To walk down the streets of Old San Juan is to walk in Old World Europe. The narrow streets, the cobblestone, the 16th-century forts all belie the fact that this is the New World and one of the busiest cruise-ship ports in the world.
Started as a Spanish stronghold in the New World in 1508 to repel British and Dutch fleets (and once the headquarters of the Spanish Armada), today Old San Juan welcomes nearly 1.4 million passengers in cruise-ship travel alone.
The old city stands Gibraltar-like on a pinnacle separating San Juan Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. Although St. Augustine, Florida, (founded in 1513) is the oldest city in the continental United States, San Juan was founded five years earlier and ceded to the States after the Spanish American War, making it the oldest city under the Stars and Stripes.
An old man, his skinned browned from a life under the Caribbean sun and his face hidden by a floppy hat, sits in a doorway off a narrow walkway as he plays a slow, enchanting melody on a small accordion. A group of tourists gathers to listen, but he never looks up--as if enchanted by his own tune. Above him, a wrought-iron balcony covered in hanging tropical plants seems to almost touch another flowered balcony across the narrow street.
Throughout the old district, black-and-white street signs stand in sharp contrast to the colorful blue and pink and green and yellow pastel, multi-story homes and shops nestled together.
The explorer Juan Ponce de Leon founded the original settlement. By 1539, the Spanish had constructed El Morro Fort (Castillo San Felipe del Morro), one of a series of forts to protect the transportation of gold, silver and jewels en route from America to Spain. Today it is one of three imposing fortresses still standing in the old city.
Over the centuries, history has saturated Old San Juan like a cloth left out in a tropical storm. From its founding, the port was considered vital and saw military action from Sir Francis Drake's failure in 1595 to take the El Morro fortress, to a 1625 Dutch attack on San Juan, to America's World War II preparations in 1942 to fortify El Morro fort with concrete observation posts and underground bunkers.
It's Sunday; the cruise ships are in and the town is alive with music and fun. Venders in the central plaza offer clothing and sparkling jewelry and blue ice treats and souvenirs. A young Puerto Rican, 20-something, sits in the window of his street-level apartment just off the plaza. His Caribbean smile welcomes all passersby.
The old city is considered one of The Seven Manmade Wonders of the Caribbean--that includes the Panama Canal and the Mayan ruins of Mexico. Its present-day layout was begun in the 16th century and illustrates the remarkable work of Spanish military engineers and recalls more than 400 years of history in the Americas.
The city is steeped in Old-World and European charm--most noticeably, pre-18th-century Spanish colonial houses. Doting the city are public plazas and churches, including San Jose Church and the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which contains the tomb of the Ponce de Leon.
Because of the city's typically busy narrow streets, driving in the old district is not encouraged. The best way to see the city is to park and walk. Better yet, take a bus or one of the free trams, since parking is hard to find in the town center.
Although Old San Juan is not a beach resort, the old city is now the cruise-ship hub of the Caribbean--second only to Miami. With its abundance of shops, historic places, open-air cafés and tree-shaded plazas, Old San Juan is vibrant and alive and a must for Caribbean adventurers.