San Juan was established in 1509 and officially named in 1521. Remember Christopher Columbus made his historic voyage in 1492, only 17 years before the city was established, making San Juan the second oldest European established city in the New World (Santo Domingo in Dominican Republic is the first). Originally the city of Puerto Rico was established on a defensible peninsula called San Juan and was officially called San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico (Saint John the Baptist of Rich Port). Over time the city encompassed the entire peninsula and the names were becoming interchangeable. Thus by 1746 the names were reversed for practical use and the name of the city (Puerto Rico) was used for the entire island and the name of the island was used for this city.
In my opinion the first thing you have to see in this town is the fortification of the island. The oldest and most important feature is Fort San Felipe del Morro (see the first three photos). This fort is located at the west end of the peninsula which forms a large natural harbor, so any ship entering the harbor must pass this fort. Construction was started in 1539 and continued for over 400 years. The fort is triangular in shape and features six levels as it rises up the hill. The first level is at water level and is called the Water Battery. The second level contains the oldest section of the fort, which is a tower you would expect to see on a castle. This tower was deemed as too small so it was encased in a massive wall and all you can see of it now is the interior, which is different than the rest of the fort. The third level is the first to wrap around the fort and housed many, many cannons. In fact one spot had three distinct gun emplacements representing the different eras of the weapons used at the fort. The forth level has a ramp going from the third level to the fifth level so cannons could be rolled up or down as needed. The firth level has the parade ground and lots of the building needed in a fort of this size. The very top of the fort had another wrap around platform to house an unspeakable amount of fire power. All around the fort sentry boxes were built to view the outer wall.
The second fortification is Fort San Cristobal. It was built to protect San Juan from an attack by land and was started in 1634 due to a Dutch land invasion since the original fort was such a deterrent to attack by water. This fort featured three different lines of defense formed with a network of batteries and ravelins with trenches and dry moots between them. I walked all the way to the eastern end and back and I can see where this constant up and down would confuse and expose enemy troops and I feel this system would be impenetrable. Mixed in to all the above you will find many tunnels used to move defending troops and equipment (see the 5th photo of a lantern in one of the tunnels). Both of these forts were in active duty through World War 2.
Between these forts and surrounding the entire city of San Juan was a defensive wall (see 4th photo) with only five gates allowing access into the city. The gate on the north side has an unbelievable cemetery just outside of the wall. If you walk through this cemetery you will see some truly amazing mausoleums, statues, and grave sites (see 6th photo) and is well worth the walk down through the gate to visit.
Now that we have toured the fortifications let’s move to the town itself. As you are walking around you will notice some of the streets have blue cobblestone (7th photo). These are the original bricks brought over as ballast in the early Spanish ships. Once they loaded up with gold, timber, cotton, sugar, and other New World goods to ship back to Spain the bricks were left and used for the roads. San Juan was founded by legendary Spanish explorer Ponce De Leon and his tomb (8th photo) is located in the Cathedral along with a Catholic relic from the time of the early Martyrs (1st century). You will also want to visit Casa Blanca, which was his family’s home. This house was built the year he died (1521) and his descendants owned it for over 300 years. It started out as a single story rectangular room measuring 24x 24 feet. Over the centuries it was expanded into the two story villa you see today.
Some of the other sites we saw during our two days walking around this town were the Capital Building with an absolutely gorgeous mural on the interior of the dome (9th photo). As much as this moved me, I can only imagine what the Sistine Chapel will do when I visit it someday. Outside bronze statues have been made commemorating each US president that has visited the island. I got a photo with my day of Teddy Roosevelt (10th photo), but he would not go near the Barack Obama statue. We also visited the second oldest church in the New World (11th photo), unfortunately it was closed due to some much renovations, and the second oldest city hall called the Alcaldia (12th photo).
The last place we visited was the Museo de las Americas (Museum of the Americas) and this turned out to be my mother’s favorite attraction in San Juan. The museum houses eight different rooms with each room forming a different theme. We were told the first room (Native American History) and the eighth room (Folk Art) were the best rooms and I would have to agree. Although I did see some nice locally made tapestries and the Conquest and Colonization room had some interesting artifacts from the Spanish settlement era.
I feel by devoting two full days to just Old San Juan we were able to see almost everything we wanted to, but I do not think a third day would have been wasted as we did not see a couple sites and museums. Plus we had the typical McClellan hurry pace so we could squeeze it all in.
Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your readership and glad I could give you a reminder of San Juan.
We spent a few days in Old San Juan a few years ago – I highly recommend staying at least 2-3 days to explore even though geographically it is a small area. We stayed at the Hotel Milano… relative inexpensive compared to some other hotels in the town. The forts as you point out can each take a day to explore and are incredibly interesting. There is also kite day on Sunday on the lawn of Fort Felipe del Morro where a lot of locals come out with their kites and spend the day on the expansive lawn. Grab a shaved ice and just hang out! Another, though somewhat seedier aspect, are the local dive bars that are dotted throughout town. A particular favorite of ours was the Blessed Cafe – a reggae joint with the BEST Jamaican patties. Who knows if it is still there. We also enjoyed the architecture of the apartments – specifically the colors and design of the entry doors. I would post a few pics but don’t know how! Thanks for the update. A nice reminder of the area.