"Travel Notes from San Juan" San Juan by gdilieto

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I traveled to San Juan to complete the trilogy that took me in the years 2007-8 to visit the three best-preserved colonial cities of the Spanish empire in the New World. San Juan was the last stop after Panamá City and Cartagena, three of the once-powerful cities whose historical centers have been appointed UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As a matter of fact I expected San Juan to be different from the other two: Puerto Rico shares with Panamá and Colombia the same Spanish domination and cultural influence but after all it has been US territory for over a century now. I thought, that must have resulted in some impact.

I have mixed feelings about San Juan: in few words it seemed to me just a city with American (US) infrastructures where people speak Spanish. A city which has not transitioned yet to US but at the same time no longer belongs to Latin America. The Old Town is in my view largely overrated as a colonial destination; it is a place with the shell but not the soul of a colonial town; it's picturesque without charm, it has the architecture but not the street-life of a genuine Latin America colonial town. On the other side I must admit San Juan is fun and offers a variety of options for an enjoyable vacation. I spent my time visiting the sights of the Old City as well as one day at the beach. The Spanish forts in the Old Town are impressive and the views of the coastline and the ocean superb. The beaches never get close resembling the idea one has of a "Caribbean beach" but still are a decent option for some relax. At night, I wandered in SoFo and Calle San Sebastián in the Old Town.

San Juan is a modern capital city and offers its best to those ones looking for a bit of everything: some history, architecture, beaches, shopping, dining, entertainment, nightlife. I wouldn't pick San Juan as a top destination for every of these categories alone but in the whole San Juan is a very a good choice for an enjoyable vacation.

A Capital City of the New World

San Juan is the second-oldest European-established city in the Americas (after Santo Domingo) and has been one of the capitals of the Spanish empire in the "New World" since its heydays in the 16th and 17th centuries until its decline and end in the 19th century, when colonies either achieved independence or were surrendered to other rivals powers, such as Puerto Rico to US (1898). In order to protect the colonies and their treasure of gold, silver, gems, spices and other riches from the attacks of pirates and buccaneers, the Spanish developed in the Caribbean a network of fortified cities. Many of those forts can still be visited today in the capital cities of the Old World such as Cartagena (Colombia), Havana (Cuba), Veracruz (Mexico), while of other forts (Panamá City and Portobelo (Panama)) only ruins remain. San Juan's forts, El Morro and San Cristóbal are arguably some of the best-preserved Spanish forts in the Old World and have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is ironic that in the "the Spanish Lake", as Spanish used to refer to the Caribbean Sea in the heydays of their Empire, some once-powerful powers rival to Spain such as Britain, France and The Netherlands still retain today some territories while not one does Spain.

A History of "Fusion" in Culinary Traditions

Today San Juan offers chance for some of the best dining experiences in the Caribbean, comparable with the one one can get in world's capitals such as New York, London or Shanghai. Specifically, the Southern side of Calle Fortaleza (hence the name of SoFo District) in Old San Juan has developed into a gourmet district, turning one of America's oldest urban quarters into an internationally renowned restaurant district. "Eclectic" and "fusion" are the words here and you will find a lined up of "Asian-Latin", "Indian-Latin", "Middle Eastern Fusion", "Nuevo Latino" restaurants blending the Caribbean traditional cuisine with other cuisines from all over the world. This is just the most-recent evolution of a long history of "fusion" in Puerto Rican cuisine. In fact the traditional comida criolla is itself a blend of the native Tainos tradition, (root vegetables, fish and tropical fruits) with the Spanish (olive oil, rice, pork and various spices) and the African influence (yams, plantains and coffee). The SoFo Culinary Festival is held twice a year, in June and October. Calle Fortaleza is turned into a busy promenade with restaurants setting up tables in the calle and visitors enjoying the food and the music.

Pros and Cons
  • Pros:A fun place for a vacation
  • Cons:Old San Juan - A mild version of a Latin America colonial town
  • In a nutshell:A city with US infrastructures where people speak Spanish
  • Last visit to San Juan: Nov 2008
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (16)

Comments (2)

  • monica71's Profile Photo
    Apr 8, 2010 at 12:57 PM

    you made me feel like i was there, in the middle of everything. thank you for sharing all these experiences with all of us! you added a personal touch to all the places you visited and it made all the difference in the world to me!

  • WaRPer's Profile Photo
    Jan 5, 2009 at 7:22 PM

    Cool page G! Interesting travel philosophy you have ;) I hope I'll make it to San Juan pretty soon...next Spring Break hopefully!


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