San Juan, Puerto Rico
Sprinkled about with natural marvels, full of opportunities for exciting things to do and of course full of idyllic tropical beaches, magical Puerto Rico is overflowing with attractions for the visitor.Its capital city –San Juan– is the jewel in its crown, exceptionally rich in historic buildings which together tell the story of almost 400 years of colonial Spanish rule. Forts with amazing Atlantic Ocean lookouts, grand mansions, cobble-stoned streets, tiny chapels and impressive churches are all part of Old San Juan where something either beautiful or fascinating (and frequently both) seems to be found at every turn.
Layered over this historic base is an impressive art scene, an astonishing number of museums, great shopping and culinary offerings of a world-class variety.
Although San Juan has more than enough to keep its visitors occupied for many weeks without ever venturing outside the bounds of the city the island has other wonders for those who want to spread their wings a little. Such delights include a rain forest, coffee plantations, cave networks and a choice of bioluminescent bays which offer an after dark spectacle which has to be seen to be believed.
A Morning in San Juan
Your San Juan morning is all about exploring its exceptional historic leftovers and begins with one of the city’s old forts after which you can take a walking tour of the other old town highlights. If you want to pack in as much as possible one of the easiest ways to do this is to take advantage of the city’s free trolley routes. Following three separate lines which together cover all the principal sights including both of the old town forts, the trolleys come in both air-conditioned enclosed and open-air varieties and run approximately every quarter of an hour.
Fort San Cristobal
There is no doubt that San Juan’s El Morro fort tends to take star billing along with boasting higher visitor numbers. However, the city’s second Spanish fort –San Cristobal -is every bit as impressive and in reality larger, with the added bonus that you won’t have to share with quite so many others. Part of the San Juan UNESCO World Heritage Site and the San Juan National Historic Site, the three-level San Cristobal along with its El Morro counterpart was built by the colonizing Spaniards in order to fend off any attacks by other European colonial powers that, in the 1600s, also had their eye on this Caribbean island.
The fort’s earliest sections date back to the 17th century although the structure in its entirety was not completed in its present form until 1783. Representing one of the largest Spanish forts of the Americas (some sources say the largest), San Cristobal today is actually considerably smaller than it once was. In the late 1800s the necessity to maintain the entire fort after almost a century of relative peace seemed surplus to requirements while the need for more spacious roads had become something more of an issue. As a result around 33% of the structure was demolished to address the traffic flow concerns.
In the 1900s, the fort now under US control, was once again added to for military purposes as the US entered into the great conflict of World War II.
Admiring the wonderful example of military architecture from the 1700s as you wander, you can also explorean original plaza, cisterns, cannon rooms, dungeons and tunnels while the 20th century military additions include underground bunkers and observation posts. Tours which lead visitors through the network of tunnels and are included in the entry price are popular, allowing exploration of a fascinating part of the castle which was once a major part of the overall defense system in the event of attack.
One of the fort’s most interesting and mystery-enshrouded features is a sentry box known as ‘Garita del Diablo’ (the devil’s sentry box) which dates from the castle’s very beginnings in 1634.
Dotted around the walls and forts of San Juan are a series of stone boxes, built to provide protected coast-side look-out points for soldiers on duty during a time when attacks by sea were a very real possibility.
The small domed stone structure known as Garita del Diablo is somewhat isolated and a little eerie at night and, so the story goes, was a highly unpopular post for sentries on duty. Legend tells how one night the shouts that guards along the line would send out to each other from the boxes went continuously unanswered by the soldier at the devil’s post –Sanchez. At sunrise all that was discovered was a uniform and a rifle; Sanchez himself was never seen again. While the folklore version has the soldier spirited away by the devil those with less romance in their souls explain the disappearance in a rather less mysterious way. Sanchez merely deserted his post under the cover of darkness to run away with his lover.
Whichever version most appeals to your own senses, to this day there are islanders who will tell you that the sounds of guitar and laughter still emanate from the sentry box at night amid the sounds of wind and waves.
Imposing military features aside one of the fort’s major highlights is its elevated, spectacular view of shoreline, city and sea.
