The walls around Old San Juan are tall and very imposing.
They are as tall as 42 feet and as thick as 45 feet at the base, 2 feet at the top. The muralla or city wall features two walls of sandstone blocks, filled with sand, mortar, limestone and water.
The walls served San Juan well, thwarting pirates and foreign invaders for hundreds of years. That includes the English, the Dutch and the Americans.
Slaves began building them in 1630 and continued for 150 years. The walls feel military and medieval, and ooze history.
Today, San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city). It was, along with Havana, Cuba, and Cartagena, Colombia, among the Spanish colonial cities with the most formidable walls.
One of the best ways to view the fortress-like walls of San Juan is to stroll El Paseo del Morro, a national recreational trail between Old San Juan and the harbor.
The 1.5-mile round-trip walkway runs outside the walls and next to San Juan Bay and the city’s harbor. It was built in 1999 on a dirt trail used to reach the walls for repairs.
You won’t be alone on El Paseo del Morro. You will be sharing the trail with the city’s most famous occupants: Old San Juan’s feral cats.
Hundreds of stray cats live in Old San Juan and roam the streets and the waterfront. The cats are typically found on the trail, in surrounding brush and along the rocks between the trail and the water. They’re everywhere. Some are said to have descended from Spanish cats.
A grass-roots group, Save a Gato (“cat”), manages the feral cats along the trail. That includes providing food and water, plus trapping, neutering, vaccinating and releasing them.
The northern terminus of the trail is next to the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, the Castle of St. Philip of the Headland. It was one of two great forts built by the Spanish to protect San Juan. It is known locally as El Morro.
There are plans to extend the trail to run along the northern side of El Morro, and to the east to the Puerto Rico territorial capital.
The walkway by the water takes you within the shadow of El Morro, a fort that towers 140 feet above the water and guards the San Juan harbor with 16-foot-thick walls. It is the biggest attraction in Old San Juan and is managed by the National Park Service.
Built from 1539 to 1786, it is a sprawling, six-level complex of weathered sandstone with ramparts, gun rooms, storerooms, barracks, ramps, vaulted rooms, a chapel and large interior courtroom. It was staffed by up to 250 Spanish troops.
The fort is studded with small circular sentry posts called garitas, which have become a symbol of Puerto Rico. Strangely, it is topped by a New England-style lighthouse that was built in 1908.
El Morro was attacked by England’s Sir Francis Drake in 1595 and was captured by the English in 1598.
Admission to the fort is $3 per day. Details: www.nps.gov/saju. The fort and surrounding grounds cover 74 acres.
You can get to the trail south of El Morro at the red-painted San Juan Gate with its heavy wooden doors. It was built in 1520 and provided access to the city to Spanish dignitaries and well-to-do arrivals disembarking from ships.
Less prominent arrivals used one of the five other gates found in San Juan’s 3.4 miles of walls. The gates all closed at sundown. San Juan is the only surviving original town gate.
Ponce de Leon
The new arrivals would climb up the hill to the Gothic-styled Cathedral de San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist) to give thanks for a safe ocean crossing. The original church was destroyed by winds in 1540. Today’s cathedral was built in the 19th century.
The church is the home of the marble tomb of explorer Ponce de Leon, who played a big role in settling Puerto Rico. In 1508, he arrived on the island with a company of soldiers and a famously vicious dog named Becerillo. He founded Caparra, now known as Pueblo Viego, west of the current metropolitan area.
He vanquished the natives, the Tainos, and was the first governor of Puerto Rico.
He scrapped his original colony and moved to the current site of Old San Juan, a windy, defensible headland. He later went to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth.
From the San Juan Gate, you can proceed south along the walkway but it is not part of the designated El Paseo del Morro. It will take you to the Raices Fountain and the wide boulevard of the Paseo de la Princesa. You will even find an alcove in the wall that is filled with giant artistic spikes that rise into the sky. The Paseo de la Princesa is a tree-lined, restored 19th-century esplanade by the harbor.
Around the neighborhood
Today San Juan – the oldest city under a United States flag – has about 400,000 residents. It is the most vibrant city in the Caribbean, drawing big crowds of tourists on cruises.
Old San Juan is a compact, colorful neighborhood made for walking, in the heart of modern San Juan. Old San Juan is only three square miles, with narrow streets. It is dominated by 400 Spanish colonial-style buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries and the two forts: El Morro and Castillo de San Cristobal, less than a mile apart.
San Cristobal is the biggest fort built by Spain in the New World. It covers 27 acres and includes five bastions. Work on the fort began in 1634 and was completed in 1771.
The two forts feature tunnels, plazas, dungeons, batteries and even accounts of ghosts. They offer great vistas of the city and the coastline. They are part of the San Juan National Historic Site that was established in 1949 and are U.N. World Heritage Sites. They get 2 million visitors a year.
In Old San Juan, visitors will find museums and impressive buildings like La Fortaleza, the governor’s home built in 1540. There is a museum to musician Pablo Casals, and the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico is another attraction. The Convento Dominico was built in 1523 by Dominican friars; the white-domed building is now a museum.
The Casa Blanca is the house built in the 1520s for de Leon, although he never lived there. It is now the Juan Ponce de Leon Museum.
Old San Juan is filled with plazas, parks, monuments and fountains. There are hotels, shops, casinos, restaurants, clubs and galleries.
It’s a happening place during the day and even more so after dark. Check out the restaurants and clubs in the SOFO (South of Fortaleza Street) district.
Today the streets of Old San Juan are lined with deep-blue cobblestones that were used as ballast on Spanish ships. There are overhanging ironwork balconies, pastel facades and courtyards.