Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Photo: Hotel El Convento
Photo: Hotel El Convento

It’s quiet—too quiet—in Old San Juan. You arrived in La Ciudad Amurallada (the Walled City) yesterday afternoon after a long day of traveling. It should have been a quick flight, but airport delays and airline excuses ensured that wouldn’t happen. At least it was a short drive from the airport and over the Condado Lagoon Bridge to your hotel on Cristo Street.

You were immediately enchanted by the Hotel El Convento. Wrought-iron lamps, Andalusian tile floors, and a grand piano welcomed you into the lobby. The Spanish Colonial building was built 365 years ago as a convent. When it was transformed into a hotel, Hollywood stars escaped here in the 1960s. A recent renovation restored the hotel to its former grandeur—and added some modern upgrades.

After checking in, you cooled off in the plunge pool and gazed at sparkling San Juan Bay. You sipped a rum cocktail at the patio bar. You ate Spanish tapas—gambas al ajillo (shrimp in garlic sauce), lobster empanadillas, and a tortilla española (Spanish omelette)—overlooking the courtyard at El Picoteo. You slept soundly in your room that has exposed mahogany beams, handcrafted furniture, and a marble bathroom. You sipped Alto Grande coffee by the Juliet balcony when you woke up this morning. You stuffed yourself with banana nut pancakes by Patio del Nispero’s century-old níspero tree for breakfast. And you were ready to head out and start exploring.

Photo: (WT-shared) Mmccalpin at wts wikivoyage (This file was imported from Wikivoyage WTS.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: (WT-shared) Mmccalpin at wts wikivoyage (This file was imported from Wikivoyage WTS.) [CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Everything in Old San Juan is within walking distance of the hotel. Puerto Rico’s oldest settlement, which was founded by Juan Ponce De León in 1508, sits on a small, narrow island. Three bridges connect it to the main island. Massive walls surround Old San Juan. The tight streets have blue cobblestones. The flat-roofed brick and stone buildings come in every shade of the rainbow. And imposing forts stand guard over the island.

Start with the forts—you want to see them before the cruise ships arrive. Visit Castillo de San Cristóbal, the largest fort that the Spanish built in the Americas. Walk around the bluffs at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, which stands on a promontory at the entrance of the harbor. Move on to the churches. Pay your respects at the Catedral de San Juan Bautista. Ponce De León’s remains are buried at the second-oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. Say a prayer at the San José Church. The 16th-century Gothic church is one of the longest operating churches in the Americas. And see Alcaldía (City Hall), La Fortaleza (the governor’s mansion), and the San Juan Gate (the old entrance to the city).

Though you’ve gotten quite a history lesson, you’re still amazed at how eerily silent the city feels. It isn’t until you watch the sun set from Paseo de la Princesa, eat dinner on Fortaleza Street, and go salsa dancing at the Nuyorican Café that you begin to feel the heartbeat of the city. Lesson learned. Tomorrow, you’ll sleep in and stayed snuggled up with the goose-down pillows in your room. You’ll let the cruise ship passengers run around in the hot sun while you relax at El Convento’s nearby beach club. And then you’ll be ready to dance the night away with your new salsa moves.

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