Morning Coffee in San Juan
Puerto Rico has a relationship with coffee growing which dates back more than 300 years and today it is known as a country producing some of the world’s finest coffee beans. Such facts are good news for those who value quality coffee; it won’t be hard to track down something exceptional and locally-produced for your morning pause and several of the San Juan cafes offer you coffee grown on their very own tracts of land for a farm-to-cup experience.
One such in this category is the Cafe Don Ruiz whose family coffee heritage spans four generations. The setting is also heritage-rich as this cafe and on-site roastery is located inside the former Spanish military barracks of the Ballaja which date from the mid-1800s. Every single cup of coffee here is made using the family’s Arabica beans grown high in the Yauco coffee region of the island. This, together with their eco-friendly processing after harvesting, produces something high in both quality and flavor and which tends to be an instant hit with discerning coffee fans.
Besides the excellent and passionately crafted coffee which you can enjoy inside or alfresco in the courtyard with a range of pastries and crepes, there is also a shop for souvenirs such as rum and cigars and a small but interesting museum. This latter walks you through some of the traditional methods and antique equipment Don Ruiz and his coffee-master family used in the very earliest days of perfecting their craft.
If you happen to be one of those who prefer to take your coffee break with water views another Old San Juan option is Cafe Cola’o. With a modern but charming interior complete with colorful bunches of flowers adorning tables, all of the coffee options here are produced from island-grown beans which gives you a chance to sample the flavor varieties and regional specialties. The baristas are of the expert variety and the owner herself comes from a coffee-growing family so this is definitely a great choice for those who take their coffee seriously.
The outdoor patio here, shaded by umbrellas, gives you a close-up view of the bay and the comings and goings of craft both large and small at the old port. Besides the ambiance and views the cafe has a lovely range of pastries and cakes to pair with your drink of choice.
Historic Town Highlights Walking Tour
Once you have decided it is time to get exploring again after your coffee break you are perfectly placed from either Cafe Cola’o or Don Ruiz -which sit amid the historic surrounds of the lovely San Juan Viejo or old town -to explore this UNESCO Heritage Site in more depth.
Paved by cobblestones which in places date back to the earliest colonial times, this area overlooks both the sheltered waters of San Juan Bay and the North Atlantic and is technically part of San Juan Island. These days however this area of land is connected to the rest of Puerto Rico by causeways and bridges.
As one of the oldest European-founded cities in the Americas, Old San Juan gives you a wonderful window onto Spanish colonial history where you can gaze upon and explore an amazing mixture of magnificent old buildings, churches, convents, centuries old squares, military leftovers and much more.
If you decide to unearth the old town delights on your own the best way is to simply wander and let the many highlights happen by chance. However, so plentiful are the historical treasures of this area that if you can’t bear the thought of missing anything you might choose to take a guided tour. This way even the not-so-obvious gems –such as the more than 350 year old convent which is now the magnificent lemon-yellow El Convento Hotel –won’t escape you.
To make life especially easy and keep walking to a minimum several of the highlights are clustered together around the San Juan Gate. Today the only entrance to this walled city, this distinctive pinky-red stoned 20ft thick portal is the first historic leftover which visitors encounter on arriving at this lovely town.
Just a five minute walk from the imposing gate brings you to the Plaza de Armas which was once the main town square. Today it is home to a fountain adorned with 19th century marble statues, once sited elsewhere, while impossible to miss is the beautiful building located at the square’s northern edge. Official seat of the island’s mayor, the Casa Alcaldia dates back to the early 1600s with the final touches you see today completed in 1789. This city hall has been witness to some of the nation’s most significant historic events such as the document signing which abolished slavery in the late 19th century.
Less than 100 m from the Plaza de Armas can be found the bleached-white Basilica de San Juan Bautista or Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. This Gothic-style building represents one of the very oldest structures in the entire old town with roots which stretch back to 1521 although the first Roman Catholic church here was built of wood and thatch. The current building’s first stones were laid 20 years later and it is today the resting place of Juan Ponce de Leon –the Spanish explorer who served as the first governor of Puerto Rico in 1508.
