Old San Juan:

PASEO LA PRINCESA – Leaving La Casita, thread your way through the knot of piragua carts to a long, cobblestone avenue lined with park benches, running perpendicular to the city wall. Here you’ll find the forbidding gray structure of a former jail, La Princesa, currently headquarters for the Puerto Rican Tourism Company, 787-721-2400. There is a permanent exhibition of contemporary Puerto Rican art (open weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon, and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.). On the waterfront, the strange Raíces Fountain includes statues of a fallen horse, several naked maidens and a dolphin.

LA MURALLA (CITY WALL) – It took residents more than a century to build this monster wall of sandstone blocks, some of which measure more than 20 feet thick, making the city impregnable. Continue past the redpainted San Juan Gate to walk the full length of the eastern section of La Muralla, ending below the ramparts of El Morro. The 15-foot turrets – once used to defend the city – are now mostly inhabited by teenage Romeos and Juliets at lunchtime.

LA PUERTA DE SAN JUAN – The San Juan Gate is one of three remaining portals into the old city (the other two are at the cemetery east of El Morro and at La Perla) and was the official passenger entrance to Old San Juan during the 18th and 19th centuries. During this era, new arrivals would disembark across a plaza, now covered by the streets of Caleta de las Monjas and Caleta de San Juan, to the cathedral, where they would give praise for their safe passage across the Atlantic Ocean.

MUSEO FELISA RINCÓN DE GAUTIER – This striking pink home on the corner of Caleta de San Juan, with its blooming balconies and ornate ironwork, was for 22 years (1946-1968) home to San Juan’s most beloved mayor and one of the most famous women’s libbers of the 20th century. Affectionately called Doña Fela by Puerto Ricans, Felisa embarked on a series of civic exploits that earned her hundreds of diplomas, plaques and certificates, and in 1954 she was awarded the title of “Woman of the Americas.” Guided tours of her home/museum, 787-723-1897, are available Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

PLAZUELA DE LA ROGATIVA – According to legend, in 1797 an astonishing event took place in San Juan that would secure Spanish rule for another hundred years and banish the idea that women are the weaker sex. The Caribbean seas were rife with rival European powers and San Juan, a gateway between the Atlantic and the Caribbean, was a particularly desirable port to conquer.With a 60-ship flotilla and 8,000 men, British Lt. Gen. Ralph Abercromby assaulted the storied city at the same moment that the island’s governor languished on his deathbed, unable to call defenses to his aid. Nearly hopeless, the bishop and the women of the town took to the streets, wielding torches, chanting wildly and tolling the cathedral bells so incessantly that it seemed reinforcements had arrived. Seeing this from his ship, so the story goes, Abercromby abandoned his attack plans. The statue at this plaza is dedicated to the bishop and the torch-wielding women of San Juan. It is possibly the most stirring monument in Puerto Rico.

PLAZA DE LA CATEDRAL – Fronting the San Juan Cathedral and the children’s museum, this plaza now showcases the works of sculptor Jorge Zenos – called simply “cat,” “rooster” and “boat.” In previous centuries, the plaza extended all the way from the cathedral to the San Juan gate.

MUSEO DEL NIÑO DE PUERTO RICO – Adjacent to Hotel El Convento, this children’s museum features exhibits in the Spanish language only, although this shouldn’t deter gringo kids from enjoying it. Dedicated entirely to kindergarten-age whim, it includes three levels of games and educational interactive displays, with pint-size go-karts, fancy dress-up areas and a mysteriously popular dentist’s chair. The staff is well versed in child’s play, and can take over while you sightsee nearby. For more information, contact them at 787-722-3791, fax 723-2058, www.museodelninopr. org. The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 12.30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Entrance costs $2.50.

