San Juan's walls are full of history
El Morro is strangely topped by a New England-style lighthouse that was built in 1908. The fort and surrounding grounds cover 74 wind-swept acres. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / January 29, 2012)
The church is the home of the marble tomb of explorer Ponce de Leon, who played a big role in settling Puerto Rico. In 1508, he arrived on the island with a company of soldiers and a famously vicious dog named Becerillo. He founded Caparra, now known as Pueblo Viego, west of the current metropolitan area.
He vanquished the natives, the Tainos, and was the first governor of Puerto Rico.
He scrapped his original colony and moved to the current site of Old San Juan, a windy, defensible headland. He later went to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth.
From the San Juan Gate, you can proceed south along the walkway but it is not part of the designated El Paseo del Morro. It will take you to the Raices Fountain and the wide boulevard of the Paseo de la Princesa. You will even find an alcove in the wall that is filled with giant artistic spikes that rise into the sky. The Paseo de la Princesa is a tree-lined, restored 19th-century esplanade by the harbor.
Today San Juan — the oldest city under a United States flag — has about 400,000 residents. It is the most vibrant city in the Caribbean, drawing big crowds of tourists on cruises.
Old San Juan is a compact, colorful neighborhood made for walking, in the heart of modern San Juan. Old San Juan is only three square miles, with narrow streets. It is dominated by 400 Spanish colonial-style buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries and the two forts: El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal, less than a mile apart.
San Cristobal is the biggest fort built by Spain in the New World. It covers 27 acres and includes five bastions. Work on the fort began in 1634 and was completed in 1771.
The two forts feature tunnels, plazas, dungeons, batteries and even accounts of ghosts. They offer great vistas of the city and the coastline. They are part of the San Juan National Historic Site that was established in 1949 and are U.N. World Heritage Sites. They get 2 million visitors a year.
In Old San Juan, visitors will find museums and impressive buildings like La Fortaleza, the governor's home built in 1540. There is a museum to musician Pablo Casals, and the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico is another attraction. The Convento Dominico was built in 1523 by Dominican friars; the white-domed building is now a museum.
The Casa Blanca is the house built in the 1520s for de Leon, although he never lived there. It is now the Juan Ponce de Leon Museum.
Old San Juan is filled with plazas, parks, monuments and fountains. There are hotels, shops, casinos, restaurants, clubs and galleries.
It's a happening place during the day and even more so after dark. Check out the restaurants and clubs in the SOFO (South of Fortaleza Street) district.
Today the streets of Old San Juan are lined with deep-blue cobblestones that were used as ballast on Spanish ships. There are overhanging ironwork balconies, pastel facades and courtyards.
Puerto Rico is 110 miles long and 40 miles wide. It has nearly 4 million residents. It is a United States territory, so no passports are needed for Americans.
It is known for its pricey resorts with beaches that line the island's north coast. Condado and Ocean Park are beachfront areas known for hotels and restaurants.
You can tour the Bacardi rum distillery in Catano, a San Juan suburb.
Other attractions include the 28,000-acre El Yunque rain forest about 35 minutes east of San Juan. Officially called the Caribbean National Forest, it is the only rain forest in the U.S. forest system. Head for the El Portal Rain Forest Center. There are 13 trails that cover 17 miles. It's really another world. It is home to the rare Puerto Rican parrot, plus 240 species of tropical trees, 50 ferns and 20 orchids.
Nearby are Culebra and Vieques, two small islands that are big tourist attractions. You can get to their sparkling beaches via ferries.
Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493. He called the island, known by locals as Borinquen or the Land of the Valiant Lord, San Juan Bautista after St. John the Baptist. The Puerto Rico name came later.
For San Juan tourist information, call 787-721-2400 or 800-866-7827, or go to http://www.welcome.topuertorico.org or http://www.seepuertorico.com.
Bob Downing: email@example.com