I was smitten with San Juan. Traveling there for a conference recently, I was looking for a good place to stay when the conference hotel got full. A friend of a friend recommended we stay in the old town, away from large hotel chains. I am so glad I followed her advice: staying at the heart of the Old San Juan in the art-filled Da House Hotel, a former Spanish convent, set a charmed tone for the entire visit. It is easy to be adventurous and spontaneous when most of the city’s architectural and historic highlights are a leisurely stroll away–AND it was a bargain.
Nestled above a Franciscan chapel and several narrow cobblestone streets, our tiny hotel room–#403: José Alicea–had a cozy patio, which we shared with a room next door, and a view of the Parliament Building and Castillo de San Cristóbal, one of the impressive fortifications built by the Spanish to protect the city (collectively, a UNESCO World Heritage Site). There is a salsa club on the hotel’s first floor, The Nuyorican Cafe, a great place, but it did take us a night or two to get used to the music seeping through the walls at night (we decided, this was part of being there).
Our San Juan mornings began at Caficultura on San Francisco Street, a block away from the hotel.The cafe was one of few places in the area opened at 7 am. It was the perfect spot to greet the day, watching the town wake up, while sipping delicious coffee, with imaginative designs by friendly baristas.
The cobblestones of Old San Juan (called “Aquinas” for their color) have a curious history. The stones were baked in Spain in the 1800’s and brought to Puerto Rico as ballast. When ships loaded up in San Juan’s ports, the stones found a new home in the city’s narrow streets.
We began several mornings at Castillo de San Cristóbal, a 5-minute walk from Caficultura. With its lovely sentry towers, this is my favorite citadel in San Juan, and a picturesque spot to greet a sunrise or two. A combined ticket grants you a week-long entrance to this and San Juan’s other castle, El Morro–a worthy investment.
The views from San Cristóbal’s walls are unforgettable: roofs of the old town, colorful La Perla slum, and towers of El Morro, San Cristóbal’s better known, older sibling crowning the northern tip of the island.
Do not miss San Cristóbal’s dungeon with its peeling walls, grooves for explosives, and wistful prisoner drawings of frigates, left, it is said, by a Spanish captain awaiting his execution for treason over 300 years ago.
One of the sentry towers–an unusual white structure jutting into the ocean–is called the Devil’s Watchtower. According to legend, soldiers have gone mysteriously missing from it over centuries. Only one such case is actually recorded, and that was an elopement–still, what a ghostly presence, and a good story. Guided tours are enjoyable and informative. I highly recommend arriving as the castle opens at 9 am to catch the moody shadows and to see San Cristóbal in virtual solitude.
From San Cristóbal, Norzagaray Street will lead you directly to Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (El Morro, for short), alongside beautiful ocean views. However, I would recommend walking through town, either along Sol or San Sebastian Streets, both colorful and lively (though not on the picture below–that was taken too early for most of the city’s denizens).
From Sol or San Sebastian, make a right on Santo Cristo Street–it will lead you to the San José Plaza, guarded by a metal statue of Juan Poncé de León, the island’s first governor. The metal of this statue is melted cannons seized from the British. The cannons were used to attack the city in the 18th century.
Continue on Santo Cristo, past the granite and ceramic Totem on the Quincentennial Plaza, the highest point in San Juan. El Totem Telúrico is “a tribute to [the European] discovery of the New World”, the plaque proclaims. The Totem is striking and somewhat unsettling. Does the crushed pottery represent the massacre of the Tainos, native islanders? Continue on Santo Cristo as it dives into a hill and deposits you at the gates of the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis cemetery, “San Juan’s Pere-Lachaise,” glowing immaculately white in the shadow of El Morro and overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
The cemetery is an enchanting place. For centuries, it has been the final home of many of San Juan’s most prominent citizens. They now get to enjoy one of the city’s most stunning ocean views. The statues are beautiful, especially in the morning light (because of its proximity to La Perla slum, we were told this area is dangerous in the evenings).
Beyond the cemetery are the impressive grounds of El Morro, the 16-century citadel with its Moorish lighthouse, the first lighthouse built on the island. Not that long ago, the U.S. Navy used the extensive grounds around El Morro for a golf course. Today, people come here for picnicking, baking in the sun, and flying kites. On Sundays, hundreds and hundreds of colorful kites soar over the citadel–a sight to behold.
Although San Cristóbal covers much more ground, El Morro’s empty halls and structures seem grander, more impressive.
One of my favorite details are the giant moats along El Morro’s walls: Never meant to be filled with water, these moats protected the base of the fortress from enemy cannon fire. If an enemy did charge the walls (which never happened in El Morro’s nearly 500-year history), the moats would be a pain too. We usually arrived at El Morro around noon, when the castle prepared for a demonstration of some kind. My favorite place to watch these was from the base of the lighthouse, the only cool, shady spot outdoors at that time of day. Performed by volunteers and resident historians, happily playing parts of El Morro’s 18-century guards, firing of the cannon was an impressive part of the afternoon. Demonstrations vary: Begun in 1539, 68 years before the first English settlement in Jamestown, the castle has plenty of turbulent history to relive.
When the sun is at its hottest and despite all the excitement around the cannons, resident iguanas make an appearance. One particular iguana, with part of its tail chopped off, was especially bold. Its presence sent waves of excitement and/or revulsion through the crowd, both of which it appeared to enjoy. Overhead, five Magnificent Frigatebirds circled over El Morro, breathtaking and true to their name.
With one parting look over its towers, we headed out of El Morro, ready for lunch. We found the best food back on Santo Cristo Street. On a Sunday, a gem of a find is brunch at Bodega Chic, at 51 Calle del Cristo/corner of San Sebastian: unpretentious, cool atmosphere and amazing, simple food–but that is a story for another time. (For an evening adventure in the Old Town, see “Ingredients for a Perfect Sunset”: crimson clouds over the Bay, warm rocks, lounging cats, and diving pelicans–unforgettable!)