Several of the arteries that criss-cross the old town are delights in themselves –streets lined with historic leftovers, art galleries, boutique shops and atmospheric restaurants with the frequent sights and sounds of street musicians performing. One such street which is liberally sprinkled with old town beauty is Calle del Cristo where the cathedral is located.
If you stroll south from here you will arrive at another gem of the old quarter –the Capilla del Cristo. Perched atop the ancient walls on a cliff section, can be found a tiny chapel which was erected in 1753 by one man who had miraculously survived a dramatic accident on this very spot and which he attributed to divine intervention. When the horse of Baltazar Juan Bautista plunged from these cliffs over 250 years ago during a race taking his rider with him the spectators were as amazed as the young man himself to find he had survived what should have been a fall to his death.
The chapel, which stands on the very spot where rider and horse disappeared from view on that day in the 18th century, is today almost exactly as it was when it was built months later. It became a pilgrimage site for islanders seeking cures and over the centuries the church has accumulated an amazing collection of ornaments left by the faithful in the shape of the body parts they hoped to find miraculous healing for. Besides these ‘miraglos’ the chapel is also notable for its lovely altar of silver and gold leaf and its collection of 18th century oil paintings.
Just a stone’s throw from the quaint chapel can be found another quirky feature of the old town area known as La Casa Estrecha. Once nothing more than a narrow alley, architect Antonio Alvarez decided to squeeze in a two-level house measuring just 5ft 3in across and which, despite its tiny occupying space, is hard to miss with its color scheme of canary-yellow and forest-green. The owner offers tours of this incredible dwelling for all those who would like to see the ingenious ways the lack of breadth has been overcome to create a fully habitable house.
Also close by the Christ Chapel is La Fortaleza which represents one of the settling Spaniards first fortified defense buildings along with the two castles. Dating from 1533 the blue and white painted La Fortaleza was to serve as the ruling governor’s home from the beginning of the 1600s, a purpose it still fulfills today. La Fortaleza is located at the end of Calle Fortaleza which is yet another of Old San Juan’s most picturesque and photo-worthy stretches. Walk 300 m from La Forteleza and you will arrive at a small square which pays tribute to an important 18th century historical event –Plazuela de la Rogativa. Tree-filled and with gorgeous views of the bay, this compact space is dominated by a beautiful bronze statue depicting three torch-bearing figures surrounding a bishop.
The story behind this piece took place in 1797 when the British fleet had the town under siege, hoping to starve the occupants into surrender by blocking all supplies by sea. Things were looking fairly desperate for the town folk when things took an amazing turn. The town women all took up flaming torches and filed in procession through the streets which the British assumed was the arrival of reinforcements. The attack was consequently abandoned and the town released from its starvation situation.
Two other lovely historic buildings worth checking out within this area are Casa Rosada and Casa Blanca.The former dates from the early 1800s and formerly served as military barracks and officers’ quarters while the latter was a grand fortified dwelling built in 1521 and intended for Juan Ponce de Leon. Although in the end this first Spanish governor never lived here his descendants did for the next 250 years until its use was converted into quarters for military personnel.
Today its lovely flower-filled gardens which are free to explore and early colonial interiors are home to a museum filled with furniture, antiques and paintings set out to represent the 1500s, 1600s and 1700s respectively.
Also within easy walking distance but a little spread out from this main cluster of highlights are:
- The Capitol Building – dating from 1925 this government building is a mere youngster compared to its other historical treasures but is nonetheless another example of some lovely architecture. Should it interest you it is possible to take a tour of the interior of this domed structure which has gorgeous sea views.
- The Cuartel de Ballaja – this massive building with a large inner courtyard once served as military barracks when it was built in the 19th century. Today its space is home to the Museum of the Americas, various cafes and restaurants and a school of music among other things.
- The Old San Juan Cemetery – accessed through a tunnel and sprawled across an area which overlooks the Atlantic this is a lovely, greenery-filled and tranquil place for those who want to escape the crowds. Little-visited, this beautiful graveyard with its pure white monuments and tombs and which has been used as a resting place for the dead since the 1800s is a great spot for views of the fort of El Morro on one side and the historic shanty town of La Perla on the other.
