San Juan Puerto Rico

Old San Juan Puerto Rico’s capital is San Juan and the original walled city, simply known these days as Old San Juan, is a must for anyone visiting the island.

Any visitor to San Juan must walk the cobbled streets and tour El Morro at the very least.

On the Atlantic coast of Puerto Rico, Metropolitan San Juan extends from the original walled city to districts that were formerly towns in their own right.

Miramar, Isla Verde, Santurce, Condado, Hato Rey and Río Piedras have all been swallowed by San Juan’s expansion.

 

Old San Juan

Old San Juan is a small town of cobbled streets with a fusion of buildings dating back 500 years.

Almost completely surrounded by a defensive wall, Old San Juan is protected by two fortresses – El Morro to the west protects against sea-mounted assaults and guards the entrance to the arbor while land-based attacks from the east are defended by San Cristóbal.

Within the city walls lies a grid of cobbled streets with brightly painted houses dating from the 19th century.

Today you’ll mainly find sightseers during the day, a mixture of tourists to Puerto Rico as well as day-trippers who arrive in San Juan aboard one of the many cruise ships.

The park next to El Morro in old San JuanA street in Old San Juan

At night, particularly at weekends, Puerto Ricans arrive from all over the island to party. The result is a mixture of tourist shops, restaurants, bars and a vibrant Puerto Rican nightlife.

Old San Juan is safe to walk, except the area just outside of the city wall known as La Perla. Although its brightly painted houses look inviting, it is dangerous to tourists. Under no circumstances go here or visit the cemetery area next to it.

Do, however, visit the fortresses – El Morro and San Cristóbal demand a couple of hours each – walk the pretty streets, stop to shop and recharge your batteries in one of the many restaurants.

 

San Juan – a brief history

Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico on his second voyage to the New World in 1493 and although the names were reversed in 1521, the first colonizers called the island San Juan Bautista – St. John the Baptist – while the town was named Puerto Rico.

The reversal of names is not entirely clear, but may be the result of an error on a map of the time and the reversal of name stuck. The original name of the town – it means Rich Port – was due to the tremendous potential offered by what is one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean.

As Spain quickly realest that San Juan’s harbor was a key strategic base for realizing for controlling the seas between Spain and the New World. By securing San Juan as a military base it would be able to realize its colonization of the New World, using the port as an intermediate base for the treasure ships.

Money was poured into fortifying San Juan – the city wall was built to encircle the town and the construction of El Morro fortress begun, although it was constantly updated over a period of almost 250 years.

A view of Miramar in San JuanA prized possession, San Juan was constantly under attack – the English briefly succeeded in capturing it, whilst the French and Dutch tried in vain.

To fortify the city even further, a second fortress was planned – construction of San Cristóbal was begun in 1634 and is the largest Spanish-built fortress in the New World.

By now San Juan had nearly three and a half miles of wall encircling it and protection from both the east and the west.

Puerto Rico faded in importance during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the following century saw it become more cosmopolitan. Finally, the Spanish-American War in 1898 saw Spain cede its remaining territories to the United States – Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines and other islands were all lost.

After investment in Puerto Rico to promote free trade, the island prospered. World War 2 saw more investment in the port from the US as it strengthened Puerto Rico’s defenses to make it a key strategic base in the Caribbean.

Postwar investment to change Puerto Rico from an industrial nation to manufacturing economy saw many US companies set up operations on the island and in 1951 Puerto Rico gained Commonwealth status, a status that still exists today.

Also see El Morro and the weather in San Juan.