Want to visit a tropical paradise but leave your passport at home? Welcome to Puerto Rico! Did you know that Hawaii is not the only tropical island paradise in America? We have a Caribbean paradise, too. It’s an island that is totally underrated and absolutely beautiful. The weather’s warm year-round; the ocean water is warmer than the Bahamas. You don’t need a passport to come here because the residents are US citizens. And while it’s totally Americanized, it still retains its Hispanic culture. All that, and it’s easy to get to, too. So, come on. Let’s discover Puerto Rico together.
Forget the fountain of youth. Ponce de Leon’s greatest discovery came when he stumbled upon a little place now known as San Juan, Puerto Rico. Founded in 1521, San Juan is one of the largest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean and is the second oldest city in the Americas. Wait a minute…America? That’s right, Puerto Rico is actually a self-governing commonwealth in association with the United States!
Old San Juan, also known as the “old city”, is the historic district and main cultural tourist attraction here. Aside from the incredible history, you’ll discover duty free shopping, great Spanish/Caribbean food and the island’s very own rum! SSHH, don’t let on to Captain Jack Sparrow, he’ll be here in no time flat.
With its narrow cobblestone streets and picturesque colonial buildings, old San Juan is the perfect place to begin exploring this amazing island. The best way to discover the historic district is to take a walking tour. I love the Spanish influence here, with all the fountains and the plazas. You know, the plaza’s really important in a Spanish town. The plaza Mayor, is the central area. This is where people would come to talk and socialize. And all the streets would radiate off from that. Well, here in old San Juan, they have several different plazas. All are pretty. All are great to take pictures and good places to start your walking tour. But definitely take a map. Now, where’s my map? La mapa es muy importante.
Just like the pirates that used to come through here, we have to have a plan…and every plan has a beginning! First stop on any walking tour of old San Juan, is the little tourist information casita right on the water to pick up the map. Okay, now, let’s see where we’re going. This is going to be great. Iron lanterns and cobblestone streets line the rows of pastel colored stucco houses that old town is known for. From green to yellow, to blue and even pink! The iron balconies and carved wood shutters are the signature of old San Juan…I just love the wood-shuttered windows and the pastel colors and the gas lamps here.
You know, I just discovered that old San Juan was declared a world heritage site by UNESCO in 1973. I mean, that’s up there with the Pyramids of Giza and the Taj Mahal. Wow. That’s impressive! These beautiful stucco buildings that are still decorated with ornate balconies & corniced roofs are known as “colonial Spanish architecture.” I just call it “Gorgeous!” And as you can imagine…every street has a story, so here’s a little bit of trivia. I was walking around old San Juan and I asked somebody, “how old are the cobblestones here?” and they said, “oh, five hundred years or so.” They were brought over as ballast on the early ships. And instead of throwing them in the water, they paved the streets with them. Now that’s incredible!
There’s another way to explore the historic district of old San Juan….an old fashioned carriage ride! Where do we go and what will we see? The carriages offer three different rides. They’ll take you inside the city to see City Hall, the Governor’s Mansion and inside the city and mansion. The second ride will take you on the outside of the city walls, on the top of the mansion and lower floors. On the third ride, you get to see the whole city, inside and outside. The city walls encircled all of old San Juan, protecting it from pirates and other colonial powers who wanted control of the New World. Carriage rides last from 20 minutes to an hour, and it’s a great way to get a feel for the old city.
In fact, why not have the driver drop you off at one of the most historical and impressive sites here, the “Castillo de San Felipe del Morro” or simply, “El Morro.” This 16th century fortress stands guard over the Bay of San Juan, originally built by the Spanish Crown to protect the Spanish Armada ships and the treasures they carried from the New World. The six levels of ramparts and batteries took nearly 2 hundred years to build, and while it was designed to keep people out of San Juan, El Morro is now a main attraction for visitors arriving by cruise ship.
Today, tourists can have a wonderful time exploring the nooks and crannies of this historic fort. The walls of El Morrow are almost twenty feet thick, expanding beyond the fort to encircle the entire old city. The little guardhouses are called garitas, guardhouse in Spanish. It’s where the sentries stood to watch over the Atlantic. And they’re placed all along the walls of the fortress. The red archway is the old San Juan Gate. That used to be the only way to get into the city. Up on the hill above the fortress, you’ll find the Governor’s Mansion. Then, you’ll see a walkway coming around in front of the main fortress wall. That’s the Princess Walk. It encircles the fortress walls and supposedly the princess of the day could stroll safely along the walkway…
Whomever controlled San Juan, controlled the New World, and it’s said that El Morrow’s cannons were so powerful, they could fire on any ship seen from these walls. One of El Morro’s responsibilities was to guard the Governor’s Mansion, called “El Fortaleza.” A pale blue palace sitting high on the hill, it overlooks the entrance to the walled city. Now the oldest inhabited gubernatorial residence in the world, it’s on UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites. Although many powers tried to conquer San Juan, including the British, Dutch and French, it wasn’t until the Spanish American War of 1898 that the impenetrable fortress of “El Morrow” was ever relinquished.
