Viejo San Juan, Puerto Rico
3 March 2023
A couple of days ago, I decided to treat myself to a spontaneous break in warmer climes (and a well-deserved one at that). I quickly narrowed it down to the Caribbean, but Puerto Rico wasn’t really on my mind.
As it turns out, however, it’s a regional transport hub, so might as well make a brief stop here, I thought. A quick look around, maybe half a day – before moving on to more interesting isles.
Plaza de Armas, with the Four Seasons fountain
But now, nearly three days later, I’m still here, having deliberately looped back a few times.
I expected San Juan to be like so many other cities in this hemisphere; that depressing sameness. Well, it is not at all like that. As I walk the streets of Old San Juan, I’m reminded of other great cities: a bit of Cartagena here, a touch of New Orleans there.
But most of all, San Juan has a distinct character of its own. A city with a personality, with a long and dramatic history that you can still feel, and with amazing architecture, including lots of wonderful Art Nouveau and Art Deco. It’s a chaotic and colourful city, friendly and fun, energetic and exciting.
Who says multilevel parking garages have to be grey concrete.
Here are a few highlights of Viejo San Juan:
Sunset at El Morro
Castillo San Felipe del Morro, known as El Morro, is one of the three parts that constitute UNESCO’s San Juan’s National Historic Site. The huge fortress grounds make for a nice area to roam and play. (See the pano photo on top here).
Nuns having selfie fun in the setting sun at El Morro
Near El Morro, between the wild Atlantic and the old city walls, La Perla has the best views of El Morro. This urban neighbourhood was first set up in the 1700s as homes for servants and former slaves, forced to live outside the city walls. Later, farmers and labourers joined them. It has been slightly gentrified – or perhaps that’s too strong a word – but there are little cafes and galleries here, and it’s possible to tour the area with local community volunteers.
San Juan feels a bit rebellious. And despite Puerto Rico being part of the USA, sort of (not a state, but a territory), over the last few days, I have met locals who do not speak English. At all! Not sure if they couldn’t or just didn’t want to. Either way, there’s something delightfully defiant in that.
Our land is not for sale
Memorial wall to the victims of Hurricane Maria
Prohibido olvidar – never forget!
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico with full force in September 2017, with 64 dead as a result of it. Or so the government said. Eight months later, the official death toll was still 64, incredibly insulting to thousands who had lost loved ones. A Harvard study concluded with 4,645 possibly dead, and even that is probably an underestimate.
Castillo San Cristobal
San Cristobal fortress looming over Old San Juan
Castillo San Cristobal is the largest fort built by the Spanish in the ‘new world’ and also included in the world heritage inscription. So is yet another fortress, San Juan de la Cruz, as well as 75% of the old city wall.
One of the many garitas in the fortified city wall, a sentry box for guards; protected – and having good views of anyone incoming.
The final part of the UNESCO inscription is Fortaleza, the official residence of the governor. More interestingly (I think), Fortaleza is also a cobbled street, which – fortunately for me – happens to be closed to traffic right now, due to renovations.
Along Calle Fortaleza are several gorgeous Art Deco buildings, as well as the fabulous Casablanca Hotel. I’m not staying there, just stumbled upon it whilst strolling past an hour ago. Just had to go inside for a look. There’s a rooftop terrace with four bathtubs! Not often I kick myself for being lax with pre-journey research. But tonight I did.
That chandelier alone…!
The cats of San Juan
Here’s a bonus for all you lovers of everything feline out there: San Juan has cats. Many, many cats! Especially along the Paseo del Morro recreational trail. Rumour has it, some of them are descendants of the ones the original Spanish colonists brought along to control the rodents. I am reminded of the cats lazing about in the Hemingway House in Key West. And also the sad fate of the cats at Pyramiden, the abandoned Russian outpost in the Arctic.
These two, and all the other cats I bumped into here, were friendly.
To remain healthy (and alive in San Juan’s crazy traffic), the good folks at the Save a Gato Foundation feed, provide medical assistance for, and neuter the cats. The cat population is kept under control, the rat population likewise. Win-win! If this appeals to you, you can read more about the work, and adopt, volunteer or donate here.
On the right is Chris C., high up on a tall pedestal in the middle of the square named after him. He seems to be popular here, as in many places around the Caribbean. Not sure why, he was by all accounts a thieving, murderous dictator and, well, a dick. He didn’t know east from west (kind of essential for a sailor, one would think), nor did he discover America. Not by any definition of the word. Plaza Colon used to be called Plaza Santiago. And while old Santiago (Saint James) probably had a few skeletons in the closet, too, I cannot imagine he was anywhere near Chris’ level of assholery. I suggest you take back the old name of the square, San Juan.
The old casino; look at the fab Beaux-Art architecture!
Rant aside, the square is useful for orienting yourself in Old San Juan. San Cristobal Castle is here, so is the old casino, as well as a few gift shops, including a colourful one, run by an immigrant from Cornwall. He seemed a nice guy, so I’m giving his shop a mention. Sadly can’t remember the name of the shop, but the colours kinda pull you in.
There are also several cheerful bars and restaurants on or around the square. As a matter of fact, I’m writing this at an outdoor table here, with this yummy salad about to be devoured…
…and this view before me.
San Juan in conclusion: completely charming!
La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.