Steeped in colonial history, SAN GERMÁN boasts a ravishing centre of narrow streets and ornate mansions adorned with stained glass and elaborate stucco. It’s certainly the most beautiful provincial town in Puerto Rico, equally as precious as Old San Juan, but with a fraction of the visitors. Chief among its rare collection of graceful homes, churches and museums is the Museo Porta Coeli, one of the oldest places of worship on the island and now an absorbing museum of religious art.
The centre of San Germán is compact enough to explore on foot, and strolling its handsome streets is the best way to soak up the impressive architecture on show, a blend of local clapboard houses, various Neoclassical styles and plenty of flamboyant Art Nouveau and modernisme touches. The austere atmosphere is exaggerated by the lack of people: like many provincial Puerto Rican towns, traditional street life has been sucked out by malls and suburban development, and other than a steady flow of customers to the incongruously located Walgreens on Calle Luna, at times it can seem a bit of a ghost town. Start exploring at Museo Porta Coeli, on the eastern edge of town, San Germán’s oldest and most iconic building.
San Germán has an odd and rather confusing history, compounded by a lack of historical records and, as always, the intense competition among Puerto Rican municipalities for historic precedence. Villa Sotomayor, built in 1510 and destroyed a year later, is often considered the first incarnation of San Germán (at least by Sangermeños) – its successor, built in 1512, was actually named San Germán, but located in Aguada or Añasco, depending on whom you believe. After trying several different locations, it was the descendants of this town, consistently battered and pillaged by pirates and Taíno, who eventually abandoned the defenceless coastal plains and founded the current city kilometres inland between 1570 and 1573 (though a community had been growing here on the Santa Marta hills since the 1540s). At first it was called Nueva Villa de Salamanca, after the city in Spain, but nostalgic citizens insisted on calling it San Germán el Nuevo. Consequently, San Germán, Aguada and Añasco all claim to be Puerto Rico’s “second oldest city”. The new San Germán flourished, and was the administrative centre for the western half of the island until 1692, with a greater population than San Juan until well into the 1700s. In 1856 the city was devastated by a cholera epidemic in which 2843 people died, and it gradually became more of a backwater.