San Juan, Puerto Rico’s vibrant, party-loving capital, is an amazing destination to visit in the Caribbean. The city is the largest urban area in the region and home to the biggest shopping mall in the Caribbean. San Juan looks akin to a modern American metropolis, and in fact the natives of the city compare it to Miami, instead of regional peers such as Havana and Santo Domingo. It would also not be out of place to say that San Juan finds great linkages to the US mainland. However, the rich mix of cultures and races along with its criollo roots makes the city an interesting place to visit.
Let us explore the beautiful city of San Juan and its neighborhoods. It will provide a fascinating insight and help you plan well in advance for your visit here.
Old San Juan
Old San Juan aptly reflects all that was found in the 18th century colonial Spain. The city is well preserved. Stroll down its narrow streets and you will discover many restaurants offering traditional Puerto Rican cuisines. A walking tour of Old San Juan will take you to the museums, cobbled back lanes, homes with wrought-iron balconies, and whet your appetite with the tempting aromas of criollo cooking seeping through the wooden doors. The commercial parts of Old San Juan can be seen crowded with day-trippers from cruise ships.
The Castillo San Felipe del Morro, popularly called El Morro, is among the New World’s greatest forts. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the El Morro with its impregnable stone walls looming over the Atlantic. The El Morro is also one of the places shown in the movie Amistad (1997) as a stand-in to the horrific slave fort. The El Morro stands as the ultimate proof of Spain’s resolute steadfastness to protect the island from the onslaught of the enemies over the centuries. The fortress, which is only a short walk from Casa Blanca, is strategically situated at the top end of Old San Juan. The fortress prominently features 6 levels of rock-solid defensive positions with its distinctive “hornwork” shape. The stone walls of the fortress are even 42 meter high in some places. The El Morro initially came into existence as a small gun battery in the 1540s. It was constantly expanded and finally completed in 1787.
Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis
The Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis is wedged between the Atlantic on El Campo’s north side and the city walls. Its monuments and ornate marble tombs which are tightly packed, makes it among the most picturesque attractions in San Juan. The cemetery can be reached through a road tunnel at El Campo’s northeast corner. It can however be best viewed from the walls of El Morro fortress. This famous cemetery in San Juan is situated nearby La Perla and can be visited during daytime. The tombs of famous persons found in the Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis include Pedro Albizu Campos, Puerto Rican Nationalist Party’s leader; Gilberto Concepción de Gracia, Founder of Puerto Rican Independence Party; José Celso Barbosa, doctor and politician; and José de Diego, Independence advocate and poet.
Museo de las Américas
The Museo de las Américas is one of the most famous museums in San Juan. The museum houses an impressive collection of art and anthropology pertaining to Puerto Rico and the whole of Americas. The museum is situated facing El Morro fortress on El Campo’s other side. It is housed on the second floor of the old Spanish barracks, the Cuartel de Ballajá, which is an elegant, 3-story imperial building constructed between 1854 and 1864, and beautifully arranged around a wide central courtyard. The prominent features of this museum are its four permanent exhibitions. These exhibitions include Conquista y Colonización, El indio en América, La Herencia Africana, and Las Artes Populares en Las Américas.
The El indio en América exhibition prominently showcases the history of 22 indigenous tribes of both South America and North America. La Herencia Africana offers a fascinating insight into the West African origins of black population of the region and also the horrific slave trade, with emphasis particularly on Puerto Rico. The Conquista y Colonización retraces the history of San Juan right from Ponce de León’s arrival to the U.S. invasion. The Las Artes Populares en Las Américas has a rich and varied collection of traditional folk art from around the whole of the Americas. Apart from these, there are other temporary exhibitions as well showcasing artwork or paintings in other rooms of the Museo de las Américas.