CATEDRAL DE SAN JUAN – Although sometimes naively compared by locals to the grandeur of the cathedral in Seville (see the plaque across the street), the San Juan Cathedral is nevertheless one of the finest religious structures in the Caribbean. Commissioned in 1521 by the first bishop of San Juan, Alonso Manso, the original church was little more than a flimsy shack. When it was demolished by a hurricane five years later, settlers quickly erected a stone replacement in the style of the cathedral in Seville, just in time for the first ordination of a bishop in the New World, in 1529. Restoration over the years has left it with a largely neo-classical façade, although a few original gothic-style details remain, including the archways and balustrades. A marble tombstone dedicated to Juan Ponce de León looms over the north wing. Mass and blessings are doled out from the southern chapel. Unfortunately, votive candles have been replaced by cheesy electric lights, which may be lit via switch for $1. It’s open Monday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m to 4 p.m.

CAPILLA DEL CRISTO – Two versions survive of the legend surrounding this tiny cliff-top chapel next to Parque de las Palomas (Pigeons’ Park) at the lower end of Calle Cristo. Both involve a young man who accidentally hurtled over the cliff after a horse race during the San Juan Bautista celebrations. One version says that the altar guards against future bad luck. Others say that, according to eyewitnesses, a spectator called out to Christ as the young horseman plummeted over the cliff, and that divine intervention miraculously saved his life. Either way, believers still make the pilgrimage to this chapel to pay homage to divine powers that either did or didn’t save the life of a young caballero. Capilla De Cristo is open Tuesdays between 10 a.m. and 3.30 p.m.

LA CASA DEL LIBRO – This incredible treasure on Calle Cristo is home to written texts that span more than 500 years of literature, memoirs and other documents. Check out the texts signed by Los Reyes Catolicos – Spanish monarchs Isabela and Ferdinand – and marvel at a few manuscripts dating back more than 2,000 years. Open 11 a.m. to 4.30 p.m., Tuesday to Saturday. Free admission. 787-723-0354.

EL MORRO – Several football fields’ worth of grass separate the battlements of San Juan from the rest of San Juan, and stepping back the traveler might imagine the carnage that took place on this seemingly oversized putting green during centuries past. This was a cleverly designed last line of defense. A dry moat made it impossible for advancing armies to see, let alone penetrate, the fortress walls on approach. Luckless infantrymen or cavalry were completely exposed to Spanish light arms and cannon fire on this deadly fairway. The seaward approach was even more treacherous. Six levels of cannon shafts and bombproof vaults rising 140-feet from the rocky headland made invasions by sea virtually impossible. In 1540, the original garita (sentry box) was so small that it could mount only four cannons. As San Juan increasingly became a target for raids and invasions, settlers quickly realized their hopes of survival depended on the construction of a massive fortress to guard the bay. Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli conceived the original design in the 16th century. But the awesome structure that stands today was the work of Irishman Thomas O’Daly, who masterminded the re-fortification of San Juan during the final 25 years of the 18th century. During WWI, as a precautionary move, US forces modernized many of Old San Juan’s bunkers and batteries for 20th-century use, and El Morro itself became part of a massive administrative, housing and hospital complex called Fort Brooke. During WWII, both fortresses – El Morro and San Cristóbal – were used as secret command and communication centers. One can only imagine what the next 500 years will bring. Visitors are free to roam the ramparts, the gunrooms and chambers, tunnels, arcades and courtyards that for the past half-millennium have stood undefeated. Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Spanish-language tours depart 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.; English tours start at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. $2 adults, $1 senior citizens and children. 787-729-6960.

CASA ROSADA – “Pink House” seems an unlikely name for a stern military barracks but, after all, it was built by the same people who don ballet slippers before fighting bulls. Constructed in the late 19th century, this handsome mansion is lodged between the vast green lawns of El Morro and the entrance to San Juan harbor. It now houses a fancy day-care center for the children of government workers. The chimney stacks rising up from under the hill belonged to the gunpowder magazine, Polovorín de Santa Elena.

CEMENTERIO DE SAN JUAN – On the eastern corner of the glacis of El Morro, the cemetery of Old San Juan is one of the oldest post-Columbian burial sites in the Americas, and one of the most prestigious. Many of the graves are those of early colonizers, though the most famous tomb is that of Pedro Albizu Campos, who fought for independence in the early 1900s. To avoid ghosts, ghouls and junkies, visit this place with a buddy, especially after dark.

