Romance and history in Old San Juan

Old San Juan is filled with colorful architecture, including the narrowest house in the western hemisphere. Look for the yellow house with the brick steps on the left.

Old San Juan is filled with colorful architecture, including the narrowest house in the western hemisphere. Look for the yellow house with the brick steps on the left.

On a plaza opposite the cathedral, we found this whimsical cat. Fitting in a city filled with cats.

On a plaza opposite the cathedral, we found this whimsical cat. Fitting in a city filled with cats.

Colorful tile street signs mark some corners.

Colorful tile street signs mark some corners.

Stop under the tall shady trees of Old San Juan, with the brightly colored houses to your right and to your left and the rough hewn cobblestones under your feet and breathe in the history, and the romance and the music.

We found ourselves on these ancient streets during the heat of the day and the cool of the evening and every time we were entranced. Sure, the streets were filled with tourists — seven cruise ships tied up one day, bringing some 18,000 day visitors. But Puerto Ricans delight in their old town, too. They gather in sidewalk cafes for family meals, take picnics and kites to the broad lawn outside El Morro, attend Mass at the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista and bring their guitars for lessons in the arcades of the historic  Ballaha Barracks Building.

El Morro, the fortress built between 1539 and 1786 to protect San Juan.

El Morro, the fortress built between 1539 and 1786 to protect San Juan.

A huge fan of historic sites and museums, we made our way to the imposing El Morro that guards the harbor entrance, the Casa Blanca, home of Ponce de Leon’s family, and the unforgettable Museo de Las Americas. All three stops were well worth a visit.

El Morro, a fortress building by the Spanish is spectacular for its views of the harbor. I was glad we came on Sunday to see all the kites flying on the surrounding lawns.

Rooms of Casa Blanca are decorated with Spanish-style colonial-era furnishings.

Rooms of Casa Blanca are decorated with Spanish-style colonial-era furnishings.

A flag of Puerto Rico is draped behind a statue of Mary and Jesus in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautisto.

A flag of Puerto Rico is draped behind a statue of Mary and Jesus in the Cathedral of San Juan Bautisto.

Ponce de Leon built the original house on this site but died before he could move in. His family occupied Casa Blanca for 250 years, expanding it to the imposing structure you’ll see today. It has lovely tile work, windows overlooking the sea, and a restful garden.

El Museo de Las Americas occupies the second floor of the an old barracks building. It's beautifully restored and on Saturdays filled with the music of guitar students.

El Museo de Las Americas occupies the second floor of the an old barracks building. It’s beautifully restored and on Saturdays filled with the music of guitar students.

The Museo de Las Americas kept us entranced for hours. When it closed for lunch, we stopped too — and came back so we could continue through its exhibitions. The artful exhibitions tell the history of Puerto Rico — and Puerto Ricans’ — past with woodcarvings of saints, artifacts from African and Indian history, an exhibit on musical instruments and a gorgeous photo exhibit, entitled “Who We Are.”

Sculptures by Felipe Lettersten bring an American Indian exhibition to life.

Sculptures by Felipe Lettersten bring an American Indian exhibition to life.

We were most taken by the exhibit on the American Indians, which features full-size statues of people from around the Americas — all cast from living people. It’s an extraordinary exhibition. Be sure to see the video detailing how the statues were created.

The museum is located on the second floor of the Ballaha Barracks Building. When we arrived on Saturday, the sounds of guitars filled the air. Guitar classes were going on under the first floor arcade and plenty of students were practicing elsewhere in the plaza.

We stopped in this courtyard restaurant for lunch. It's part of an old convent that has been turned into a hotel.

We stopped in this courtyard restaurant for lunch. It’s part of an old convent that has been turned into a hotel.

Along the way, we walked along the sea wall, delighted in the water views and the dozens of sweet little alley cats that seem to be under every car and tree. It was a wonderful walk through history and beauty, while we celebrated Puerto Rico’s present.

© Text and photos
Mary K. Tilghman

Around every corner a surprise...modern art and colonial architecture.

Around every corner a surprise…modern art and colonial architecture.

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