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Chicago Tribune

Ponce de Leon Lives On In Old San Juan

By Cheryl Blackerby, Cox News Service.

November 16, 2003
Copyright ©2003
Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- This is his city, his island.

Juan Ponce de Leon, the muscular 33-year-old nobleman with a fine mustache and feathered hat--a soldier on Christopher Columbus' second voyage to the Caribbean--first stepped on this 100-mile-long sliver of mountains and white sand in 1493.

Columbus got to name it--San Juan Bautista for John the Baptist--but Ponce de Leon rechristened it after he built a settlement here and was named governor of the island by the Spanish crown in 1508.

The island would be called Puerto Rico (rich harbor--prophetic because the port of San Juan is the biggest and busiest in the Caribbean today), and the settlement would keep the name of San Juan.

Ponce de Leon is still here in his city. His bones rest at the Cathedral of San Juan.

When the moon rises over the cathedral and a horse and carriage passes under the streetlights, one wonders what Ponce would think if he could float up from the grave, a fantasma (ghost), and roam his streets again.

Dashing in his thigh-high boots and leather vest, he would stroll the 16th Century lanes paved in glossy blue stones, adoquines, that came to the island as ballast on the Spanish ships.

His ethereal tour would be comfortably familiar as he passed 300-year-old pastel Spanish row houses with the wrought-iron balconies and the small plazas, so much like Spain, and the formidable fort of El Morro (dating from 1540).

He might bow his head in respect to the 352-year-old El Convento, a convent for Carmelite nuns who walked down its tile corridors, habits flowing in the breezes of the interior courtyard with the towering nispero trees.

But whoa, mateys!

Look at that young wench with "Just Married" emblazoned in rhinestones across the back of the tiny cloth that barely covers her bottom as she climbs out of the rooftop swimming pool! El Convento still has the Old World grace of the convent but with a few surprises as a New World hotel.

And those ships docked six-deep in the harbor, gleaming behemoths carrying 3,000 people each, and with no sails! Ponce surely would wish he had had use of one of those on his trips in the New World.

And, yo ho! Taste this rum served with pineapple and cherries, you scurvy scum. These heady drinks would have come in handy in 1493, when rum came warm from the barrel.

Old San Juan--how familiar, and how strange for our hero, Ponce de Leon.

You can't visit San Juan and not think of its founder. It's so easy to picture him in this mile-square colonial city, one of the best preserved and best restored, especially of Spanish architecture, in this hemisphere.

Its existence, still in its original splendor, is not an accident. The government passed a preservation act in the mid-1950s to protect the old city, the first such law in the Americas and 10 years before the United States passed the Historic Preservation Act of 1966. Old San Juan today is designated a National Historic Zone, a National Historic Site and a World Heritage Site.

Even cruise passengers with only a few hours to spend can't help but get a taste of Old Juan. The ships dock in the same place as the Spanish fleets.

You can walk off the gangplank, turn left and stop at a small yellow building on the waterfront called La Casita, the tourist office, and pick up a map of the Old City and a copy of Que-Pasa.

Then you can begin a traditional, spiritual journey most guidebooks don't mention. You are following in the footsteps of those who came before you hundreds of years ago.

Continue left along Paseo de la Princesa, a spectacularly lovely pedestrian walk wedged between the shore and the 20-foot-thick fortress walls, La Muralla, built of sandstone blocks between 1539 and 1641.

Ignore such modern-day distractions as joggers in Reeboks. Concentrate on the harbor to your left and the stone walls on your right and imagine yourself walking from your schooner after months at sea.

You soon will see the red-painted Puerta de San Juan, one of six original massive wooden gates to the Old City, on your right. Walk through it.

You are in the Old City walking on the blue ballast stones polished by three centuries of footsteps. To your immediate left, you will see the street name Calleta de San Juan on the corner of a pink two-story building, which happens to be the former residence of San Juan's first woman mayor, Felisa Rincon de Gautier (from 1948 to 1964). It's open to the public and gives an inside look at one of the historic row houses in the city.

Continue up the hill to the Cathedral of San Juan. Many sailors through the centuries walked on the same stones up the hill to the cathedral to give thanks for safe voyages.

To the left before you reach the cathedral is El Convento. Drop in and have a burger and a margarita in the shady courtyard.

The cathedral is on Cristo Street. After a visit to the cathedral you can turn left, and go for material pursuits such as Ralph Lauren's outlet store or Coach outlet store, and shops with handmade jewelry, Panama hats, and hand-rolled cigars. Continue down the hill and turn left on Fortaleza for more shops. This is the street for Puerto Rico souvenirs.

Or, when you come out of the cathedral, you can turn right and walk up the hill three blocks to Plaza San Jose. Here you'll see the Iglesia de San Jose, built in 1532, a handsome statue of Ponce de Leon, the Pablo Casals Museum (the famous cellist spent the last years of his life here) and the impressive new Museo de Nuestra Raiz African, with exhibits about the slaves who were brought to Puerto Rico.

Continue toward the water and the Fuerte San Felipe del Morro, a majestic fortress built 140 feet above the sea. This is the attraction that brings passengers to the rails of the cruise ships when they enter the harbor.

And Ponce de Leon would want you to take a short walk from the fort to Calle San Sebastian and to the Casa Blanca. It was built in 1521 to be his home. But he died in Cuba before he had a chance to live in it. The frame house was severely damaged by a hurricane in 1523, and his son-in-law built the present house.

His descendants lived in the home for 250 years. You can go inside, then relax in the garden to contemplate this historic city.

Dead men do tell tales, especially in Old San Juan.



You really should stay at El Convento (800-468-2779; if the budget permits. Rates start at $175. I called when I got to San Juan and got a last-minute rate of $165. Rates include a complimentary continental breakfast, and wine and cheese at 6 p.m. The hotel has two excellent restaurants El Picoteo, known for its tapas and sangria, and the Cafe Bohemio, which has great Puerto Rican specialties.

Other Old San Juan hotels include the Wyndham Old San Juan Hotel and Casino (800-996-3426;, across the street from the cruise ship terminals, and the artistic Gallery Inn (; 787-722-1808), which is in one of the city's oldest residences.

I also like the atmospheric HotelPlazadeArmas(; 787-722-9191) in the heart of the Old City. Ask for a room with two balconies overlooking the little plaza, which is $136. (The inn has rooms without windows, so be specific when you reserve a room.


You can feel pretty safe in Old San Juan especially since there are police officers standing about every 50 feet in Old Town night and day. They are a great source for restaurant recommendations.


Hey, you're in the U.S. of A.--no need for a passport.


U.S. cell phones work here!


Puerto Rico Tourism Co.Convention Bureau, 800-866-7827 or 787-725-2110;

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