Puerto Rico is a small country filled with many riches, dotted by two other equally famous islands, Vieques and Culebra, and with more and more cities and airports opening up to tourists, it’s becoming a great destination in the Caribbean. What’s great about it is if you live in the U.S., you actually don’t need a passport to get here! We explore the most touristy place within Puerto Rico, San Juan, the capital and also the hub for connecting flights to the other islands in the Caribbean.
Old San Juan: A complete departure from the New
If you enjoy pleasant walks amongst historic buildings, Old San Juan is a wonderful place to explore. The sidewalks are full of nice shops, casual dining places, and fine restaurants.
Perhaps the greatest attraction is an inside tour of La Fortaleza, which is the current Governor’s Mansion of the Puerto Rican Governor. Since this is the real governor’s headquarters, you will be followed on the entire tour by several burly men who are a part of the governor’s bodyguard unit, so make sure to not hang around any place too long! On the tour itself, you will see the mansion’s outdoor garden, the chapel, and an underground room. The tour costs 3 USD and lasts for about an hour. It is available from Monday to Friday from 9AM to 3:45PM. Bring a valid ID to book a tour (you’ll need to walk into the office to book it), and you’ll be escorted to a room to fill out information about yourself. Note that this is like the White House of Puerto Rico, so understand that there are security checks needed.
Another great highlight to Old San Juan is a ground passage by the El Morro fort, called Paseo del Morro, which allows you to walk by the San Juan Bay right alongside the historic fort. It’s about an hour long walk and it is quite beautiful and serene to be able to look out at the water and imagine what life would have been centuries ago when the fort was essential to the city’s survival.
If you get hungry strolling around the old town, then be sure to stop at a great seafood place called Aguaviva, which is located only 10 to 15 minutes from the Governor’s Mansion by foot. Try the Grilled Dorado, which is a nice dish with mofongo (one of Puerto Rico’s national dishes).
Castillo de San Cristobal
The San Cristobal is a huge fortification, originally built by the Spanish in the late 18th century. Its main feature is a series of spherical sentry boxes that look out over the Atlantic Ocean. There are informative and entertaining hourly orientation talks by the park rangers, which last 10 to 15 minutes, and give a nice account of the fort’s history. If you have children, a good place to visit is the Discovery Center, which has several interactive activities for children. In addition to the hourly talks, there is also a fun Tunnel Tour, which leads you down into the Cristobal’s tunnels and you learn about their history as you walk through them, a sort of interactive history lesson. If that’s not your thing, then you can go around and explore on your own.
The fort is open every day from 9AM to 6PM, but is closed on major holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s). It costs 5 USD per adult to enter. This fort does get pretty busy, and there is a free tram that departs regularly from the front of the fort and stops in other major tourist areas within Old San Juan.
Castillo San Felipe del Morro
El Morro, as the locals call it, overlooks the San Juan Bay, and consists of six levels. The fort has been involved in several battles, involving the English and the Dutch from the 16th and 17th centuries. When touring the fort, you can see all the cannons that are still standing from past battles.
Every 3rd Sunday of the Month, there is a very interesting exhibition which portrays a typical soldier’s life inside the Morro fortification. You will be able to see how the soldiers dressed, what they ate, and where they slept. The fort also has a historic lighthouse, located in the 6th level. Luckily, there is a great tour offered by the fort where you are taken to the lighthouse itself and where the park ranger explains the history of the lighthouse and its importance in the fort’s operations. The lighthouse tour is included in the park entrance price and you can only access the lighthouse with the ranger on the tour. Alternatively, you can go about exploring on your own. There are a lot of iguanas that live in a certain area of the fort, and make for great wildlife viewing as well.
Forts, Mansions, Historic Streets & Houses
If you’re the type of person that enjoys stress-free destinations, Puerto Rico should be on your list. More specifically, the Old San Juan part of the country is filled with numerous historical buildings, attractions, two large forts on the east and west sides, and even a chance to tour the current Governor’s Mansion, with the governor’s security detail included in the price!
There is plenty of good comfort food to be found in Old San Juan also, and when it’s time for the sun to set, you can stroll near the El Morro fort and gaze at the calm, beautiful waters of the San Juan Bay, with energetic sounds of music in the distance. That is Puerto Rico: a mix of calmness and liveliness that makes for a great place to visit.
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