San Juan, Puerto Rico: Journeying to Manny’s Homeland
Photo by Jose Santiago
Originally Posted On: https://embarky.io/travel-stories/san-juan-puerto-rico/
After cruising through six Caribbean islands in less than a week, we set sail for my homeland of Puerto Rico.
Our last destinations were St. Thomas, Tortola, St. Martin, St. Kitts and Nevis, Dominica, and Antigua. We’ve had incredible experiences that’ll last us a lifetime, but Puerto Rico was a trip Yadi, and I couldn’t wait for
There’s so much to explore on this big island, but the capital of San Juan took us on more adventures than we could ever ask for. From El Viejo San Juan to the Four Seasons Fountain, there are enough sites to see in this single city to last you days!
Nothing else on Earth compares to the Caribbean sun, mountains, authentic island culture, and clear blue waters of Puerto Rico.
No matter where I’m in the world, Puerto Rico always has a special place in my heart.
Read on to learn all about mine and Yadi’s experience adventuring through my homeland and admiring its rich history.
Overview of San Juan, Puerto Rico
The largest of the Caribbean islands we’ve stopped at yet, Puerto Rico is made up of one main island and several smaller ones.
Similar to other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico is a mountainous tropical paradise.
At an astounding 100 miles in length and 35 miles in width, the island is 80% the size of Jamaica. Not only is it home to an enormous rainforest, but its highest mountain peak is 4,390 feet.
Not to mention Puerto Rico’s stunning 50 rivers. As you can imagine, water is far from an issue on this island.
San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico and is one of the island’s hotspots for tourism. It’s home to El Viejo San Juan (also called Old San Juan), which boasts seductive colonial charms, an easy island tempo, and authentic Puerto Rican culture.
Similar to Tortola, British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico is a mountainous tropical paradise. Its beautiful mountains, lush greenery, and azure blue waters are just part of what makes it one of the most breathtaking places in the world.
Obviously, I’m a bit biased, but there are so many reasons for anyone to fall in love with this remarkable place.
With a rich past of Spanish rule and history-making moments, I guarantee you’ll understand why I’m so proud to call Puerto Rico my home.
A Brief History of San Juan, Puerto Rico
Before telling you more about this beautiful island, let’s learn about its unique history.
When Christopher Columbus first discovered the island on his second voyage in 1493, he claimed it for Spain. And unlike many other Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico wasn’t overcome by multiple European countries. Despite being contested by the French, Dutch, and British, the island remained Spanish territory for four centuries.
It wasn’t until 1917 that Puerto Rico became United States territory. Since the island isn’t a “state,” residents of Puerto Rico can’t vote in Congress elections. Instead, they have a non-voting member of Congress called the Resident Commissioner.
However, Puerto Ricans can travel to and from the mainland United States and are U.S. citizens.
When first discovered by Columbus, Puerto Rico was actually named “San Juan Bautista” in honor of John the Baptist. The capital city was named “Ciudad de Puerto Rico,” which means “city of the rich port” in Spanish.
Over the years, the two names began to swap. Traders eventually came to call the island Puerto Rico and the capital city San Juan.
But it doesn’t stop there.
In 1898, Congress changed the spelling of the name to Porto Rico, and to make it even more confusing, changed the name back to the original (Puerto Rico) in 1931.
And in case you’re wondering, today its official name is Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
The Beginnings of Spanish Puerto Rico
Now that we’ve got the complicated name-changing stuff out of the way (a common trend in Caribbean islands), let’s get into the more interesting parts of Puerto Rico’s beginnings.
Before Columbus discovered it in 1493, the indigenous people called the island Borinquen. In their language, it means “Land of the Valiant Lord.”
However, similar to the natives of many other Caribbean islands, the indigenous Puerto Ricans were enslaved once the Spanish took over. Eventually, a large number died from a variety of diseases, including smallpox, measles, and influenza.
But something different about Puerto Rico is that it took a while for explorers to notice it.
Before and during the time of Columbus, other Spanish conquistadores completely overlooked the island because they didn’t find incredible amounts of gold or silver. Instead, they placed their focus on destinations like Bolivia, where a single mine has produced loads of silver for the past 300 years.
In comparison to these places, Puerto Rico was considered small and unprofitable.
What began to grab conquistadores’ attention was its strategic location. Shortly after Columbus, large numbers of ships began traveling from Spain to the New World. Puerto Rico — because of its placement —was the first stop between the two continents.
It was the first stop going to the New World and the last stop returning to Spain.
