OLD SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO: RENAISSANCE WITHIN REACH
When living and working in a major North American city, it’s natural to want to experience some exotic, cobblestoned location when things get dull. Sometimes you have only a 3-day weekend. With no time to fly to Spain or Argentina, a more accessible option is necessary.
Old San Juan, on the fingernail of Puerto Rico’s capital city, is not the most beautiful Spanish colonial district in the Caribbean Sea (that would be Old Havana, Cuba). Old San Juan is, however, the most accessible.
In January of 2007, when Ohio was at it’s coldest and bleakest, my sister and I planned a vacation to Puerto Rico for our family. San Juan won over Mexico due to it’s accessibility from the US, lack of passport requirement (for US citizens), European heritage, and hot sun. My sister and I bought the flights and booked an apartment in Condado, near the beach.
I arrived first, from San Francisco. I picked up the rental car, made sure we had rum and cigars waiting at our apartment rental, and had one night alone to cruise San Juan, enjoying myself despite being the most confused driver in the city. San Juan is a compact city of 400,000. Old San Juan comes alive at night, with the old fort and beautiful colonial buildings lit tastefully in white and pastel. I could feel the romance of the Mediterrean here.
When the rest of my family arrived, Old San Juan was our first destination after putting the bags down. We’d always enjoyed historic cities such as Charleston and New Orleans, so it’s a natural pull to want to see the place where the city began.
San Juan is an affordable 3-hour flight from New York City. In such a short distance, it is worlds away color, texture, flavor and spirit.
Flights often begin at $250 round-trip. I believe I paid just over $400 for my RT ticket from San Francisco. I used www.kayak.com, as there are no budget airlines flying into SJ.
Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport is about 15km from Old San Juan. Car rental is cheap in Puerto Rico. I rented at U-Save at the airport for about $13/day. Your US insurance should cover you in Puerto Rico, but check with your provider first.
No need to take your car into Old San Juan.
Hotels in San Juan are just as expensive, or even more so, than in Miami. Rooms start at $75 and go way up. Apartment rental is a great option. I used www.craigslist.com and got a nice little place for about $400/week (though it was in Condado, not Old San Juan).
Old San Juan was built to the provisions of the 16th Century “Law of the Indies” which dictated how Spanish colonial towns and cities in the Americas and the Philippines were to be laid out. It’s the same kind of design that can be found in New Orleans, Manila or Mexico City, among others. It’s a pleasure to walk around and enjoy the colors and proportions of the old city. There are also a few individual highlights:
El Castillo de San Cristóbal
It’s a fort. It was built in the late 1700s. The fort has played a pivotal role in military happenings over the past few hundred years. Again, amazing views of the city, the sea and the blue sky.
El Castillo San Felipe del Morro
It’s a citadel. I enjoyed the views and the breeze here more than the actual building. It is located at the very tip of Old San Juan and reminded me of similar forts on the Greek islands. Construction began in 1539.
El Catedral de San Juan Bautista
The history of this cathedral dates back to 1520.
El Batey bar, just two blocks from El Catedral de San Juan Bautista, is somewhat prison-like, unpredictable and worth seeking out. Good jukebox and drinks in the $2-3 range.
Calle de Cristo 101
Old San Juan
The Rum Diaries (2011)