LA PERLA –With one of the grittiest reputations in Puerto Rico, La Perla (The Pearl) is well known as a reliable place to score drugs and get into trouble. Seen from the streets above, it might appear to be a quaint fishing community built next to the sea. From the water, it looks like a pleasant jumble of colorful matchbox homes. But enter its 500-year old gates and you’ll find yourself more popular than a beauty queen in a prison yard, as young street salesmen brandishing bags of pot, powder and pills rush up shouting “¿Que quiere? ¿Que quiere, amigo?” Novelist Oscar Lewis put La Perla on the international map in his 1966 La Vida, a grim tale of drugs and prostitution in this barrio (neighborhood) and a precursor to all the talk of “livin’ la vida loca.” San Juan residents will warn you that this is the most dangerous part of the city and to just stay away, especially at night. The truth is La Perla carries a ghetto stigma that belies a fascinating community of ordinary people, as well as a few derelicts, struggling to survive. Not the best place in the world to flash a Rolex, it’s also not as perilous as other sanjuaneros make it seem. Residents are for the most part extremely friendly and, if nothing else, the “market” ensures the safety of its potential customers.

ESCUELA DE ARTES PLÁSTICAS – Facing El Morro, the School of Plastic Arts was the first institution of learning dedicated to the arts in Puerto Rico. Originally built as a hospital for the mentally ill, it was used to treat soldiers injured in the neighboring Dominican Republic war before its completion in 1872. Student workshops offer a window onto the state of contemporary Latin Expressionism. Monthly exhibitions coincide with Noches de Galerías (”gallery nights”; see page 128), and at lunchtime this is a good place to meet young bohemians around the front courtyard.

PLAZA DEL QUINTO CENTENARIO – This multi-level plaza was conceived as part of festivities surrounding the 500-year anniversary of the arrival of Columbus. It’s a prime spot for watching tall ships come into port after the long race across the Atlantic, with a view over the ocean and El Morro. At a cost of over $10 million, however, it seems like a monumental waste of money. The plaza is dominated by a totem pole that serves no cultural or historical purpose, and two stave-carrying bronze goats adorn the lower steps.

INSTITUTO DE CULTURA PUERTORRIQUEÑA – Located next to the Capilla de San Juan, this is an excellent place to pick up information (mostly in Spanish) on Puerto Rican culture, new museums and other places of interest. Staff members are generally far better informed than their counterparts at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The institute also houses a small but interesting collection of pre-Columbian artifacts and occasionally hosts photographic or art exhibitions. The shop has a great selection of Puerto Rican gifts for sale. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Entry is free. 787-724-0700.

BALLAJA BARRACKS & MUSEO DE LAS AMÉRICAS – This neoclassical quadrangle built around a colossal courtyard was erected between 1854 and 1864 to house approximately 1,000 men – the last and largest military headquarters of Spain in theWestern Hemisphere. Covering 7,700 square meters, it somberly contrasts with the brightly colored houses of Calle San Sebastián and gives little hint of the wealth of art and culture inside. The museum opened in 1992, with nine second-floor galleries that show permanent and temporary exhibitions. The highlight has to be the collection of folk arts spanning the American continents from Vermont to Argentina. On display are traditional dress, heathen masks, musical instruments and other folkloric curiosities that thread together cultures covering many centuries and thousands of miles. The most recent arrival to the museum pays tribute to the influence of African heritage on the culture of Puerto Rico. On the last Tuesday of each month, exhibitions at the Museo de las Américas are often the highlight of the Noches de Galerías in Old San Juan. Hours are Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and weekends from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Guided tours are available in English and Spanish (call for schedule), and entrance is free. 787-724-5052.

