San Juan

Pastel facades and balconies in bloom
Spanish colonial architecture
The Paseo de la Princesa

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San Juan

A bracing walk along the sea front

San Juan is one of the world’s top cruise ship destinations, with most of the pleasure boats docking at the port by the old town.

As recently as the 1970s, Old San Juan (Viejo San Juan) was a reminder of better times, a run-down collection of Spanish colonial relics, in little better shape than the collapsed empire that constructed them. Now, however, after extensive and careful restoration, this seven-block-square area is considered one of the best-kept troves of Spanish colonial architecture and has become a World Heritage Site.

Before continuing your holiday across the Caribbean you just have to stop off at San Juan, with its steep, narrow streets distinctively cobbled with smooth, iridescent bricks known as adoquines, originally used as ballast in ships, and feature buildings – some of the oldest in the Western hemisphere – with bright pastel facades and wrought-iron balconies abloom with plants and flowers.

The old town occupies the headland of a 4km-long island (connected by bridge to the mainland) that shelters the San Juan Bay, for centuries a key port in the New World. It was originally known as Puerto Rico, or “rich port”, because its position made for such a fine stop for shipping.

Begin your wanderings in the old town along the Paseo de la Princesa, a busy cobblestoned promenade, and head west along the southern city wall. The prim, grey and white Neoclassical building you'll see is known as La Princesa. Built as a prison in 1837, it now houses the main PRTC offices, as well as a gallery showcasing the work of contemporary Puerto Rican artists.

The city wall itself, known as La Muralla, is an impressive sight. Until the late nineteenth century, it encircled all of Old San Juan with 3900 metres of sandstone, culminating in the fortress of El Morro at the headland.

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    Puerto Rico

    Nature and modernity
    Nature and modernity

    Puerto Rico commands a pivotal spot in the Caribbean, the last substantial island before the sprawling arm of the Antilles swoops south towards Venezuela, fragmenting into the tiny Leeward and Windward Islands.

    A holiday to Puerto Rico can be a rare opportunity to experience its unique status as a commonwealth of the US, which keeps it a world apart from its island neighbours, over a distance that can be measured not just in kilometres, but in dollars. 

    It’s a place that combines island life with a level of infrastructure seldom seen in the region: excellent interstate highways allow travellers to zip from coral reef to five-star restaurant. 

    American influence is strongest in San Juan, where even the ramparts of El Morro – which staved off European aggressors for 500 years – haven’t managed to prevent the influx of American fast-food and retail chains. But the capital's core retains a distinctly Latin character, with Old San Juan host to a treasure trove of pastel Spanish colonial architecture on exquisitely restored cobblestoned streets. 

    During your cruise to Puerto Rico, even in the crowded capital, it’s hard to find a sullied beach, and nature is largely untouched outside the major cities – especially in the jungly, mountainous interior; on the relatively hidden beaches along the south coast; and on the offshore islands.