Story by Tom Flynn
Photography by Laurette Veres
Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean Sea. Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and settled in the early 1500’s by Spanish Conquistador Ponce De Leon. Puerto Rico was the gateway to the New World and whoever controlled the island and its deep harbor controlled access to the Americas.
The Spaniards spent nearly 300 years fortifying the area around the port, now called Old San Juan, with giant walls. Atop the walls are lookout towers, huge forts and heavy cannon. Soldiers scanned the horizon 24×7 looking for enemy ships. And enemies came! French, Dutch and British all tried take control numerous times and were turned away by the Spanish forces and their cannons.
Access to the city was gained through five gates in the giant walls. Every night at 6pm the gates were closed. If you were on the wrong side of the gates, you stayed there until morning. Inside the walls was a bustling city. Puerto Rico’s population exploded from a few thousand to nearly a million people by the mid 1800s, and all the needs of a modern society had to be met. Housing, shops, restaurants and markets lined the blue cobblestone streets (the stones were covered with slag from the cannon factories and shone a silvery blue). Churches were erected and it was standard practice for Spanish nobles to arrive in the harbor, walk through the main gate up the hill to the church and thank the Lord for a safe journey.
As the population grew, Puerto Ricans grew weary of Spanish colonial rule. After 400 years, Spain finally lost Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American war when resistance forces teamed up with the Americans. The Americans landed unopposed and marched over land with resistance forces to take Old San Juan from behind. They also had an extremely large naval presence just off the coast, and the Spaniards didn’t want to see the damage the giant American guns could cause. Very few big shells were fired and little damage was done.
Old San Juan is amazing. Most of the city is still surrounded by the original walls; the cobblestone streets still shine blue and are lined with thriving businesses. You can stand outside the main gate on the dock and look up at the walls stretching around the city, 18-feet thick and over forty feet high, and walk as the nobles did to the church; inside you’ll find Ponce De Leon’s tomb. The forts are in place and intact. Now museums, you can stand in the lookout towers and scan the ocean as Spanish soldiers did for hundreds of years. Everyone speaks English and the American dollar is the official currency, but you feel like you’re in Europe.
Stay close to town:
The Condado Plaza Hilton is less than five minutes from Old San Juan. It offers great ocean view and access to a private beach. It’s also connected to the bay where you can enjoy water sports such as kayaking and stand up paddle boarding. This hotel offers the best of all worlds: stunning interiors, great dining, activities and access to all the wonders of Old San Juan.