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Something Old, Something New In San Juan

History weds luxury in the heart of Puerto Rico's capital city


January 18, 2004
Copyright ©2004 FREE PRESS. All rights reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- A man with a green umbrella waits at the door of the San Juan Cathedral.

The wedding has started.

The rain has, too.

Into the misty dusk spills a tenor's voice singing Cesar Franck's "Panis angelicus." Music flows out of the lit-up cathedral and onto the blue cobblestone streets. Tourists from the cruise ships in yellow slickers and sneakers tiptoe up the steps and peer into open doors to see what is going on. They see. They back away, realizing they've trespassed on some girl's important day.

But it is hard to resist Old San Juan's magic.

In the decade since renovation, the city has become more than just a cruise ship stop or petrified tourist destination.

It is a city alive, a condensed history of the New World -- old walls, old forts, old houses, even old trees. Ponce de Leon, famous to Americans for his quest for the fountain of youth, is buried in the circa-1520 cathedral. San Cristobal and El Morro forts, constructed of stone 400 years ago when danger lurked on every passing ship, remain on guard.

Here, the New World still seems like a new concept.

Old San Juan is the historical section of Puerto Rico's sprawling capital city.

Given the narrow streets and reputation of San Juan's wild drivers, it is lucky you do not need a car to see the place. Walk a few blocks in each direction and you'll be overwhelmed by history, shopping, museums and restaurants.

La Fortaleza, home to Puerto Rican Gov. Sila Calderon, dates from 1533 and is the oldest continuously used executive mansion in the Western hemisphere.

Casa Blanca, the residence of de Leon's family for more than 250 years, is nearby. Among the half-dozen museums in town is a small one devoted to Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, who lived in San Juan.

The streets' blue-gray cobblestones were originally ballast from Spanish Armada ships. They make a bumpy but picturesque walkway down to the old city gate. Pass through it and you'll find yourself on the waterfront and the broad plaza Paseo de la Princesa, good for strolling arm-in-arm.

More than 400 Spanish buildings were renovated in town during the 1990s, restored to their former glory and painted bright colors. The ambiance now is a combination of Old Spain and Polo-Ralph Lauren. Cristo, Fortaleza and San Francisco streets are the main shopping streets, and everything they sell is tax-free. Tourists also can visit more than 20 art and crafts galleries.

Old San Juan's restaurants let diners linger over tapas, drink pina coladas where they were invented and have plantains as a side dish and rum for less than a dollar. When the weather is fair, flocks of tourists relax at sidewalk cafes.

But even rain does not prevent weddings. This night, it drizzles in Old San Juan and on the man with the green umbrella, still standing in front of the cathedral. This night, it has rained so hard in Puerto Rico that even the El Yunque rain forest is closed.

The El Convento Hotel is warm and dry.

Inside my room, the walls are buttery yellow and 3 feet thick; the cool Andalusian terra cotta tiles on the floor are so old, the grooves have worn smooth. The furniture is heavy and dark like the beams overhead.

Except for the singing from the cathedral across the street, the room is as silent as a convent. And no wonder -- that is what it used to be. For 250 years, El Convento was a Carmelite nunnery.

If walls could only talk. This place was once so down and out that garbage trucks parked inside. It now is so chi-chi it has been featured in Architectural Digest. The subject of multiple renovations, brief glory and near ruin, El Convento is now a luxury hotel and favorite of honeymooners.

I drag a tapestry-upholstered heavy chair to the balcony. The night air is damp and languid. Wafts of Mendelssohn pour out of the church, then the bride and groom appear. They squint into the rain, pausing. A dilemma. The green umbrella man helps them, and they run to the limousine through the misty night. Flashbulbs pop. Bridesmaids in cream dresses and guests flow from the church on this most happy occasion. Red and yellow umbrellas float down the street past Nun's Park up Cristo Street.

Above the scene, a tourist on the balcony of Room 201 closes the age-blackened shutters and goes to bed at the El Convento Hotel, dreaming of cobblestones and conquistadors and 500 years of brides.

See the sights in Old San Juan

History, shopping and dining mix in Old San Juan. Here are a few not-to-miss historic sights and attractions.

*Cristobal and El Morro forts: Two military fortifications begun more than 400 years ago to protect Old San Juan; largest in the Americas. Administered by the U.S. National Park Service, both forts are open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily. Both are World Heritage sites. 787-729-6960;

*San Juan Cathedral: This busy cathedral dates from the 1530s and houses the tomb of explorer Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico's first governor. 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 8 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Sun. 787-722-0861. La Fortaleza: Governor's mansion dates from 1533. Tours 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays on the hour. 787-721-7000.

*Casa Blanca: The family of Ponce de Leon lived at this site; it was later a U.S. military post. 9 a.m.-noon, 1 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.; 787-724-4102.

*Pablo Casals Museum: Manuscripts, videotapes, photos from the cellist. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

*La Fortaleza: Governor's mansion dates from 1533. Tours 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays on the hour. 787-721-7000.

*Casa Blanca: The family of Ponce de Leon lived at this site; it was later a U.S. military post. 9 a.m.-noon, 1 p.m.-4:30 p.m. Tue.-Sat.; 787-724-4102.

*Pablo Casals Museum: Manuscripts, videotapes, photos from the cellist. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Tue.-Sat.

Out of town

*Bacardi Visitors Center: Just outside San Juan in Catano is the new center, which replaces the factory tour (visitors may debate whether the new tour is better or worse). Describes history of Bacardi, shows how rum is made; free samples. Tours 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat.; 787-788-8400

*El Yunque, Caribbean National Rain Forest: National Forest Service personnel give tours leaving from El Portal visitors center; you also can explore on your own. 10:30a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily; 787-888-1880.

If you go to San Juan

Getting there

Flights are plentiful from U.S. cities into San Juan's international airport. During the winter, Northwest flies nonstop from Detroit to San Juan. Once you get there, it's an $18 taxi ride to town. If you're going into San Juan by cruise ship, yours may dock in Old San Juan or down about a mile, where it will cost $8 to get into town.

You don't need a car to tour Old San Juan, but get one if you plan to visit other Puerto Rico sights.


San Juan has dozens of hotels, but only a few are in Old San Juanproper.

*El Convento Hotel, 100 Cristo St. Restored convent is luxury hotel. $275-$385; check for deals. 800-468-2779;

*The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Norzagaray. Art gallery and hotel in a lovely old mansion. $145-$350. 787-722-1808,

*The Milano Hotel, 307 Fortaleza St. In the center of Old San Juan, next to a nightclub. $85-$145. 877-729-9050;

*Plaza de Armas, 202 San Jose St. Inexpensive, adequate. $75-$150. 888-300-8008;

*Wyndham Old San Juan, 100 Brumbaugh St. Modern full-service resort hotel on waterfront. $225-$575. 800-996-3426;


Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth and its inhabitants are U.S. citizens. Most people speak English and Spanish. The mail is the U.S. Postal Service; the currency is the U.S. dollar. Shopping is tax free. Puerto Rico's official tourism site is

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