As a result, many other countries wanted control of Puerto Rico, but none succeeded.
In fact, Puerto Rico grew stronger from the attacks. Shortly after being used as a strategic port, the Spanish built fortifications that only grew larger and stronger after each attempt to take the island.
Puerto Rico Remains Making History
The battles Puerto Rico has experienced and the historical moments that have gone down in history books weren’t all centuries ago. Many were made just three years ago.
On September 6, 2017, Puerto Rico was victim to the powerful Hurricane Irma. The violent storm produced winds of over 180 miles per hour and caused electricity to go out for months. I was right there and it was Yadi’s first visit to my homeland Puerto Rico.
Irma devastated the island’s infrastructure, and thousands of people lost their lives. Of the people who survived, many traveled to the Mainland and haven’t returned since.
Although much has been improved recently, the estimated cost of recovery is said to be $95 billion.
But Hurricane Irma wasn’t the first disaster that shook the island.
On February 15, 1898, an American battleship called the U.S.S. Maine exploded in Havana harbor. While modern examination has concluded that the cause was flammable coal dust, Spain was originally blamed for the ship’s sinking.
The opinions were so strong that it sparked the beginning of the Spanish American War. Americans invaded Puerto Rico, and under the Treaty of Paris, Spain ceded it along with the Philippines and Guam to the U.S.
This was the beginning of Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States. In fact, this relationship is still very much evolving today.
Our 3-Day Adventure in Puerto Rico
Even before we arrived in Puerto Rico, Yadi and I knew we were in for an exciting adventure.
Yadi striking a pose.
Unlike many of our other destinations, we spent three days here and had the opportunity to venture out on our own.
It’s my homeland and holds a special place in my heart, so we knew we’d be spending more time here than the other Caribbean destinations.
We started by exploring El Viejo San Juan, perhaps the most authentic display of Puerto Rican culture in the capital.
From there, we walked through El Castillo de San Cristóbal, the largest fortress built by Spain in the entire New World.
Afterward, we stopped at Plazuela de la Rogativa, where we enjoyed stunning views of the governor’s mansion and the bay.
We then passed the San Juan Gate, a remnant of the three-mile-long wall that once encircled the city.
We also got to adventure through Plaza de San José. Full of rich Puerto Rican history, the plaza also contains a neoclassical-style cathedral. It’s one of San Juan’s oldest buildings and the United States’ oldest cathedral, and a tomb to the first Puerto Rican governor.
Our final stop was the Plaza de Armas, which contains the magnificent Four Seasons Fountain.
As you can see, we squeezed in a lot of fun and exhilarating experiences in the two and a half hours. But the fun didn’t stop here, we then went off on our own to have a good time.
Ready to embark on our journey to San Juan and the rest of Puerto Rico?
Let’s dive in!
Exploring the Authentic Culture of El Viejo San Juan
Up first on the itinerary was exploring the historical El Viejo San Juan. In Spanish, it means “Old San Juan,” which is another commonly used name for the place.
El Viejo San Juan is full of historic monuments documenting the island’s rich and eventful past. It also includes the celebrated Castillo de San Cristóbal, an enormous fortress built by Spain in the New World.
The fort was where we first began our walk through El Viejo San Juan and was a nice place to stop to take pictures.
El Castillo de San Cristóbal is a citadel like no other. It simply can’t help but take your breath away. Add its stunning Caribbean backdrop into the picture, and you’ve got a perfect place for photos and making memories.
As we continued our journey through El Viejo San Juan, Yadi, and the other tourists got to explore the authenticity of Puerto Rican street culture, and I got to reunite with it.
We passed by multiple vendors selling beautiful handmade trinkets, or artesanías as we call them in Spanish. If you want to get an up-close-and-personal look into the heart of Puerto Rican culture, El Viejo San Juan is the perfect place to find it.
From the lively street markets to the historical sites, our walkthrough El Viejo San Juan was an experience to remember.
Quick side note: There aren’t any traffic lights in El Viejo San Juan, but there are cars. So be prepared to embrace the often hectic (but in my opinion, exhilarating) streets.
Admiring the Stunning Views of Plazuela de la Rogativa
Once we finished our walk through El Viejo San Juan, we arrived at Plazuela de la Rogativa.
This plaza is held dear to Puerto Rico for its historical presence and offers stunning views of the island.
In the 16th century, the city of San Juan miraculously escaped and survived sacking by the British. It was one of the many attempts to take Puerto Rico from Spain by another European country, but one that is especially remembered today due to the city’s impressive evasion.
