Old San Juan, Puerto Rico is a delight. Wander the centuries-old blue cobblestone streets, gaping at the brilliantly colored historic buildings. Did you know, however, that this treasure was nearly DESTROYED?
Old San Juan was settled by the Spanish in the early 1500s, and the conquistador, Ponce de Leon and his subsequent offspring lived in the city for centuries. By the late 1940s, however, Old San Juan had become decrepit, unsightly, and dangerous. Politicians called for the historic old buildings to be smashed to make way for sleek, modern ones. Forces mobilized for the destruction.
Heroically, an anthropologist by the name of Ricardo Alegría stepped in. Alegría convinced the authorities to preserve the beautiful colonial architecture of Old San Juan, and to zone the area so that subsequent development would follow the historic visual pattern instead of destroying it.
The government began to funnel money to developers who agreed to rehabilitate historic buildings as “models” for others to see and emulate, to show it was both possible and pretty. There was a particular push for these rehabilitations to take place on streets where — ahem — uncouth behavior was taking place.
Slowly, Old San Juan was revitalized, in alignment with its colonial Spanish architectural roots. Because of Alegría’s ideas, Old San Juan is now a major tourist destination instead of just another boring city. By 1983, the area was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Other cities around the world began to follow Old San Juan’s lead, and I can attest that both Lima, Peru and Havana, Cuba are all the more beautiful for it. Isn’t the story of Ricardo Alegría inspiring?
So now that we’ve delved into its history, what are the logistics of touring Old San Juan today? Allow me to share our experiences so you may avoid the bumbling we did!
Getting there: T’was pretty convenient. Our great Condado Beach hotel in San Juan (click for hotel info and rates), was just a 10 minute drive in our rental car from Old San Juan, and taxis and public transport are a good option, too. If you drive, there are several parking lots on different sides of the historic center that have reasonable parking rates ($2 an hour) compared with the highway robbery that is Boston parking.
The heat: Puerto Rico is HOT! We were fools and visited Old San Juan on the first day at high noon. Despite slopping on loads of sunblock and donning dorky hats, we (ok, mostly me) got so faint after fifteen minutes that we (ok, I) demanded to hide out in an air conditioned cafe to regain sanity. Happily, there were many to be found, and I soon felt well enough to venture out again.
Timing: Given the heat, I’d suggest you do what we did the second day of our touring, and arrive in Old San Juan around 4pm. Then you have time to wander around in less oppressive heat, grab dinner, and catch the sunset over the water. I also liked going to Old San Juan on two different days so we didn’t feel rushed, but you could probably be content with just one day if you were in a rush.
Baby logistics: As you may know, we’re traveling with a 7.5 month old baby, and debated whether a stroller or a front backpack baby carrier would be better to lug. We opted for the latter, which was a wise choice because Old San Juan has mostly cobblestone streets (see the photo below) and many hills, which would make a stroller a pain — though we did see some locals using them anyway!
Activities: Our favorite activity in Old San Juan was just wandering the beautiful streets and taking photos, then periodically and repeatedly eating in the many cafes and restaurants. Love fascinating statues commemorating history? There are plenty in Old San Juan. There are also two extremely famous forts which I will discuss in depth in a subsequent article. And if shopping is your thang, there are more than enough shops, from small souvenirs to high-end clothes. It’s rather funny to see stores like Foot Locker and Radio Shack housed in these beautifully colored historic buildings.
Food: You can find all sorts of cuisine in Old San Juan, and certainly could break your budget if so inclined! We did, but justified it because it was all delicious.
Crowds: There is a constant stream of tourists in Old San Juan, in particular from the hulking cruise ships which toot-toot into port each day. Happily, however, if you wander just one street away from the main thoroughfares, there are virtually no other tourists anymore. How convenient!
A warning about driving: Do whatever you can to NOT drive into the heart of Old San Juan. We accidentally did after taking a wrong turn leaving the parking lot on the outskirts of the historic district, and ended up in a endless loop of One Way streets, tiny alleyways, and hairpin turns. Oh, and smartphone GPS apps do not know the correct direction of the One Way streets!
Preservation: Keeping Old San Juan stunning is a never-ending job, but the results are worth it. Respect and thanks to the workers, government, and island that makes this possible!
Similarities: Love surprisingly colorful rainbow buildings around the world? Check out the Gingerbread Cottages on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts (very different idea, but same happy hues), and the peeling historic facades and dangling laundry in Old Delhi, India!
So there you have a glimpse of beautiful Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. If you’ve been, what were your impressions? If you haven’t, does it entice you? Do share!
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