Thursday, November 15, 2018

Walking the Walls of Old San Juan, part 2

The walls of Old San Juan still surround the city to this day. Walking along the wall is a great way to see the city. Last week we toured the Paseo la Princesa to the Puerta del San Juan and on to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. Today we will continue to the northern side of the city.

The Cathedral is at the intersection of Caleta de San Juan and Calle del Cristo. Walk north (uphill) along Calle del Cristo. You will pass Hotel El Convento. Built as a Carmelite convent in the 1650’s, today it is one of the premier boutique hotels on the island. At the top of the hill is Plaza San Jose. The Iglesia San Jose, built in 1532, is currently undergoing major renovations, but stop in to Casa de los Contrafuertes gallery. Dedicated to contemporary art work, the gallery occupies one of the old casas de la ciudad, and the chance to see good art and explore an old house are worth the price of admission. You will also find one of my favorite restaurants on the square – El Patio del Sam. This local joint on Calle San Sebastian is a great place to stop for lunch or dinner – good food, good drinks, great prices.
Iglesia San Jose

The Amazin Ms. D in fromt of Casa del Contrafuertes
Plaza San Jose

Turn left in front of Iglesia San Jose, and walk west to the Plaza del Quinto Cenetario. This open space was built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landing on the island. At the southern end of the plaza, its highest point, is the Totem Telurico, a 12m (40 ft) tall sculpture by Jaime Suarez, built to commemorate the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Americas, especially the Tainos.  At the bottom of the plaza, the northern end, is an interactive fountain. On hot days it is filled with families using the water to cool off.

MusikAnimal [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

From the plaza continue west to the Curtel de Bellajá. This building was built in the 1850’s by Spain as a barracks for soldiers and their families. It continued to serve in this role after the U.S. took control of the island in 1898. From 1939 through 1955 the building housed a hospital. Today it is home to several cultural institutions, including El Museo de los Americas. You can read my blog about the museum here.

El Morro

Cementario Maria Magdelena

Northwest from El Curtel is El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, called “El Morro” by locals. This fort provided security, guarding the entrance to San Juan’s harbor. Today it is a U.S. National Historical Site, and you can take a self-guided tour, or look for one of the historical talks led by a park ranger. In front of the fort is a large open field. In the past, when the military controlled the fort, this space has served as a parade ground, a golf course and even had a pool for the officers and their families. Today, it is a place where Puerto Ricans come spend an afternoon, have a picnic lunch and take advantage of the winds for kite flying. Below El Morro is the Cementario Santa Maria Magdelena de Pazzis. Built just outside the city walls in 1863, this beautiful cemetery is the final resting place for many of the luminaries of Puerto Rico’s history.

When you are finished at El Morro, walk east along Calle Norzagaray, along the top of the city’s walls. On your right, you will pass some great examples of San Juan’s classic colonial architecture. The Museo de Arte y Historia de San Juan is in a 19th century building that was home to San Juan’s market. All along the street are buildings built when Spain ruled the island. These were some of the nicest, fanciest houses in the city when they were built. Now look over the wall. There is La Perla. This barrio, stuck between the wall and the Atlantic Ocean, is one of the poorest on the island. This was, until recently, a shanty town, home to the city’s slaughter houses, and former enslaved people and freed black servants, who were not allowed to live in the city. 

JohnnyGo [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

At the eastern end of Calle Norzagaray is Castillo San Cristóbal. The second fort guarding Old San Juan, San Cristóbal played a key role in defending the city from the British invasion of 1797. From here you can walk down to Plaza Colón, and the end of our tour.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Walking the Walls of Old San Juan

I have traveled to Puerto Rico many times. It is where the Amazing Ms. D is from, so visiting family is a frequent activity. It has given me the opportunity to really explore some parts of the island. We spend most of our time in the San Juan metropolitan area, and Old San Juan is one of my favorite places.

When most people think of San Juan, it is Old San Juan that they picture. The oldest part of this area are the city walls, which were built in the 16th century to protect the settlement from British and Dutch invaders. Most of the original walls are still standing, surrounding Old San Juan on three sides. Touring the length of the walls is an easy and beautiful walk.

Start at Plaza Eugenio María de Hostos, across from the U.S. Customs House. This square, with its ancient Ceiba tree, was a market place in the old days. Farmers and crafts-people would come from surrounding areas to sell their goods. Today the headquarters of Banco Popular towers over the plaza, and there are stalls for artisans for continue this tradition.

Paseo La Princesa

The west side of the plaza is the entrance to the Paseo La Princesa. This tree lined promenade along the foot of the city walls. It was home to a prison, built in 1837, that took the name of the walkway. Part of the old prison is now an office for the Puerto Rican Tourism Company. On many weekends, the Paseo becomes a craft market. As in days gone by, artisans come and set up their booths to the things they make. It is a great chance to meet and support local artists.

The Puerto Rico Tourism office

At the western end of the Paseo is the Raíces Fountain. The fountain was built in 1992, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of Puerto Rico. Its figure represents the raíces (roots) of the island in Taíno, African and European cultures. Here the walkway turns follows the wall north. If you look up you will see the garitas, the old guard stations, built into the wall. You walk at the base of the wall, along the shore of San Juan Bay, up to the Puerto de San Juan, the old entrance to the city. It is a very nice walk along the water, but it can hot and there is little shade in the afternoon.

Raíces Fountain

A Garita

 The wall continues past El Puerto  

Raíces Fountain

When you pass through the Door, you will find the beautiful, colorful architecture of the old city. Walking these here is one of my favorite things to do in Puerto Rico. The pastels of the houses and the narrow streets hold my eyes, and transport me to another time. Even though they are currently filled with cars and small trucks, I feel what it must have been like when horses and people were all you saw on these streets. The fronts of the houses have not changed in the past hundred years. The old balconies still hang over the narrow sidewalks. Old street lamps, now changed from gas to electric, line the walls. And the doors! Beautiful old wood doors give an air of mystery, hiding their secrets from view. Every once in a while, you find a house with an open door. Down a dark hallway there is a hint of a courtyard, or part of a tiled stairway leading up to someplace that remains invisible.

El Puerto De San Juan
Una puerta en San Juan

Another San Juan Door

One of the old street lamps

Walk along the streets, up the hill, to the Catedral Basilica de San Juan Bautista, Old San Juan’s main cathedral. It was built in 1540, but it as been renovated many times, most recently in 1917. The cathedral was designed in a typical style of the Spanish Colonial period, with a rounded bell tower over the church’s façade. It houses the tomb of Ponce de León.

Catedral Basilica Municipal de San Juan Bautista
The Cathedral Altar

Well, you have made it half way through the walk. Next week we will finish our tour, stopping at a couple of forts along the way.