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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

San Juan's Secret

Linger in the old city and find the real Puerto Rico


July 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All rights reserved.

Puerto Rico has a hidden secret. Just a short jaunt away from the popular beaches and stunning hotels in the capital city of San Juan is Old San Juan, a centuries-old gem crammed with ancient churches, leafy plazas, pastel-colored buildings and cobblestone streets. Old San Juan is typically visited as part of a morning sightseeing tour of the entire city. So guests only see the fringes -- with its gift shops, galleries and restaurants.

But by extending their stroll just a few more blocks, they'll wander into a world dating back to the 1500s. Charming narrow streets are lined with bright two-story structures, flowers dangle from wrought-iron balconies. There are tree-lined walks along the harbor, old city walls, museums and forts.

What's more, once day trippers retreat to their tourist habitats, Old San Juan comes alive with night life that's hot, hot, hot -- not something you'd necessarily expect from a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

So on a recent visit to the island, rather than stay in a mega- resort in the tourist zone, I choose a small hotel smack in the center of all this architectural antiquity and devote my energies to soaking up this visual slice of history.

Independence debate

The earliest inhabitants of the island were the Arawak Indians. Like so many other Latin American countries, Puerto Rico acquired its Spanishness with the arrival of the ultimate exporter of Spanish culture -- Ponce de Leon. Landing in 1508, he embarked on the routine path of annihilation of the locals, frantically searching for gold. Years of turmoil followed until Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898.

But the U.S. government, not always so successful in its job, fueled a movement among Puerto Ricans for independence. In 1952, the island became a commonwealth of the U.S. In the face of increasing agitation for statehood , a plebiscite was taken in 1967 in which residents could choose among independence, statehood and continuation of the commonwealth. An overwhelming majority chose the status quo.

Whatever the future holds for this island, the visitor to Old San Juan today is indeed struck by its intensely Spanish nature. If you're lucky, the ever popular cruise ships won't be disgorging hoards of tourists. Even so, by grabbing a map and following directions to the inner sanctum of the magical place, you'll have the streets all to yourself. You can pick up all manner of tourist information at the charming La Casita (little house) right at the waterfront. It's a breezy pleasant spot to buy a fresh fruit juice, relax and plot out your itinerary.

Meander with a purpose

Probably the easiest way to scout out this jewel is simply to meander its winsome streets and alleys, stumbling on architectural treats and surprises. But there are some must-sees. The Plaza de Armas, dotted with benches, a gazebo, outdoor cafe and fountain, is anchored by the imposing San Juan City Hall and Palace of Independence. The palace, which now houses the Puerto Rico Department of State, is the quintessential 18th-century Spanish Colonial structure. Its interior is outfitted with levels of arches, checkered marble floors and a cobblestone patio filled with greenery and a carved stone well. City Hall is modeled after the one in Madrid with two towers overlooking the hubbub in the plaza.

Slightly farther up Calle (street) del Cristo is the magnificent San Juan Cathedral. Built in 1540 in the Gothic style then popular in Spain, it represents one of the few authentic medieval structures in the New World. It fronts another little plaza and the Hotel el Convento, a convent dating from the 16th century. For a total immersion experience (albeit an expensive one), a stay here surrounds you in rich period furnishing and a thoroughly modern pool.

What's especially nice about this historical city is that every corner of it is accessible by foot. But should the heat and humidity get to you, you can hop aboard a free trolley offering on-and-off service to most major sites. For the romantically inclined, there's always a horse-drawn carriage.

I prefer to get going early before the heat becomes oppressive. By 7 a.m. I'm out with guidebook in hand in search of the other "hot" spots on my to-do list. I discover during my four-day stay that there's enough within this recently refurbished area to fill up all my days. In fact, Old San Juan has just graduated from an eight- year, $200 million face lift -- so if you haven't seen it lately, you're in for a shock.

African roots museum

Sightseeing encompasses hours of leisurely examination. Each street represents its own perfectly preserved time warp, and I pause often to absorb the gaily painted buildings, carved doorways, decorated balconies and statues. But there's a rich cultural side to this movie-set-like scene -- the city is chock full of interesting little museums.

The Museum of Art and History is housed in a former marketplace and offers a life size diorama of the market itself. La Casa Blanca, constructed in 1521 for Ponce de Leon (although he never lived here), was home to his descendants for more than 250 years. Guests are free to roam its interior and lovely gardens.

One of my favorite museums is the newly opened Museum of Our African Roots. It shares a plaza with the Church of San Jose, the second-oldest church in the Americas, the Pablo Casals Museum featuring memorabilia and videotapes of the famous cellist, and a Dominican convent.