Today, the history-making event is commemorated by the governor’s mansion at Plazuela de la Rogativa.
The governor’s mansion itself is quite a sight, but what completes this beautiful scene is the gorgeous Puerto Rican bay.
Words can’t describe how impressive it is to see an emotional historical monument that the people hold dearly amidst the natural beauty of Caribbean waters.
Passing by the Impressive San Juan Gate
After our incredible experience at Plazuela de la Rogativa, we continued to the San Juan Gate.
At one time in history, a wall that was three miles long encircled the city of San Juan. But over time, it was demolished, and only a few remnants survived, the most notable being the San Juan Gate.
As you can imagine, it’s heavily celebrated by the Puerto Rican people and deemed a worthy historical monument. After all, it represents an impressive wall that protected the island’s capital and is among the only few pieces left.
We stopped here to take photos and admire the charm of this centuries-old gate. Simply standing there thinking of all the years it’s been through is enough to put anyone in a state of awe.
Visiting Plaza de San José and the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista
After passing the San Juan Gate, we stopped at the Plaza de San José.
If you didn’t think we could get any deeper into the rich history of Puerto Rico, think again.
Plaza de San José is home to the neoclassical-style cathedral. Known as the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, it’s one of San Juan’s oldest buildings and the oldest cathedral in the entire United States.
The history of this impressive cathedral makes for quite a story as well.
The first settlement on Puerto Rico was founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de Leon, a lieutenant on Columbus’s second voyage. A year later, in 1509, he became Puerto Rico’s governor.
But he didn’t hold that position for long.
In 1511, he was replaced as governor due to an ongoing legal battle he got himself into with Christopher Columbus’s son, Diego Columbus. The feud was over his right to govern, which eventually got him removed from the position.
Soon after, Juan Ponce de Leon began exploring what is now Florida on a search for the legendary Fountain of Youth, according to popular belief. Whether or not that’s true, he was eventually reinstated as governor of Puerto Rico by King Ferdinand but continued exploring Florida.
However, his adventures there led to trouble.
The indigenous people of Florida were heavily resistant to the Spanish, and Ponce de Leon was wounded in a skirmish. He was taken to Cuba to recover but eventually died from his injuries.
After his passing, Juan Ponce de Leon was returned to Puerto Rico and interred inside the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. Today, tourists such as ourselves can visit his tomb there.
Plaza de Armas and the Century-Old Four Seasons Fountain
Our last adventure was taking a stroll to the Plaza de Armas.
What makes this plaza such a popular site for tourists is its Four Seasons Fountain, a beautiful and classical view of historic Puerto Rico.
With the San Juan City Hall on the north side of the capital, Plaza de Armas was the original main square. And to the west of the main square was none other than the Four Seasons Fountain.
The fountain is a beautiful sight, with a 25-foot tan stone basin and four white marble statues that stand on it.
If you haven’t guessed already, each statue represents one of the four seasons. Hence the name “Four Seasons Fountain.”
To top off the look, jets of water shoot up from around the edge of the basin. They arch towards a smaller one in the center, where another set of water shoots rise about 8 feet up.
What makes this infamous fountain even more fascinating is its age. Each statue is over 100 years old. Incredible.
Chilling on the Camuy Beaches
When we had our free time to explore Puerto Rico on our own, Yadi and I rented a car and went west to my home town Camuy.
Taking a trip to Camuy was a perfect break to take from the hustle and bustle of San Juan.
In Camuy we had the time to visit family and friends and enjoy some good home cooked meals. There is nothing like going back home and revive old stories from my childhood with my family. Yadi absolutely loves every time we go because she always learn some new story from my childhood and uses that to tease me and make jokes.
Our Final Thoughts on Our Puerto Rico Trip
Our journeys in Puerto Rico were more than incredible tourist experiences. They allowed me to reconnect with my home, my people, and my history.
Puerto Rico will forever hold a place in my heart, and Yadi enjoyed being able to experience all of the places I tell her about firsthand.
It’s incredible how the Caribbean islands share many things in common, from their founding to their mixture of historical and tropical atmospheres. But Puerto Rico will forever stand out to us.
There are so many things I could tell you about the history and culture of Puerto Rico that go far beyond the scope of this blog post! But if you want to learn and experience it all for yourself, nothing beats booking a trip to one of the Caribbean’s most celebrated destinations.
From the authentic El Viejo San Juan to the classic Caribbean waters, there’s nothing not to love about this beautiful place I get to call home.
Have you been to Puerto Rico before? If not, have we convinced you to go? Let us know in the comments below!
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