Exploring Old San Juan

Old San Juan Balcones and DoorsWhen you’ve got a city that’s over 400 years old, it’s a shame not to revisit the rich history and grandeur of its colorful past. San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, offers a generous taste of the Old World, from its cobbled streets to its impressive architecture.

The overwhelming Spanish influence seen in San Juan can be traced back to 1521, when it was established as a settlement of the Spanish empire. Over centuries, the city has seen ships of mercantilism and military dominance docking and departing on its shores, survived attacks from British troops in the late 1500s, lived through the bombings of US war machines during the Spanish-American War, and went on to become the industrialized metropolis that it is today.

The city of San Juan has three major districts: Old San Juan, Beach and Resort area, and the outlying communities. The majority of antique monuments and landmarks however are concentrated on the Old San Juan neighborhood. Even the streets of Old San Juan speak of the Spanish colonial era. They are paved with cobbles of a blue stone cast from furnace slag called adoquine. These stones were brought to San Juan by Spanish ships. Over the years, moisture and exposure to elements gave adoquine its distinct color.

Old San Juan is home to numerous plazas, parks, museums, monuments, and historical buildings which would take a full day or two of walking tour to explore. Plaza de Armas (arms square) on San Jose street is the central plaza of Old San Juan. It features four statues, all of which are over one hundred years old, that represent the four seasons. It has also served as the main meeting place of locals and continues to be an interesting spot for visitors.

Plaza de San Jose is another popular meeting venue in Old San Juan. Its central monument is the statue of Juan Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico. The statue was made from British cannons which were captured during the British attacks in the 18th century. Another plaza with a prominent landmark is Plaza del Quinto Centenario (quincentennial square). Opened in 1992 as part of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ monumental exploration of the New World, the plaza highlights a 40-foot sculpture that represents the earthen and clay roots of American history. The sculpture, made of black granite and ceramics, is a creation of master Puerto Rican artist Jaime Suarez.

A visit to Old San Juan wouldn’t be complete without seeing the city’s formidable forts. Built in the 16th and 17 centuries, these fortresses took decades to complete but they were vital in the strengthening the city’s defenses. El Morro stands out among all the forts in San Juan. It is the largest fortification in all of the Caribbean and has survived numerous attacks. The fort fell only once, during a land assault by British forces in 1598. El Morro, a construction marvel in itself, is laden with tunnels, dungeons, barracks, and ramps but the most prominent parts of this fortress are the circular sentry boxes called garitas. El Morro has been declared a National Historic Site by the National Park Service.

Complementing El Morro is Castillo de San Cristóbal, another masterfully constructed fortress towering at 150 feet and occupying an area of 27 acres. Recognized as one of the largest and strongest defenses in the region, San Cristobal Fort is made up of five independent structures which are connected by moat and tunnel. The fort is also a National Historic Site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

A tour in Old San Juan is one activity that visitors in Puerto Rico shouldn’t miss. Seeing these landmarks provides not just a visual feast but a glimpse as well into the history and culture of this Caribbean archipelago.

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