Clear blue skies, stunning beaches, gorgeous vistas across azure waters… yes, the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan ticks all the boxes for a perfect Caribbean getaway. On top of these undeniably attractive offerings, however, the city boasts a plethora of historical sites, a vibrant culture, and enough shopping, dining and nightlife to keep you entertained whether you’re staying for a weekend or a month.
Interestingly, San Juan was originally the name of the island; explorer Christopher Columbus christened it ‘San Juan Bautista’ in honour of John the Baptist upon discovery in 1493. When the main settlement, on the Atlantic coast in the north, was officially founded by Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de León in 1521, his compatriots called it Puerto Rico (rich port). Much confusion between the two names ensued, and ultimately the appellations were switched, with San Juan becoming the name of the city, and Puerto Rico the island.
In more contemporary times, San Juan established its place on the must-visit list of tourists from all over the world. Yet, come 2017, the island was hit by a devastating Category 5 hurricane, bringing its budding tourism industry to a screeching halt and overturning the lives of the capital’s 335,000 residents. Thankfully, restoration efforts have revived the city, and with the pandemic easing, the country is open to travellers. In anticipation of the long-awaited moment when we can readily fly the skies and sail the seas, we highlight the must-visit spots that should feature on every intrepid explorer’s itinerary.
Located along the northern wall of Old San Juan – the historic centre of the city – La Perla is a colourful shanty town dotted with a kaleidoscope of brightly-hued houses. Occupying a 600m stretch adjacent to the sprawling Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, it was once an unsavoury area inhabited by prostitutes and poor migrants from the countryside. Thankfully, recent gentrification has breathed new life into neighbourhood, and countless eateries – where you can sample such local delicacies as fresh ceviche or mofongo (mashed plantain) – and retail spots now line its streets, taking advantage of uninterrupted ocean views. The multicoloured barrio’s transformation to true tourist attraction occurred in 2017, when it featured in the video of Despacito, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s smash summer hit.
Heritage on High
For history buffs, Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal are musts. Commonly known as El Morro, the former was built upon a prominent promontory half a millennium ago as a military citadel to defend the then-Spanish colonial city. Today, it serves a decidedly less strategic purpose: the UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of San Juan’s most iconic tourist destinations, attracting more than two million visitors annually. Exploring all of El Morro in a single visit would be impossible, but a guided tour will showcase the main highlights. You can also meander through the fort’s recreated barracks, kitchens and other areas, or stop by the lowest level to appreciate the grandiosity of the structure – all while snapping a photo or two.
Fort of Call
Further down the coast, adjacent to the eastern gate of Old San Juan, lies Castillo de San Cristóbal, the second of the city’s historically important military structures. It is considered to be the largest Spanish fortress ever built in the New World, encompassing a staggering 27 acres of land, replete with moats, booby-trapped bridges and tunnels, and soaring 150ft-high walls upon completion in 1783. Today, the castillo presents no less an impressive sight, and houses a period-accurate recreation of the military barracks, fascinating military archives, an educational museum and stunning city views.
Located in the heritage neighbourhood of Old San Juan, the Iglesia de San José isn’t just a fantastic example of 16th-century Spanish Gothic architecture, it’s also one of the oldest churches to be built in the Americas. It was constructed in 1532 by the Dominican Order of monks, and then acquired by the Jesuits in 1865. A mammoth US$11 million restoration initiative has just returned the monastery – which had suffered extreme structural damage over the centuries – to its glory days; it reopened this March after 25 years of work.
As the headquarters of the second-largest rum producer in the world, Casa Bacardi is a particular favourite for San Juan sightseers. Pre-Covid, the plant – which is also the world’s largest rum distillery – drew a quarter of a million visitors every year. While that number may have dropped in recent months, it nevertheless remains a strong draw for alcohol aficionados keen to explore the centuries-old distillation method behind Bacardi’s spirits, as well as sample such iconic cocktails as the coconut-fronted piña colada. Tourists also have the opportunity to purchase special reserve rums that are sold exclusively at the factory.
Sip, Savour, Salsa
No trip to the Puerto Rican capital would be complete without indulging in some of its world-famous nightlife. And no place embodies San Juan’s invigorating post-sunset entertainment scene like La Placita de Santurce. Located a stone’s throw from Old San Juan, the two-storey La Placita – built a century ago as a market square – still remains a traditional farmer’s market by day. But come evening, it transforms into a thumping outdoor club. Rub shoulders with locals as you salsa to live music, sample local delicacies at the various restaurants, or pick up a pint at one of the late-night bars. For a more upscale experience, the neighbourhood of Condado boasts a range of swanky clubs, lounges and rooftop bars, many of which are open late enough for party-goers to greet the sunrise as they down their final tipple.
As a change of pace from the urban jungle of San Juan, venture out for the hour’s drive to El Yunque National Forest and soak up some island scenery. As the only tropical rainforest within the borders of the United States – Puerto Rica is an unincorporated US territory – the 28,000-acre park boasts an incredibly diverse ecosystem featuring hundreds of exotic animal and plant species. For the more sedentary visitor, no trip would be complete without stopping by the Yokahú Observation Tower. Summon the energy to climb up 98 steps and its summit, at an elevation of 1,575ft, offers picturesque panoramas of the verdant hills and cerulean sea – a must for any budding photographer or Instagrammer.
(Text: Tenzing Thondup)