Snapshots of Old San Juan
We touched down after a blink of a plane ride – it’s only a 19 minute flight from St. Thomas to San Juan, Puerto Rico – and we were at our lovingly rebuilt circa 16th century apartment in the old town area a few minutes later.
Old San Juan, or Viejo San Juan as the locals call it, is only seven square blocks but has great art, fantastic restaurants, fine shops, diverse museums and distinct cultural offerings to spare. I’m also a huge fan of the Spanish Colonial style architecture found in more than 400 carefully restored 16th and 17th century buildings lining the streets. And not just restored; those stunning buildings are painted up in vibrant hues from hot pink to tangerine. Puerto Ricans definitely embrace bright color and the effect is a contagious cheerfulness. You can’t help but smile when walking down a road that has a bright purple, lime green and electric blue house all in a row.
Not only are the homes decked out in all shades of the rainbow, even the streets are colorful in Old San Juan. The city is paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag which were brought over as ballast on Spanish ships. Four-hundred and sixty-five years of sea air and ware have lent them their charmingly blue hue.
Our spacious apartment sported exposed timber beam ceilings and fabulous pieces of local art but the best part was the balcony which overlooked a small square. Just beneath said balcony was a significant statue, the old city walls and a few garitas, the curved sentry posts dotting the thick city wall synonymous with Puerto Rico and Old San Juan especially.
The statue below depicted a bishop and three women carrying torches and marked a real life occasion in 1797. The island was under Spanish rule when one evening an English fleet was about to attack. To thwart the invasion, a bishop led a group of women carrying torches through the streets of Old San Juan, making it look like the Spanish reinforcements had arrived and successfully keeping the Brits at bay.
We spent our mornings gazing out at that statue and small square below our balcony and out to the bay where our entertainment included watching paddle boarders, tug boats, a cruise ship and a U.S. Coast Guard schooner cruise past.
Old San Juan was founded in 1521 by Juan Ponce de Leon who named it City of Puerto Rico, or Rich Port, for its sizable deep water harbor. It is the oldest city under the United States flag. Even before Ponce de Leon staked out the island, however, one Christopher Columbus landed ashore in 1493 and christened it “San Juan Bautista” to honor John the Baptist. At some point during the 1520s, confusion about the names arose with the island taking the name of Puerto Rico and town becoming San Juan in the end.
The governor’s mansion, La Fortaleza, was located just around the corner from our street, Caleta de las Monjas, or street of the nuns named in honor of San Juan’s first convent – now a beautiful hotel – located just up the road. The governor’s mansion was built between 1533 and 1540 and is the oldest continually inhabited executive mansion in the Americas. It is also guarded and we almost felt like we had our own personal security detail as I’m certain crime is diminished by the constant presence of uniformed police officers.
I’m not sure what the area was like a decade ago but these days there is a significant police presence in the city both on foot and cruising the streets with lights aglow, yet no sirens. Many areas are well lit and we’ve never had a problem walking home after either a decadent French feast or a down-home Puerto Rican dinner, both of which are on offer. The many really good restaurants in the seven square blocks of Old San Juan are impressive. From affordable local fare, think juicy grilled pork chops, spiced stewed chicken and rice with creamy pinto beans, to high end classic French. Tre Cent Onze could easily hold its own in any metropolitan city, and quaint cafes serving up intensely good locally grown coffee, Old San Juan has something for everyone.
Written by: Jaime Elliott