Thanks to extensive restoration in the 1990s, OLD SAN JUAN (Viejo San Juan) is a wonderfully preserved slice of eighteenth-century colonial Spain, its narrow streets lined with tempting restaurants and a range of modest but thought-provoking museums. Aimlessly wandering its quiet, cobbled back lanes is enchanting, with salsa music drifting out of half-shuttered windows, blossoms draped over wrought-iron balconies and the tempting aromas of criollo cooking wafting through the cracks of wooden doors.
The commercial parts of the old town tend to get overrun by day-trippers from cruise ships, but it’s easy to avoid the crowds and their presence has beneficial side effects – this is the safest part of the city and English is spoken everywhere.
Despite being fairly steep in parts, the streets of the old town are best appreciated on foot, though there are a couple of free trolley buses that trundle between the visitor centre and the main sights.
One of the greatest forts in the New World, the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, more commonly known as El Morro, looms over the Atlantic with virtually impregnable stone walls. It is testimony to Spain’s grim determination to defend the island over the centuries and proved an ideal stand-in for the terrifying slave fort in the movie Amistad (1997). Today El Morro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and part of the San Juan National Historic Site (wwww.nps.gov/saju), managed by the US National Park Service.
A short walk from Casa Blanca, the fortress occupies a dramatic spot at the top end of Old San Juan, with six levels of rock-solid defensive positions featuring the distinctive “hornwork” shape, 42m high in places. It dominates the mouth of San Juan Bay, a superb strategic location that made it almost impossible to capture.
Established as a small gun battery in the 1540s, El Morro was constantly expanded and the imposing defences you see today were completed in 1787, thanks in large part to an enterprising Irishman in the pay of Spain, Thomas O’Daly. The fort’s defensive record is certainly impressive and it was captured only once – by the English in 1598.
You’ll enter the fort at the main plaza, surrounded by vaulted rooms that once served as officers’ quarters, magazines and storerooms. Some of these have been converted into a small museum of the site and a video room. From the main plaza you can clamber over the battlements above and below, taking in the stunning panoramas of the bay and cityscape to the east.
The fort is separated from the rest of the old town by a swathe of green grass, which has no official name but is commonly known as El Campo, or just the “Area Verde”. It’s a popular place to fly kites – come here on a blustery weekend and the sky is jam-packed with them. To join in, buy one from the stalls nearby.
Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis
Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis
Wedged between the city walls and the Atlantic on the north side of the campo, the Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis is one of the most picturesque sights in San Juan, its ornate but tightly packed marble tombs and monuments backed by an immense span of blue stretching far into the horizon. The best views are from the walls above, but to get inside the cemetery walk through the road tunnel at the northeast corner of the campo. Although it’s located near La Perla, there are caretakers on duty and it’s usually safe to visit here during the day.
The most famous person buried here is Pedro Albizu Campos, leader of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. His marble tomb is marked by two national flags in a corner of the old section. Nearby is the grave of José de Diego, topped with a bust of the poet and independence advocate. Look out also for doctor and politician José Celso Barbosa, buried in a family tomb in the modern section of the cemetery, on the left side of the main path as you enter and Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, founder of the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP). Note that the infamous pirate Roberto Cofresí, who was executed outside El Morro in 1825, was buried somewhere on the campo – criminals could not be laid to rest inside the cemetery.
Museo de las Américas
Museo de las Américas
One of San Juan’s most absorbing museums, the Museo de las Américas (787/724-5052, www.museolasamericas.org) is a thoughtful collection of art and anthropology relating to Puerto Rico and the Americas as a whole. Facing El Morro on the other side of the campo, the museum occupies the second floor of the Cuartel de Ballajá (the old Spanish barracks), a grand, three-storey imperial structure built between 1854 and 1864 and arranged around a wide central courtyard.
The museum has four permanent exhibitions. El indio en América is a poignant introduction to 22 indigenous American tribes, beginning with the Taíno and including others from South and North America. Explanations are in Spanish and English, the well-presented exhibits embellished by bronze statues created by Peru-based artist Felipe Lettersten. La Herencia Africana is an enlightening look at the West African origins of the region’s black population, as well as the horrific slave trade; a particular emphasis is placed on Puerto Rico, naturally, and the numerous slave rebellions up to abolition in 1873. Note, however, that there are no English explanations, making this room a bit dull if you don’t read Spanish. Conquista y Colonización chronicles the history of the island from the arrival of Ponce de León to the US invasion, again in Spanish only. The fourth exhibition, Las Artes Populares en Las Américas, is an eclectic collection of traditional folk art from all over the Americas (English labels). Other rooms are used for temporary exhibitions, usually paintings or artwork.
As the capital city of the world’s leading producer of rum, San Juan is the perfect place to get more closely acquainted with the Caribbean’s favourite tipple. Top of your list should be Casa Bacardi, the “cathedral of rum”. Enthusiastic guides and multimedia exhibits introduce every facet of the rum-making process, including special “nosing” barrels of various Bacardi blends – suitably tempted, you get two free cocktails at the end of the tour and a shop selling discounted bottles of its best products. Bacardi’s main rival on the island, Don Q, offers free samples at Casa Don Q, opposite the cruise-ship piers, including the bestselling Cristal, the island’s favourite cocktail mixer. The Rums of Puerto Rico association also maintains a small bar at the main visitor centre in Old San Juan where, once again, free rum and knockout piña coladas are usually on offer Saturday to Wednesday. Real connoisseurs should enquire here (ask for Ahmed Naveiras) about tours of the Hacienda Santa Ana in Bayamón, where the Fernández family still makes the superlative Ron de Barrilito. This rich, dark spirit was created in 1880 and is aged in Spanish sherry barrels for a minimum of three years: many consider Barrilito to be the best rum in the world. Private tours are possible, but only through the tourist office. You’ll visit the ageing cellars, thick with the burnt, sweet aroma of sugar molasses, the rickety bottling plant and graceful windmill dating from 1827, which today acts as an office adorned with faded photographs and dusty, old bottles of rum. You’ll also see “La Doña”, or the Freedom Barrel, which was laid down in 1942 and will only be opened when Puerto Rico achieves independence – by which time it’s likely to have evaporated in the tropical heat.
La Perla is the ramshackle barrio just beyond El Morro and the cemetery, hugging the Atlantic coast below the city walls. It’s been one of San Juan’s most deprived areas since the eighteenth century, when it became the refuge of city outcasts as well as the poorer families of soldiers stationed at El Morro. It won notoriety in 1966 as the subject of La Vida, Oscar Lewis’s controversial study of poverty on the island, and in 2006 it was one of the locations for the movie El Cantante, the place where salsa legend Héctor Lavoe came to shoot heroin. While it’s true that some of La Perla’s inhabitants make a living from crime (and drugs are a problem here), they rarely pose a threat to tourists. In fact, locals observe a strict street code – harming outsiders brings unwanted police attention. Having said that, there’s little reason to voyeuristically wander the area’s narrow streets. You can meet some of the local characters in La Callejón (the alley), a cluster of bars at the northern end of c/Tanca, back in the old town above La Perla – it’s best if you speak Spanish. Bars such as El Adoquin del Patio are usually quite safe and on Friday nights attract a boisterous, friendly crowd with live music and plenty of cheap rum.