Lunch in San Juan
Puerto Rico is not a large island but nevertheless manages to offer a culinary diversity which even far more expansive places would be proud of; San Juan, the capital, offers all of that gastronomy in a miniature version. Here you can still find the traditional street food stalls offering the long-established flavors of the island such as plantain tostones, empanadas and mofongo. However, a more recent culinary explosion has added elegant celebrity chef-run establishments into the mix where all kinds of international and gourmet cuisine is also possible and between the two extremes is just about anything you could imagine.
If you are one of those who likes to sample traditional dishes when you travel there is plenty of choice, one of which is the charming and atmospheric Parrot Club in the old town which once held a birthday celebration for Johnny Depp. A lunch here plants you amid colonial history as the restaurant is housed within an old building full of beamed ceilings, grand arches and vibrantly painted walls full of artwork. Alternatively, the outside brick courtyard full of palms is a magical little space for those who want to eat with the blue sky above them. The cuisine here is as authentically Puerto Rican as it comes but there are some interesting modern twists which liven things up. Try the Caribbean version of a seafood paella, tuck into tacos or keep it 100% traditional with such offerings as the green plantain-based mofongo which comes in shrimp, chicken and meat varieties.
Just outside of the old town can be found another beautiful colonial building-located choice where the flavors of the Caribbean are wonderfully evident but wrapped within a French bistro experience.The St. Germain Bistro and Cafe –named for an area of Paris –is a little off the beaten path and therefore something of a hidden gem although it is beloved by locals. The prices here are some of the best around with a menu offering sandwiches of the gourmet variety, salads, ceviches, fresh-baked quiches, pizzas and much more along with some wonderful lunch deals and specials which regularly change. The interiors are fresh and modern but homely and the welcome here is frequently talked about as being as warm as you will find anywhere.
An Afternoon in San Juan and Puerto Rico
San Juan’s vast collection of museums and historical highlights has more than enough to keep visitors busy for many days but beyond the capital the island is also home to further treasures too.These include the El Yunque National Rain forest and the magical island of Vieques which lies just six miles east of the mainland. You can pick one of these as a way to fill your afternoon hours and although both are very different each offer something extra special.
Hiking the El Yunque National Rain forest
Representing the only tropical rain forest within the USA territories, the incredible natural jewel known as El Yunque lies 35 miles east from San Juan. Surrounded in legends which date back to pre-Columbian eras when the Taino people called these lands home, today this lush tropical area is home to astonishing biodiversity. It doesn’t have any larger animals but the wildlife is still teeming with smaller species such as frogs, lizards and bats with much of what is found here not present anywhere else on Earth.
One such is the bright green and red Puerto Rican parrot which is on the top 10 list of the world’s rarest birds and has been pulled back from the brink of extinction several times.
Wildlife aside the diversity of flora species in this protected area is also outstanding with 150 fern species and more than 200 tree species alone. Much of the greenery which makes up this beautiful and tranquil park is also of the rare variety and in many cases only found in Puerto Rico.
The many hiking trails here offer something for everyone from short strolls to gorgeous pools to longer hikes which offer challenges such as steep terrain and stream crossings. Several of the marked trails have waterfalls as their most striking feature with the 7 mile La Mina Trail perhaps the most popular of all the options. Your reward at the end, besides the many mountain streams of crystal-clear waters, tiny bridges and natural pools you will pass along the way, is the lovely La Mina Falls. Here you can cool down after your exertions with an enchanting dip in the pool which sits at the cascade’s base.
Just a short boat ride from the Puerto Rican mainland lies the extra-special island of Vieques which will instantly appeal to all those who are looking for a slice of the Caribbean as it used to be before tourism arrived.
Technically Spanish-owned along with the main island for centuries, the colonizers paid it little attention unless the Scots, French, English or Danes occasionally showed some interest in grabbing it for themselves. At these times the Spaniards defended it to the hilt but otherwise left it ungoverned and, as a result, the island was used by both outlaws and pirates who ensconced themselves here knowing they would be left unmolested.
Having miraculously escaped any large scale development, the entire island represents a complete back-to-nature experience for those who find rustic, quiet and uncrowded enchanting. Vieques is a little oasis criss-crossed by narrow dirt roads free of traffic jams or roadside advertising but full of stunning natural features, magical little towns full of color and a handful of historic leftovers such as lighthouses and forts.
