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Old San Juan: Sail to the Historic Heart of Puerto Rico

A typical street in Old San Juan. Photo By Caryn B. Davis
A typical street in Old San Juan. Photo By Caryn B. Davis

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, offers a charming blend of old and new. With its cobblestone streets, ancient forts, and 16th and 17th century colonial architecture one feels as though time is suspended, and yet the city is quite cosmopolitan. Its seven square blocks are filled with fine boutiques, museums, art galleries and restaurants specializing in traditional Puerto Rican and Cuban cuisine.

Old San Juan was established by the Spanish in 1521. They built several fortresses and fortifications around the city to guard their treasure ships en route from the Americas to Spain, and to protect the island from invasion. It is the second oldest city in the Americas and the only walled city in the Caribbean. It is actually a small island with the Atlantic Ocean to the north, and San Juan Bay to the south. It is accessible by boat, or by one of three bridges connecting it to the mainland.

There are a few marinas to choose from but don’t expect quiet and quaint, though the amenities are great. San Juan Harbor is the fourth busiest in the Western Hemisphere and over four million people visit annually by cruise ship. It is not uncommon to be docked near large commercial or tourist vessels, high-rise hotels and other unsightly structures. The entrance to San Juan Harbor is wide and deep but can be treacherous to navigate in winter due to large swells instigated by the north wind.

The Cangrejos Yacht Club is located in a nice basin, but it borders the Luis Muñoz Marin Airport, which can be noisy. The San Juan Bay Marina is cheaper than most and near the entrance to the old city but it too has its own airstrip, the Isla Grande Airport. La Marina has a long boardwalk and is also near Old San Juan; it is big and modern although boaters can easily walk to shops and restaurants. Club Náutico de San Juan in San Juan metro is a private nautical sports club founded in 1930 that welcomes visitors. It is at the end of the San Antonio Channel, with tall buildings behind it. While these marinas are not too picturesque, Old San Juan makes up for it.

Old San Juan is easily accessible by rental car, bus or dedicated trolley. While strolling the streets be sure to visit El Morro, a six-level 16th century fortress with panoramic views of San Juan Bay; the San Cristóbal Fort – dubbed the Gibraltar of the West Indies; and La Fortaleza, a military facility that has been converted into the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico. (Both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.)

There are also many old churches, each unique in its history and architecture: San Juan Cathedral (1521); Cristo Chapel (1753); and San José Church (1523). While walking around, visitors will find several plazas: Plaza de San José, Plaza de Armas, Plaza del Quinto Centenario, Plaza de Colón, each rich in history; and the contemporary Plaza de Hostos brimming with crafts by local artisans and snack stands selling shaved ice drenched in fruit syrup.

In addition to the shaved ice, be sure to sample some traditional Puerto Rican dishes, which are a combination of Spanish, African, Taíno, American and Indian cooking like fried plantains, cod fritters (bacalaitos), cornmeal fingers (surullitos), seafood or beef filled turnovers (empanadillas), fish soup, Créole style roasted meats, and of course beans and rice. For dessert try the flan or sweet-potato balls with coconut, cloves and cinnamon (nisperos de batata). Coffee aficionados will appreciate finishing their meal with a very strong and flavorful cup of locally grown coffee. There are plenty of restaurants to choose from, and bars for listening to music or sipping Bacardi Rum, which has a factory open for tours.

If you wish to spend a night on land and want to bypass the typical hotel scene, try the Gallery Inn. This is a 300-year-old hacienda overlooking the sea that has been fully restored by artist Jan D’Esopo. Her sculptures and paintings cover every room, wall, corridor and courtyard. There are also other artists on site working in different disciplines whose studios welcome visitors. As you wander the interior rooms, gardens and outdoor seating areas, take note of the many exotic birds that share Jan’s home.

Old San Juan, on the north coast of Puerto Rico, is a great destination in which to spend a day or week, and a good stopping off point before heading to other Caribbean islands.

Caryn B. Davis is a seasoned writer and photographer whose images and articles have appeared in over 60 publications. She is an avid boater and world traveler. www.cbdphotography.com.

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