There’s lots to see and plenty of ways to see it in old San Juan. And it’s the old world atmosphere that makes it so special. You know, something I love about Spanish architecture are the courtyards with the fountains. The plazas here all have beautiful courtyards with benches and gas lamps, often with a fountain. Even the homes, built around a central courtyard often have a pool, water pond or fountain. I don’t know, there’s just something about the sound of the water. It’s so relaxing. It makes you just want to go, ahh.
Yes, old San Juan is beautiful and it’s so photogenic! But if the walls could talk you’d find there’s lots of history in this part of town. You know, all the monuments here tell a story. For example, there’s one that documents the night in 1625 when the priest and all the women of old San Juan came out with torches to protest losing their men to battle. Well, unbeknownst to them, a British ship was coming into the harbor. And when the ship saw all these torches, they thought it was soldiers and took off without a shot.
The city wall was crucial to protect the citizens of the city and the main gate was the only way in. If you were lucky enough to reach the island, and allowed to enter, you were most certainly blessed. Literally! In the old days, people would disembark at the dock on the other side of the gate, walk through, go up the hill to the San Juan Cathedral, and then give thanks to God for a safe voyage.
But here’s something a lot of people don’t know at the cathedral. If you look above the gate, there’s a little plaque. Well, right there, you can see an archway that used to be carved into the rock. Back then, a priest would sit up there and bless people as they would come and go through the gate.
Built in the 1520’s the San Juan cathedral was the first church on the island. The original wooden walls and thatched roof were destroyed by a hurricane in 1526 and eventually rebuilt in 1540. In the next few hundred years, lootings and more hurricanes deteriorated this holy sanctuary, but major renovations were performed in 1917, giving the beautiful cathedral you see today. It’s a major draw for visitors as well as the permanent resting place of the island’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León.
Now, you can’t miss the second oldest fort in San Juan, Castillo de San Cristobal, built to guard against land-based attacks. San Cristobal’s walls were connected to El Morrow to completely encircle the old city. Built a hundred years after El Morrow, It was never overtaken by invaders. Some say it’s because Spain hired a few Irishmen called the “wild geese” to design it. Now there’s another story! In any case it was declared a world heritage site in 1983.
Today, some of the local residents have a park named after them. Called Parque de Las Palomas, it’s the “pigeon park” where hundreds of birds come to nest in the old city walls. People look at the pigeons when, in reality, they should be looking at the old chapel by the edge of the cliffs off the park. Why? Because something miraculous happened here! The Spanish soldiers used to race their horses down the street and they would stop here at the cliff’s edge to see who could get the closest without going over and falling to their death at the bottom of the cliffs. And they’d place bets on it. Well, one day, a politician’s son raced his horse to the edge, miscalculated, and he went over the side. Well, he landed safely on his horse and he didn’t die. So his father, so relieved, built the chapel, stopped the races, and said, “Thank you, God. It was a miracle.”
Puerto Rico is an amazing destination and there’s a lot more to discover outside old San Juan. You can visit and tour the Bacardi Rum Distillery and imbibe local spirits. Then see one of the islands greatest natural wonders in the middle of a tropical forest. Or should I say… under the forest! One of the most popular excursions from San Juan, is the Rio Camuay (kahm-wee) Cave Park, the 3rd largest cave system in the world. This breathtaking 268-acre park is home to the great subterranean caverns carved out by the Camuy River over a million years ago. Hiking trails & open air trams descend 200 feet through a fern filled ravine to the cathedral-like caverns. It’s almost like you’ve stumbled on to your very own “lost world.” The caves are open year round but you might want to get there in the morning for the best exploring conditions. Once sacred Indian burial ground, the largest cavern is big enough to hold the entire El Morrow fortress! Wow! Just one of the incredible adventures you can do here.
Puerto Rico is an amazing vacation destination and one way to enjoy it from a different vantage point is from the top of a horse! If you’ve ever dreamed of riding horses on the beach, then Puerto Rico’s the place to do it! At the Tropical Trail Rides stables you’ll be evaluated on your experience and matched with a horse that you can handle. You ride on the beach, through an almond forest and to some great limestone caves that can be explored in the summer and climbed above in the winter for a spectacular panoramic view.
After all that horsing around, you just might want to settle in at the perfect tropical accommodation, the Ritz-Carlton San Juan Hotel, Spa and Casino. It is luxurious and features a magnificent pool area right on the beach, great restaurants and a fabulous spa. I could really go for a hot stone massage right now to sooth my aching muscles. Horseback riding needs to be done gently!
Well Ponce de Leon may not have discovered the “fountain of youth” but I guarantee he discovered something special! Anyone who spends a few days in this tropical paradise will have the time of their life and just might end up feeling a little younger after all. You do know why they built castles and forts to protect San Juan in the old days, don’t you? It’s because everybody wanted it. Well, you can see why. Great beaches. Beautiful weather. Perfect location. I want it, too. Dream vacation? San Juan, Puerto Rico comes in high on the list.