3 Hours in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico is an unlikely place to go to if you live in the UK. There’s no direct flights and the connections via the US are a pain in the arse. If you want to go to the Caribbean there’s many other places to go to first. I was fortunate enough to have a work trip there. It may have taken more time travelling than I spent there but the work was good and it gave me a very small glimpse of the Capital.

I arrived a day before the meeting with a spinning head full of jet lag and work thoughts. I needed a break and headed out to see the Old Town. I was staying at La Concha, a hotel on Condado over the bridge from Isleta de San Juan. Checking out the route on Google Maps I assumed it would be a pleasant walk from the hotel to the Old Town. I’m not sure about pleasant but it was certainly interesting.

The first stop over the bridge was San Geronimo Fort. It appeared abandoned but the gates were open so I wandered in. A couple of minutes later a man came out of a hut and spoke to me in Spanish. I assumed he was a security guard shooing me away but he turned out to be quite welcoming. He just wanted me to be careful as it was raining and slippery. In many other islands this would have been a well kept tourist attraction. This was my first experience of a city very much feeling the impact of economic decline and the devastating effects of the 2017 hurricane.

Moving on towards the Old Town, the hurricane’s effects became even clearer as I reached Parque del Tercer Milenio. In what should have been a busy recreational spot, there was literally no one around for a full 10 minutes. It had a real 28 Days Later feel about it. Loads of cars were parked up but no people. Buildings that should have been busy were abandoned and decaying.

The first person I saw was a homeless guy coming out of a beach changing hut. He started staggering in my general direction. This didn’t help with the zombie movie feel and I had a minor internal freak out so started walking more quickly. After a couple more similar encounters I moved off the beach path and onto the sidewalk next to the main road. Here there was another homeless guy walking towards me down the middle of the busy road.

Despite the ever-increasing feeling that I should have taken a taxi to the Old Town, I was glad I walked there. It gave me a very real view of a city struggling to get back on its feet. The homeless guys weren’t dangerous, just out of options.

By the time I reached Castillo de San Cristóbal I’d crossed a line into the Old Town and into a very different feeling. This was the boundary of the Spanish-era city walls and the furthest point that most cruise tourists visit. This was UNESCO-town with all the investment in repairs to keep the tourists coming back.

After waiting 10 mins for a dithering group of tourists to work out how to count themselves I decided to leave the Castillo and come back later. Instead I continued West along to the top of the fortifications. I passed La Perla community, some great street art and Santa María Magdalena de Pazzi cemetary along the way. Having a tour guide or at least a book would have been great. This was a whistle-stop lone walkabout so I had to make do with great views but no historical context.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro San Juan is at the end of the island. With no dithering cruise groups to block my entrance, I had a look around. By now time was ticking on and I needed to start heading back. My final hour was a meander through the beautiful streets of the Old Town with a couple of diversions to Puerta De San Juan and Iglesia San José, finally returning to Castillo de San Cristóbal. By now the cruisers had sorted themselves out and I had a clear run at getting in.

Both Castillos are managed by the US National Park Service and are well maintained with interesting information panels. They also both have great views of the city from the tops of the fortifications. By the time I got to the top of San Cristobal my jet-lag kicked in and all I could think about was getting a taxi back to the hotel.

I would have loved more time in the city and even more to explore the island. I'd checked out Cerro de Punta, the Island High Point, but that would have been a whole day trip. Its tough to be disappointed though as a unexpected trip to San Juan was still a great experience. My main memory is having talked to some of the locals about their experience of living through the after effects of the storm. They're a hardy and friendly bunch and I'm glad to have met a few of them.

Richard gowerComment