500 years of Spanish colonial history in Puerto Rico's capital
As the second-oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere—and the oldest that Americans can visit without a passport—Old San Juan packs a lot of history inside its 3 square miles. The explorer Juan Ponce de Leon began establishing settlements in the area in 1508, 15 years after Christopher Columbus first landed on Puerto Rico and 12 years after the founding of Santo Domingo on Hispaniola. Enclosed by thick, towering walls, the old city’s narrow cobblestone streets are lined with brightly colored examples of Spanish colonial architecture. Here are five sites that history buffs won’t want to miss:
1. Castillo San Felipe del Morro & Castillo San Cristobal
Although technically two separate fortresses constructed separately, these two Spanish military installations are connected both literally—by less than a mile of city wall—and figuratively. Together they made San Juan a strategic stronghold and defended the city against attacks by the English, Dutch, Americans and others for centuries, and today they represent the bulk of the San Juan National Historic Site.
The older of the two, informally known as El Morro, was built starting in 1539 on a rocky point of land guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay. On either side of a quarter-mile walkway connecting the city and the fort is a sprawling, green esplanade. Though often filled with families flying kites, the space is supposed to serve as a reminder to visitors of just how intimidating the fort would have been to attacking soldiers, who had to cross a wide-open field of fire to reach its walls. The fort itself has six levels and a lighthouse, with impressive views of the bay and Atlantic Ocean.
After El Morro faced several land-based attacks, the Spanish started fortifying a hill to the east. San Cristobal as it exists today was mainly constructed over the course of 25 years starting in the 1760s. Though not as famous as El Morro, it is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World, covering 27 acres.
2. La Fortaleza
This structure was the city’s original defensive fortification before the construction of El Morro. From the early days, it was the residence of the island’s governor and continues to serve that purpose today. In 1846, it was extensively remodeled, its military facade modified to look more like a mansion. La Fortaleza and the San Juan National Historic Site were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983.
3. Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
Not coincidentally, the second-oldest European settlement in the Western Hemisphere also has the second-oldest cathedral. The stark, gothic facade is the result of later restoration efforts, but behind it are several rooms and architectural elements that date to 1540, making it one of the few authentic examples of medieval architecture in the Americas. Visitors can also see the tomb of Ponce de Leon, whose remains were moved here in the 19th century.
4. San Juan Gate
The huge wooden doors that served as the front entrance to the city are emblazoned with the date 1749. Those arriving by sea would pass through the gate and make their way up Caleta de San Juan to the cathedral to give thanks for a safe voyage. Anyone who didn’t make it inside before the gate was shut in the evening had to spend a night outside the city walls.
5. Paseo de La Princesa
From San Juan Gate, walk the path along the outside of the city wall (with La Fortaleza towering above), and you will soon come to Paseo de la Princesa. This beautiful, tree-lined promenade dates to 1853 and is lined with cafes, benches, musicians and vendors selling wares to tourists from the cruise ships that dock near one end of the walkway. At the other end is the striking Raices Fountain, dedicated in 1992 to celebrate Puerto Rico’s cultural heritage in recognition of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first voyage. Though the promenade’s name may imply romantic images of royalty walking along the bay, it is actually a reference to the city’s former penitentiary, La Princesa. The restored 175-year-old building now houses the Puerto Rico Tourism Company and rotating exhibits of Puerto Rican art.
Image: Historic entrance to Castillo San Cristobal
For more on meeting in Puerto Rico, read "America's Exotic Oasis" from the August 2012 issue of Smart Meetings.