Old San Juan

San Juan Travel Blog

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We are staying for three days in a run-down guest house in Old San Juan. The city is amazingly gorgeous - 200 acres of walled city, filled with relics of the old fortress, gorgeous Spanish colonial houses, cobblestone paving, old fig trees and surprisingly tasteful public art, combining Spanish and First Nations themes.

We had some trouble getting in touch with the owner of the guest house, but one of the residents let us in so we could lounge around on the roof while we waited. We then set off to explore Fuerte San Felipe de Morro, one of the major Spanish colonial Fortresses of the Americas.

Between our guest house and El Morro lies the Campo del Morro, a large parkland kept bare first for military purposes, later as a gold course, and now as part of the San Juan National Historic Site.
From the Campo we could look down over the cemetery, below the walls and looking out into the ocean. We climbed up to peer over the crenelations of the long wall and admire the amazing view.

El Morro itself is the fortress occupying the western tip of the Old San Juan peninsular, guarding the entrance into the San Juan Port. The fortress was first fortified in 1521, as San Juan was considered the key to the Caribbean by the Spanish, eager to protect their monopoly over the region. On the ocean side the fortress is 150 feet high, with six levels of fortifications. B its land approach it has a very low profile, designed to give attackers a small target (but still with significant wall height due to the dry moat). The fort also has a small sub-fort across the water, Fort San Juan de la Cruz, designed to allow crossfire at enemy ships entering the bay.
It also is built to withstand a year-long siege, with three cisterns holding 800 000 litres of water. There are vaulted casemates, where cannon can shoot cannon balls or mortar shells (hollow cannon balls filled with gun powder and irregular length fuses to create disorder in the ranks due to the unpredictability in explosion time).

The fort repelled its first serious attack in 1595 by the British under Sir Francis Drake, but fell in 1598 to a second British onslaught. The Spanish regained it after the British were forced to abandon the fort by a dysentery epidemic, and they significantly strengthened it before a major attack by the Dutch in 1625. The Dutch were repelled but were able to burn down the surrounding city. Learning from this attack the Spanish added the fortress of San Cristobal in 1634, the largest Spanish fortress in the New World, guarding the entrance of the peninsular from land attack.
They also started to encircle the entire city with massive walls. The fortifications were significantly expanded again in 1765, allowing a British invasion to be blocked in 1797, but with the decay of the Spanish Empire the fortress became archaic and easily fell to the US during the 1898 Spanish-American War. Now the flags of Puerto Rico and the US fly alongside the Spanish military flag of the Cross of Burgundy.

From El Morro we walked into town past the Parque de Beneficencea. We popped into the Catedral de San Juan (which surprised me by having a Christmas tree up inside, a pagan addition to Christmas if ever there was one). We saw La Fortaleza, the oldest continually occupied executive mansion in the Americas, and down the delightful Caleta de San Juan to Puerta de San Juan.
The Caleta runs past an art gallery with beautiful Mayan-inspired modern sculptures, an is shaded by large strangler figs. The Puerta was once the main gate into Old San Juan, and has the most spectacular view of the walls of San Juan and El Morro.

We then walked down the pretty tree-lined avenue of Paseo de la Princesa, with the unpredictable Raices Fountain and La Princesa (once a prison, now an art gallery). Afterwards we had to head back for a nap before tackling Fuerte San Cristobal.

San Cristobal is the eastern edge of the San Juan fortifications. It is essentially a series of bastions built into the city walls, with multiple batteries, ravelins and counterguards built further out as hornwork, interdependent multiple lines of advanced defence. We checked out the heights and tunnels of San Cristbal before having amazing Indo-Latino food for dinner and walking part the festive lights of the city back to our guest house. San Juan was far more beautiful than I had ever expected.
sylviandavid says:
great writeup....... Sylvia
Posted on: Jan 01, 2008
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San Juan
photo by: sethwd2