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Old San Juan, And Love, Bloom Anew

The historic Puerto Rican capital feels brightly baptized in a fountain of youth, drawing brides and grooms to its cathedral and old romance.

By Ellen Creager

February 29, 2004
Copyright ©2004 THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER. 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 through the open doors to see what is going on. Then they back away, realizing they've trespassed on a young woman's important day.

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

In the decade since renovation, this city-within-a-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, old trees. Ponce de Leon, famed seeker of the fountain of youth, is buried in the circa-1520 cathedral. The forts of San Cristobal and El Morro, built of stone 400 years ago when danger could come from any passing ship, remain silently on guard.

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

Old San Juan is the historical section of Puerto Rico's 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 any 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 Ponce 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 find yourself on the waterfront and the broad plaza Paseo de la Princesa, good for strolling arm-in-arm.

More than 400 Spanish buildings in the town were renovated during the 1990s, restored to their former glory and painted bright colors. The ambience 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. Visitors can also 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 El Yunque rain forest is closed.

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 chichi 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 a favorite of honeymooners.

I drag a heavy tapestry-upholstered 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. 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, dreaming of cobblestones and conquistadors and 500 years of brides.


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. to 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. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Sunday. 787-722-0861;

• La Fortaleza: Governor's mansion dates from 1533. Tours 9 a.m. to 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. to noon, 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

• Pablo Casals Museum: Manuscripts, videotapes, photos from the cellist. Open 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.

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. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday. 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. 10:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. daily; 787-888-1880.

-- By Ellen Creager

In Old San Juan: Tips

Getting there

American and US Airways fly nonstop between Philadelphia and San Juan with recent round-trip fares from about $315. Several other airlines offer connecting flights at comparable fares.

Getting around

It's an $18 cab ride from the airport to Old San Juan. 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 Juan proper:

• El Convento Hotel, 100 Cristo St. The restored convent is a luxury hotel with rates in the $275-$385 range; check for deals. Phone 1-800-468-2779; Web site

• The Gallery Inn, 204-206 Norzagaray. This art gallery and hotel is in a lovely old mansion; rates $145-$350. Phone 787-722-1808;

• The Milano Hotel, 307 Fortaleza St. This hotel is in the center of Old San Juan, next to a nightclub; $85-$145; 1-877-729-9050;

• Plaza de Armas, 202 San Jose St. An inexpensive, adequate hostelry with rates between $75 and $150; 787-722-9191;

• Wyndham Old San Juan, 100 Brumbaugh St. This is a modern full-service resort hotel on the 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.


The Puerto Rico Tourism Co. is the official tourism arm of Puerto Rico. Contact the company at 1-800-815-7391, or visit the Web site at

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