Mother Nature is the star here and today this gorgeous 55 mile square island is home to the Caribbean’s largest undeveloped wildlife refuge.It is also a tapestry put together from a collection of stunning beaches which range from the bleached-white sand variety to those which have black volcanic sands. Beach-lovers can hop from beach to beach almost continuously without finding a building in sight and where the only footprints are their own.
While the island has plenty of natural wildlife perhaps the most famous of its animal residents are the paso fino horses, descended from European stock of long ago, which roam the island freely, often with an elegant egret hitching a ride on their backs.
Some come here and choose to simply wander, discovering such delights as the gorgeously restored lighthouse of Punta Mulas or its ruined 19th century counterpart of Puerto Ferro where close by a human skeleton almost 4,000 years old was unearthed. Other highlights include the wonderful Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust Museum, the last of the Spanish forts ever constructed in the Americas –the Fortin Conde de Mirasol, military bunkers and evocative former sugar plantations where you can take tours and learn about the often harsh and cruel life lived out here by generations of African slaves.
However, of all the things to do here getting into the crystal waters of this stunning location is one of the most popular. You can opt to snorkel directly from the beach at places such as Punta Arenas where you will discover a rainbow-hued underwater wonderland of coral forests dotted about with impossibly delicate-looking sea fans and fascinating brain corals as parrot fish, rays and turtles swim around you.
Alternatively you can choose to travel above the water by kayak where mangroves, coral cays, coastal caves and fabulous rock formations can all be part of your adventure. Both snorkeling and kayaking can be done independently with several places offering snorkel and mask rental but you can also choose to join a tour if you’d like to tap into the expert knowledge of locals.
Pre-Dinner Drinks and Dinner in San Juan and Surrounds
San Juan is an absolute treasure trove for drinking and dining. Cocktail-lovers may be interested to know that San Juan is where arguably the most famous cocktail ever invented was born –the piña colada -although quite which establishment can claim the glory for this is still a matter of debate. Otherwise, whatever constitutes your own personal definition of heaven with regard to food and drink and the perfect place to enjoy them is probably found here somewhere -from ocean-side venues where you can enjoy exotic cocktails with your feet in the sand and a view of the sunset to sophisticated lounges, piano bars and restaurants where providing world-class culinary excellence is all in a normal day’s work.
If you opted to spend your afternoon on the gorgeous island of Vieques you might like to hang around for drinks and dinner too. Not only are there some exceptionally idyllic spots here to enjoy sundowners and a range of cuisine types but you will also then be perfectly placed to follow dinner with a trip to the sensational bioluminescent bays.
Vieques bars tend to be infused with the whole ‘island time’ vibe which describes everything here in a nutshell. One such is the lovely Bananas on Esperanza Beach where your piña coladas and mojitos can be enjoyed at absolute beachfront
If you prefer to be closer to San Juan though you are truly going to be spoiled for choice.Head to the Plaza del Mercado in Santurce where after dark this bar-and cafe-surrounded square is a lively gathering spot for locals to sip cocktails and beers alfresco or spin their partners with a bit of salsa dancing.
If you want to swap a local vibe for a touch more refinement make your way to the Ocean Park area to find spots such as the Numero Uno Beach Bar with its classy cocktail menu which you can enjoy right on the sand. Alternatively there is the Condado neighborhood which is home to the sophisticated Oceano Bar which comes complete with beautiful décor and an exceptionally lovely view of the ocean.
The beautiful old town of course is awash in options too with all kinds of hidden gems or intimate venues tucked away among its cobblestone streets. One of these is the highly atmospheric Cafe Carli Concierto which is a perfect choice for cocktail-loving music fans. Infused with an air of romance, here you can enjoy your sangria or exceptional mojito sundowners while serenaded by Carli Munoz on his Steinway grand piano. Mr. Munoz is not just the venue’s owner but also something of an island legend, having professionally toured or performed with the likes of the Beach Boys and B.B. King.
