The Walled City of Old San Juan

Published: April 9th 2016
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Our journey from El Yunque to San Juan completed our circle of the island of Puerto Rico. We had seen many amazing things and we had had a lot of fun, but I was most excited about what we had planned for the coming days in San Juan. The city was founded in 1521 as Puerto Rico, a rich harbor on the north coast of the island of San Juan Bautista. It was the second oldest European settlement in the Caribbean and it served as the seat of Spain’s government in the Americas. Some time after the founding of the city a Spanish cartographer mixed up the name of the city and the name of the island and the error stuck, cementing the Island of Puerto Rico and its capital of San Juan into the history books. I had read a lot about San Juan over the years. Its storied fortress of El Morro has always played a big part in the history of the Americas and the conquest of the Spanish Main. Every pirate tale, every story of boundless treasure, every legend of sunken galleons and lost treasure fleets, every heartbreaking chronicle from the destruction of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca civilizations had taken place, in part, in Old San Juan. I had wanted to see the fortress and soak up the history for most of my life and my time had finally come!

We quickly navigated the overwhelming traffic that San Juan was so famous for and we found the rental car drop-off office at the airport. We then took a cab to Condado and our beautiful art-deco hotel, the Coral Princess Inn. The yellow and white façade and the beautiful interior made us instantly love the hotel. We made it up to our room and dropped off our bags and then we set off to explore. We had two nights in San Juan, so we decided to spend the afternoon in Old San Juan getting acquainted with the city. We took a bus downtown and then we started exploring. The beauty of the brick-paved streets and the ornate, pastel facades of the colonial buildings that lined the streets amazed us and we spent hours wandering around taking in the sights. We fed the pigeons in Parque de los Palomas while we soaked up the view from the top of one of the city walls, we explored the shops and cafés hidden along the narrow streets, and we took in the beautiful vistas from the expansive parks that ran along the top of the wall that faced Bahía de San Juan. We ended up spending most of our time walking along the stone ramparts that led to the main fortress. The views of the crashing waves and of the sheer ramparts that followed the coastline were stunning and the warm sun felt great. The constant sea breeze blew through our hair and made for a perfect walk. It was hard to believe that it was December.

We decided to save the bulk of our sightseeing for the following day and we contented ourselves with a sunset stroll through the red gate called La Puerta de San Juan and along the base of the fortifications to the Raíces Fountain. The waves were breaking over the sea wall so that the path was constantly wet and the people strolling along the fortifications were constantly dodging the cool spray. It was a wonderful, tree-lined walk that gave us several great views of the stone watchtowers, called garitas, as we walked. By the time we reached the fountain the sun was already below the horizon. We walked past a big Christmas tree and then we found the bus back to Condado. We ate dinner in a little fish place above the crashing waves of the Atlantic – It was an amazing way to end our first day in San Juan.

We woke up to another beautiful day in San Juan. The sun was shining and it was warm. We ate a nice continental breakfast in the hotel’s lush tiled courtyard and then we went for a long walk on the beach. The waves were massive and we were only able to wade in a short distance before we had to retreat to the safety of shore – The kite surfers seemed to like the conditions, so we watched them while we walked. We stopped at an ocean-side café and we had some coffee while we read and listened to the crashing surf and then we walked back down the beach to the hotel.

We spent the rest of the day lost in Old Town. We walked for hours pausing to take in a sweeping view of the ocean, or a cute shop filled with artistic souvenirs. We discovered several plazas that were filled with bronze sculptures and we spent a lot of time walking along the city walls and relaxing in the sea breeze. We reached El Moro just before dark only to discover that it had already closed. Instead of exploring the fortress proper, we walked along the ramparts just outside of the fortress and took in the nice views of the cemetery and the ocean from there. After dark the stone ramparts were bathed in spotlights, which made for an amazing view.

San Juan came alive after dark and we had a wonderful time exploring. We found several festive crowds in the plazas and we enjoyed the old-world charm that flowed from the streetlights along the cobbled alleys. We eventually found our way to the covered market area where we had a great local style dinner in a colorfully painted hallway – It was one of the best meals we had had in Puerto Rico. We continued walking for another hour or so after dinner. Our meandering path led us to a park bench beside a lively restaurant. The music flowing out of the place was magical and we sat on the bench for a long time soaking up the melodies. After about an hour, the chill of the evening forced us to say farewell to the music and we headed back to Candado. We did a bit more walking there before we returned to the hotel and collapsed into our bed – It had been a full day!

The following morning was the last we would have in Puerto Rico. It was New Year’s Eve and we were due at a party back in Atlanta that evening. We ate another nice breakfast and then we checked out of the hotel. We arranged for a ride to the airport in the afternoon and, leaving our bags with the hotel staff, we set off for one last exploration. We set our sights on the Fuerte San Cristobal, a major fortification on the eastern edge of the old walled city. The fort was spectacular with several long tunnels, excellent military architecture and exhibits, and a lot of wild vistas of the raging Atlantic. From the fort we got some great views of the notorious, but colorful La Perla settlement that was sandwiched between the city walls and the Atlantic. We also got some great views of a lonely watchtower that was set into the base of the cliffs, far below the tall crenelated walls of the fortress. I wanted to explore the locked tunnel that led down there so I could feel the salt spray on my face as the Atlantic waves crashed into the rocks around me. The turquoise water roiled around it as if it was just waiting for the right moment to swallow the small garida whole – I couldn’t help but be envious of the soldier that had that lonely watch.

We took in the last of the history that we would be able to absorb from the old walls and then we said farewell to San Juan and to the Island of Puerto Rico. We had an amazing time there and I was certain that we would return. We made it to the airport a little ahead of scheduled and then we were off. Our Christmas in the Caribbean was over and it was time to head back to the colder climates of home.

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