True to name, Old San Juan has no shortage of historic sites
by Richard Carroll
EL MORRO - El Morro is a 400-year-old castle and battlement that overlooks the town of Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. CNS Photo by Richard Carroll.
Puerto Rico is the essence of the Caribbean, overflowing with diversity and captivating appeal, proudly anchored by colonial San Juan, an American treasure. Columbus landed there in 1493, and within 50 years the island had become a stronghold for the defense of the Spanish Empire in America and the guardian of the Spanish Main, with castles and battlements that encircle Old San Juan like a huge Old World scarf.
Protected as part of the San Juan National Historic Site, the massive masonry defenses are the oldest European-style fortifications within the territory of the United States and a cherished, dedicated United Nations World Heritage Site.
Visitors needn't be history aficionados nor Spanish speakers to enjoy the forts of Old San Juan. With a bit of imagination one can visualize San Cristobal, a masterpiece of 18th century military architecture, and El Morro, the older of the two great forts, with cannons booming, battling Dutch and English invaders, crusty pirates and buccaneers. Below the forts stretches Old San Juan, a regal beauty with enough personalities to make a therapist jump for joy. Long a center for art, music, writing and romance, she dabs on her lipstick at sundown and swings to salsa and meringue, sipping rum and nibbling on tasty tapas or hors d'oeuvres while guitar riffs float through the narrow, cobbled, one-way streets.
OLD SAN JUAN - Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, has long been the center for art, music and romance. CNS Photo by Richard Carroll.
Earlier in the day and throughout the week, Old San Juan is a proper Spanish dona, a welcoming hostess to hordes of cruise ship passengers in search of souvenirs and T-shirts, or even designer creations from those fascinating boutiques. They walk through the historic forts, pausing a moment to sip a classic Puerto Rican pina colada before waving farewell. After the cruise ships set sail, the old city slips back to her easygoing Puerto Rican demeanor. Among the beautifully restored colonial buildings that line the streets and alleyways with their flower-draped patios, residents mingle and embrace, greeting everyone with the abandon and enthusiasm of long-separated old friends.
Overfed pigeons swagger about the plazas and revel in their comfortable nesting homes at Casa Blanca, the ancestral home of the Ponce de Leon family; at La Fortaleza, completed in 1540; and at the glorious San Jose Church dating to 1532, the second-oldest church in continuous use in the New World. They have even been known to nest in the San Juan Cathedral, just a short flutter away. Built in 1540, it is the burial site of Ponce de Leon, who would be quite at home in 2005 Old San Juan.
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Ensconced at the edge of the old city, across from the cruise ship terminal and the scenic waterfront of San Juan Bay, is the splendid 240-room Sheraton Old San Juan, noted as the only full-service property in Old San Juan and the only Sheraton in Puerto Rico. Under the direction of General Manager Alex Andrade, the hotel cleverly reflects the heritage and roots of the island with Nuevo Latino cuisine and joyful local music. The property, recently renovated, is a popular haunt for residents who gather nightly in the Fogata Latino Bar & Grill, adjacent to an energetic, 10,000-square-foot casino.
COLONIAL CITY - Old San Juan, Purto Rico, founded in 1521, is a gorgeous colonial city with a proud and rich heritage. CNS Photo by Richard Carroll.
For those who love to be pampered while on holiday, the Eden Spa, just steps away in the Acosta Building, offers spiritual and quartz therapies, body wraps and facials. Owner Alexandra Quiles, a doctor in natural medicine, encourages guests to liberate themselves and renew their bodies and minds with a positive spirit, which, according to Quiles, is the embodiment of Old San Juan.
A marvelous change of mood awaits visitors after a 40-minute drive to the east side of the island and the lush, 500-acre Westin Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort and Spa. Tucked between the sparkling Caribbean and the magnificent El Yunque Caribbean National Forest, the resort is a one-stop family destination where dad can golf on either of two championship golf courses and mom can enjoy the Mandara Spa using products indigenous to Puerto Rico and the Caribbean. Kids play on a palm-lined beach, catch a wave or two, take a kid's kayak tour, feed the iguanas and swim in their own pool, adults not allowed. Twelve restaurants, lounges and entertainment venues satisfy all expectations.
A colossal travel extra is the nearby Yunque rain forest, which in 1875 the Spanish Crown proclaimed a forest reserve. Here the mountains meet the clouds and form for many the spiritual heart of Puerto Rico. A sanctuary, research center and biosphere reserve, El Yunque is the only tropical forest in the United States National Forest system. The 28,000-acre beauty gets 97 to 185 inches of rain a year, rain that nourishes 1,000 species of plants and animals, including 200 native tree species. An impressive visitor's center and theater explains that sections of the forest appear exactly as they did 500 years ago, are home to the rare Puerto Rican parrot, and were the dwelling place of the ancient Taino people, who believed that El Yunque was also the dwelling place of their gods.
BIOSPHERE - Puerto Rico's El Yunque is a sanctuary, research center and biosphere reserve. CNS Photo by Richard Carroll.
A walkway meanders through a canopy of tropical greenery, past tumbling waterfalls and along a boulder-strewn creek. The hustle of everyday life slips away and peace settles over the soul. Puerto Rico is a regal beauty with spirit to share.
IF YOU GO
Passport not required for U.S. citizens, no airport customs and the U.S. dollar is the currency. The year-round temperature averages 82 degrees.
Sheraton Old San Juan, (866) 653-7577; sheratonoldsanjuan.com.
Westin Rio Mar Beach Resort & Golf Club, (800)-4-RIO MAR; westinriomar.com.
Puerto Rico information, (800) 866-7827; gotopuertorico.com.