PLAZA DE SAN JOSÉ – Once reputed as party central, this plaza at the top of Calle Cristo has become more civilized in recent years, although on weekend nights it still gets packed with the overflow from the bars and bistros on Calle San Sebastián. Home to three of the cultural treasures of Old San Juan – the Capilla de San José, Museo Pablo Casals and Museo de Nuestra Raíz Africana – it transforms into a bustling arts and crafts fair during the monthly Noche de Galerías.

CAPILLA DE SAN JOSÉ – Gleaming white, the San Juan Chapel is the second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere, and a fine example of gothic architecture that far surpasses the cathedral. Descendents of Juan Ponce de León worshipped here for nearly two centuries, and during that time his grandson, Juan Ponce de León II, recovered the remains of the island’s founding governor from Havana and had them brought to Capillo de San José for entombment. More than 350 years later, however, city officials moved Ponce de León’s remains to the city cathedral, where they have stayed since the late 19th century. Another outrage occurred in 1972, when a Flemish carving of the Virgin of Bethlehem – brought to the island in 1511 – disappeared. She has never been found. Open weekdays, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. (closed Thursday), and Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m.

MUSEO PABLO CASALS – The museum in this small 18th-century building pays tribute to the life and music of the legendary Spanish cellist who lived his final years in Puerto Rico. Fans of classical music relive highlights of Casals Music Festivals past and view or listen to hundreds of videos and audiotapes recorded in the museum’s music room since 1957. The legacy of Casals lives on in the Puerto Rican Symphony Orchestra, the Conservatory of Music and the Children’s Special String Program. Open Tuesday to Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, 787- 723-9185. $1 adults / 50¢ children.

MUSEO DE NUESTRA RAÍZ AFRICANA – Opened in late 1999, this excellent museum displays artifacts of African arts, crafts and culture and a thought-provoking commentary on the role of African people in the development of Puerto Rican society. From the disturbing life-size mockup of slave quarters on ships bound for America, to a sales receipt for a “thicklipped” 10-year-old boy, juxtaposed with a newspaper clipping announcing the abolition of slavery on March, 22, 1873, the curators offer a penetrating insight into the crime that built the New World. On a lighter note, bomba performances are staged here most Friday evenings, and workshops on drum-making and playing and dancing bomba are held throughout the year. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Museum entrance is free. 787-724-0700 ext: 4239.

CASA BLANCA – Inconspicuously positioned at the west end of Calle San Sebastián, the “White House” of Puerto Rico was for more than 200 years the residence of descendents of Juan Ponce de León. The founding governor’s son-in-law, García Troche, originally built the fortress-like mansion as a precursor to La Fortaleza, to defend his family and neighbors against attacks by indigenous people and marauders. After the construction of a proper fort in 1533, Casa Blanca served as a residence until the family sold it in 1779 to the government, which returned it to martial service. After the Spanish-American War, it became the official residence of the commander of US armed forces, and remained military property until 1967. Today, Casa Blanca is a tranquil oasis of terraced gardens, waterways and a few monuments, including a colonial-era sentry box and, ironically, Indian petroglyphs. The house features an ethnographic museum (call for opening hours), and the garden is open daily ($2 for adults, free for senior citizens and kids) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. 787-724-5477.

CONVENTO DE LOS DOMINICOS – Built in the 16th century for Dominican nuns, this convent has been beautifully restored. A shrine to the Virgin Mary presides over a courtyard used for occasional outdoor music concerts. Indoors you’ll find a top-rate shop run by the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture (see Shopping) and a space used for the annual Festival of Puerto Rican Music in November. For upcoming events: 787-721- 6866.

MUSEO DE ARTE E HISTORIA DE SAN JUAN – Next to the Dominican convent on Calle Norzagaray, the official museum of San Juan overlooks a former market square. A half-hour documentary, in Spanish and English, sheds light on the making of San Juan. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. (lunch break from noon to 1 p.m.) and Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. 787-724-1875.