The museum, housed in a one-time private home dating from the 17th century, chronicles the arrival of blacks to the island as part of the slave trade from West Africa through the Caribbean and on to Europe and America. Photographs of shackled humans are heart wrenching. One close-up shows an anguished face streaked with tears.

One display introduces the origin of the musical rhythm called bomba, one of the foundations of the sound we associate with Puerto Rico today -- salsa. Instruments include a guiro or empty gourd that's scraped with a stick (the sound present in all Latin music). There are also maracas, congas and panderetas -- sort of like a tambourine.

Musical 'lifebeat'

Since music is so important to most Puerto Ricans, you can gain a deeper understanding of the role it plays in society at Acangana, a nifty display of the last 100 years of island music at the Rafael Carrion Pacheco Exhibit Hall in the Banco Popular building in Old San Juan. It's perfect for the novice because you wear a headset to hear the melodies that are explained in English. You learn about bomba, plena (another indigenous music form), Latin jazz, bolero, Latin big band and salsa.

To see the fancy footwork that accompanies these stirring Latin tempos, take in the "LeLoLai" show performed every Tuesday night around the island. On this particular evening I'm seated in Casa Espana, a gorgeous Spanish colonial building in Old San Juan outfitted with wood beams, marble, frescoes and charm. The intimate audience gets an up-close view of dancers decked out in all-white peasant wear performing bomba to an infectious beat. In other numbers, dancers wear brightly colored costumes representative of the music played.

I meet the dancers who morph from authentic performers to everyday people within minutes after the show. Now wearing jeans and T-shirts, they explain that they do this on a part-time basis. Some are students, others have a day job.

"We grew up with this music," one dancer says. Rhythms are the lifeblood of Puerto Ricans and they're happy to share it.

Trying to get the beat

Once the can't-sit-still beat grabs hold, it's hard not to want to dance. But if you need help with the steps, there's always a local salsa lesson. Poli de Portivo, a recreational center in San Juan, offers free instruction to residents anxious to polish up their technique. The instructor, Tito Ortos, is one of Puerto Rico 's top dancers and choreographed a few numbers for Ricky Martin's performance at the 2001 Miss Universe pageant on the island.

I go, feeling frumpy and middle-aged. But he's patient and breaks down the steps so even I can follow. Still, when he puts it all together and adds the Real Thing -- music, I fall apart and revert into my clumsy Anglo self. The rest of the group giggles.

Serious salsa dancers can be found the first Tuesday of every month when various art galleries open their doors late into the evening. After the shops close, there's a shoulder-to-shoulder street party of twentysomethings (with a few 30s and even fewer 40s) crowded together along Calle San Sebastian. But absent is the American spring break lampshade-on-your-head thing. There are a few hand-held beers, but the group is reasonably subdued.

Calle San Sebastian is the place to be, with a different establishment for every musical taste. But what they all come for is the dancing. In the club Rumba, I see a knockout display of sexy, sweaty salsa dancing. There's no cover charge and you don't have to order a drink -- which makes it a super cheap night out.

After such a full day and night, it's wonderful to be able to walk a block back to my hotel Milano on Calle Fortaleza. A small budget hotel right in the center of Old San Juan, it offers cheap prices and a cozy atmosphere. Owner Juan San Emeterio is usually around to greet guests and remembers their names. Atop the Milano is a special treat: an open-air restaurant called Panorama with a lovely view of the harbor and docked cruise ships. There's a selection of outstanding Latin fish dishes, along with very welcomed breezes in this sultry climate.

It's a perfect way to savor the end of a visit to Old San Juan -- its history, Spanish Colonial charm and vibrant Caribbean culture.


Getting There: Direct flights between Chicago and San Juan are offered by United, American, Spirit and Trans Air. Fares vary but generally start at around $300 (best deals are available online). Flight time is just under five hours.

Lodging: Most of the glamorous hotels are outside Old San Juan along the beaches. There are some choices in the historical section: Hotel Milano is a simple but convenient hotel with a wonderful restaurant atop. Rooms start at $75;, (877) 729-9050. The historic Hotel El Convento is an experience in itself. Rooms start at $150 and go up to $1,200;, (800) 468-2779. The upscale Wyndham Hotel & Casino has what you'd expect from the ritzy chain. Rooms start at $119;, (800) 996-3426.

Dining: Restaurants run the gamut from McDonald's to fine dining. A fun and inexpensive way to taste local cuisine is to try the outdoor Cafe La Princesa, a green breezy oasis adjacent to La Princesa, a prison from 1837 which now houses an art exhibit and the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. For a few dollars the arroz con pollo (rice, pork, olives, beans, pumpkin) is excellent.

Activities: The best activity is strolling. There are a variety of museums and exhibits. Information can be picked up at the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. You can also take a taxi to the beaches, 10 to 15 minutes away.

For more information: Visit or call (800) 866-7827

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