Discovering Old San Juan: Two Castles and a Cemetery

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.

The facade of our beautiful Da House Hotel

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 beloved Room 403: José Alicea

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.

Caficultura – the best coffee in town

Blue cobblestones of Old San Juan, once brought from Spain as ballastCaffeinated and awake, we then embarked on our walking tours around town, along the distinctive, smooth blue cobblestones.

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.

This was the first sentry tower I saw–such a memorable shape.

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.

I wish I could bottle that moment: the view, the breeze, the sun peeking through the clouds, the salty smell of the air, the sounds of the waves and the music in a distance, the quiet and absolute happiness of being then and there.

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.

Bomb warning on San Cristobal, San Juan, Puerto Rico

“Enter at your own risk” (at first I thought this was a pineapple, a welcoming sign–not so, that’s for potential enemies: as in, “behind this doorway, you may be blown up”)

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.

A lizard who lives in a pile of San Cristóbal’s 18-century cannon balls
Castillo de San Cristóbal: It just goes on and on, the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World

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).

After Bansky? Graffiti of Old San Juan
Don Pedro Albizu Campos, a Puerto Rican intellectual jailed for his separatist leanings in the 1950s. Here–pierced like San Sebastian.  
Ponce de Leon statue in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Ponce de Leon, observing the land he is about to conquer, presumably

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.

Welcome to the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, one of the most serene places I’ve visited

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).

Inhabitants of the Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

Denizens of San Juan Cemetery, Puerto Rico

Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, against El Morro’s famous Moorish lighthouse

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.

Flying kites over El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Kites at El Morro, San Juan, Puerto RicoIn the fortress, you are greeted by more sentry towers and coastal views.

San Juan’s coast line: El Morro, the cemetery, La Perla (the most picturesque slum I have seen), and Castillo San Cristóbal–with a sprinkling of chain hotels in a distance (that part of town looked and felt nondescript–why stay there??)

Although San Cristóbal covers much more ground, El Morro’s empty halls and structures seem grander, more impressive.

Where the troops lived: up to 6,000 soldiers lived in El Morro at one time

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.

Firing of the cannon, 18-century style

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.

Magnificent Frigatebird — these birds don’t walk, don’t swim, and can fly for a week without stopping (their wingspan is 217-224 cm, over 7 feet!). Since these sea birds almost never land on water, they either grab food from ocean’s surface as they fly by or chase other birds, forcing them to disgorge food, which Frigatebirds then catch before it hits water. Mesmerizing, creepy, and spectacular.

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!)

My favorite El Morro trio, against the afternoon lull of the ocean

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A valuable resource:  DiscoveringPuertoRico, a great blog on everything Puerto Rico–from popular attractions to best-kept secrets–to help you plan your perfect vacation

29 thoughts on “Discovering Old San Juan: Two Castles and a Cemetery

  1. Thank you! I was completely blown away by it. The old town is magnificent (unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go to the jungle, but heard that is breathtaking too), and it is so easy to travel there: just like flying to another state, comparatively cheap off-season. I do think that staying in the old town made the difference. The more touristy area–where all the large hotels are–is a bit out of the way. You’d have to taxi everywhere, and the traffic is NOT pretty. I highly, highly recommend it for a spontaneous getaway.

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    • El Morro and San Christobal both looked like places children enjoyed visiting very much–El Morro with its observation posts and San Christobal with its dungeon. I will try to attend the Easter service once upon a time–it must be absolutely beautiful there.

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  4. Thanks for your post! I was in Puerto Rico last year and love how you just transported me right back to the wonderful place and its memories. I didn’t get to spend much time in San Juan since we were based in Isla Verde, but thanks to your post, I feel like I now know it a little better. I also wish I could go back to buy more hand-crafted espadrilles.

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    • Thank you–that is such a kind compliment. I really enjoyed my time there. I really appreciate your readership and look forward to discovering the part of the world I know little about from your posts.

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