MUSEO DEL INDIO – One of the most obscure museums in Old San Juan, this hole in the wall on 119 Calle San José is easily missed. However, it has a remarkable collection of Taino Indian cemíes and other anthropological artifacts. Tours by arrangement, in English and Spanish, begin at 9 a.m. and end when the museum closes at 4.30 p.m., except at lunch hour. 787-721-2864.

PLAZA DEARMAS– The central plaza of Old San Juan is nearly always alive, and is a logical navigational center for your explorations of the historic quarter. Surrounded by the grand façades of government buildings, several fast-food outlets and the Puerto Rico Drugstore, this sunlit cobblestone square, plagued by pigeons, seems almost European. Shopping aside, travelers seek out this plaza for the green kiosk that serves cups of extra-strength espresso. This is where many city residents begin and end their day.

CASA ALCALDÍA – On the north side of Plaza de Armas, City Hall has a small tourist office and occasional exhibitions. For a quick view of the interior, use the back entrance on Calle Luna.

LA FORTALEZA – Otherwise known as Santa Catalina Palace, La Fortaleza has been the residence of the governor of Puerto Rico since the 17th century, though its historical significance is military. Built in 1533 as the city’s first real fort, La Forteleza was taken by enemy forces only twice – in 1598 by George Clifford, the Earl of Cumberland, and in 1625 by a Dutch general who burned the city in his wake, partially destroying the fort. Rebuilt in the 1640s, the stark military façade over the following centuries sprouted neo-classical arches, columns and balustrades, and was embellished with fine tiles and inlays befitting a palace for its gubernatorial occupants. The jardín hundido (sunken garden) and the dungeons draw most attention from visitors. La Fortaleza remains a functioning government office (like the White House in Washington DC), so call in advance for tour times. 787-721-7000, ext. 2111.

FUERTE SAN CRISTÓBAL – Of all the Spanish-built fortifications in the Americas, Fuerte San Cristóbal was the largest. Built during the late 17th century by an Irish engineer, to protect the city from land invasions, the fort used a principle best described as defense-in-depth; the fortress worked much like a Russian doll, each wall knocked down by enemy soldiers would present yet another wall in their path. Certain details of the history of San Cristóbal remain mysterious. On the walls of a dungeon below the fort, visitors can still see the outlines of five Spanish galleons etched into stone. Historians believe a Spanish inmate, convicted of mutiny, may have scrawled this crude artwork as he awaited execution. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., entrance to the fort costs $2 for adults and $1 for senior citizens and children (free with a ticket to El Morro). Fortyminute tours, in Spanish and English, are well worth the time. 787-729- 6777.

PLAZA COLÓN – At one of the original gateways to the city, this trafficclogged plaza continues to play the role of sentry of Old San Juan.With its statue of Christopher Columbus and prominent location, it’s a popular filming location for television advertisements, and a good place to wind up your tour of the historic city with a glass of rum punch and a plate of frituritas from Café Puerto Rico, or a fresh slice of spinach quiche and fresh-squeezed juice from Café Berlin.

TEATRO TAPIA – Built in 1830 as the city’s first performing arts theater, the Tapia Theater was originally envisioned as something far more elaborate than its current incarnation. Unfortunately, the military concerns of the old city forced budget cuts and a more conservative design for this early monument to Puerto Rican culture. It must be something of a thorn in the side of San Juan that the theater in Ponce is much more grand. Still, it’s worth a visit. 787-722-0407, for upcoming events.

CASA DE RAMÓN Y GIRALT – Another restored home with an exhibition of Taino artifacts, Casa Ramón y Giralt also serves as the headquarters of the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. This is the former residence of Don Ramón Power y Giralt, who joined the Spanish navy and at the end of the 18th century fought against Napoleon. Elected as the representative of Puerto Rico in the Spanish courts, he helped persuade Spanish officials to loosen restrictions on the colony during the early 19th century. Casa staff are knowledgeable and helpful, and from here visitors can arrange trips to Hacienda Buena Vista, Ponce and Las Cabezas de San Juan. Open Tuesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 787-722-5834.

Last updated November 21, 2010
Posted in   Puerto Rico  |  San Juan
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