The easiest way to keep things as simple as possible is to enjoy drinks at one of the venues suggested and then simply dine in the same spot when you are ready. Those with a desire to enjoy one of Puerto Rico’s fine dining experiences can opt for the elegant Oceano which despite its high-class reputation, gorgeous ocean views and lovely décor offers tropical-flavored seafood dishes at surprisingly affordable prices.
Bananas on Vieques offers two dining choices, both open-air and offering exceptional value and a front row view of amazing sunsets with the ocean stretching off into the distance. If you like to feel the sand between your toes as you tuck into fare of the burgers and wings variety opt for the Beach and Bar Grill. For an elevated view head up to La Vista Rooftop where the menu offers a diverse collection of dishes ranging from local specialties to steaks and succulent seafood.
For those that can’t bear to tear themselves away from the beautiful ambiance and live jazz piano music at the Cafe Carli Concierto after sundowner drinks you might be happy to learn you don’t have to. Boasting several food industry awards, this cozy but elegant space filled with marble tables and of course the nightly sounds of soft jazz serves up a diverse range of internationally-influenced dishes ranging from inventive tapas to duck and lamb plates. There is also a small terrace here for alfresco fans who want a view of the boats in the harbor as they dine.
An Evening in San Juan
Once the sun sinks below the horizon the majority of Caribbean islands tend to offer a mix of dancing, music and tropical after-dinner drinks with gorgeous backdrops of ocean and beach as the principal after-dark options for entertainment. Puerto Rico has all that too but this exceptional island also has a wonderful selection of things to do in the evenings which are not so commonly found.
Topping this list of the extra-special by quite some way is the opportunity to visit one of Puerto Rico’s spectacular bioluminescent bays. Although Puerto Rico is not the only country where you can see this incredibly beautiful and highly rare natural phenomenon, Mosquito Bay on Vieques is generally recognized as the most spectacular and brightest of them all anywhere in the world. The dinoflagellates (a type of micro-organism) which are responsible for causing the glow-in-the-dark marvel known as bioluminescence are found in exceptionally large quantities in this bay thanks to a combination of mangroves, water depth and rich sources of what is needed for the microscopic creatures to thrive.
If these waters are calm and without any wave movement you would never know they were there. However, once the water is agitated in some way they light up with a neon blue which is both other-worldly and astonishingly beautiful at the same time. One of the best ways of all to observe this once-in-a-lifetime experience is either by swimming or kayaking on these waters in order to create the water agitation which is needed to produce the unforgettable glows and sparkles.
Lovely little Mosquito Bay is completely undeveloped and therefore devoid of light pollution which allows the bioluminescence to dazzle you with its show. Kayaking at night here is incredibly peaceful and would be exceptional even without the presence of the micro-organisms, However with it, what you get is a fantastical display guaranteed to both enchant and mesmerize with each paddle stroke you take.
The Tapia Theater
For an evening of Caribbean culture make your way to the historical Tapia Theater which sits in its Neoclassical glory in the center of San Juan’s old district. Opening its stage curtains to the general public for the first time in 1832, the Teatro Tapia is the oldest continuously running theater within US territories and is beautiful both inside and out. The venue has an impressive calendar of events which include ballet, opera, dramatic performances and musical entertainment, all of which prove popular with visitors to the city.
Santurce’s Street Art
San Juan may be better known for its incredible colonial history and stunning beaches but one of its lesser known attractions is the presence of an impressive arts scene. For its size the city has a large number of art galleries and for those who like their art a little more urban there is Santurce. Located to the east of the historical district, this neighborhood is packed with street art which began a few years ago. This art has acted as the catalyst in turning what was once a far less than salubrious area into one of the city’s hottest trend-setting areas with bars and restaurants opening up and clambering to be part of it all.
Wandering this district after dark would once have been out of the question for visitors but today the opposite is true and hunting down some of the most celebrated pieces is a lovely way to work off any after-dinner excesses. Big, bold and often highly colorful, these incredible art works come in all sizes ranging up to those which cover buildings from street level to roof height. Their subjects depict everything from day-to-day life on a tropical island to issues relating to history and culture.
Just about wherever you wander in this area will bring you face to face with some example of this open-air gallery but the greatest concentration can be found around Calle Cera and Calle Loiza.