Self Guided Walking Tour of Old San Juan – Part 2
Part 1 of our Old San Juan Self Guided Walking Tour series started at the Visitor’s Center and ended just as we approached El Morro Fort. This article will pick up where the prior one left off.
You can’t help but see the massive Castillo de San Felipe del Morro (“El Morro”) across a large field. This field is always windy, so everyone flies kites here – especially on weekends! Off to the right is the San Juan Cemetery – an interesting (though morbid) side trip. When you are ready – make your way across the field until you get to the entrance to the fort.
El Morro is a huge, six-level fortress built to protect the city from sea invaders. The Fort itself was originally “completed” in 1589, but the massive walls were added in the mid 1700′s . The fort is a National Historic Site administered by the US National Park Service. They offer a short introduction and tour in either Spanish (on the 1/2 hr mark) or English (on the hour) every hour throughout the day. Alternately, you can do a self-guided tour with the map you get upon admission. There is also an explanatory video shown continuously throughout the day, in both English (on the hour and half hour) and Spanish (on the 15 and 45 min mark).
El Morro has all sorts of neat areas to explore: the barracks, kitchen, latrine, chapel, storage, etc., all connected with ramps and stairways. And the views are great – just seeing a massive cruise ship, dwarfed by this large fort is amazing! There is a small military museum, and gift ship on the premises. The fort is open to the public daily (except Christmas, New Years, and Thanksgiving) from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm.There is a $3 admission fee (or get the combined $5 admission to both El Morro and San Cristobal forts) for people 16 years old and up. Phone 787-729-6777 for more info.
After you have completed your tour of the fort, cross the long yard and continue straight into the Plaza de Ballaja. In this building (an old barracks) you will find many wonderful museums – Museo de las Americas – which contains 3 permanent exhibits including folk arts, Indigenous Indian museum and a study of African influence. There are also some rotating temporary exhibits. There is a small fee for some exhibits. Open Tuesday through Saturday 9am-12n, 1pm-4pm, and Sunday from 10:00am to 4:00pm. Phone 787-724-5052 for more info.
When you exit, cross the Plaza de Beneficial (view the sculptures) and Casa Blanca will be on your right, at the end of San Sebastain Street. Casa Blanca was built in 1521 as a “strong-house” for Ponce de Leon, but he died before it was completed. Today it is a a National Historic Monument, and a “museum” of period furnishings. The house is only open Wednesday through Sundayy from 8:30am to 4:00pm (closed 12-1 for lunch). However, the gardens are free to walk around in during the day( 8:30am -4:30pm. They are a lush area, full of plants and water features. It is a nice tropical, cool retreat from the city. Admission to the Casa Blanca museum with guided tour is free. Phone 787-725-1454 for more info.
When you leave Casa Blanca, go down San Sebastian street a little bit, then turn right and go down the steps to Calle Sol. Turn right onto Calle Sol. This street has beautifully painted houses. At the end of Calle Sol, turn to the left and you will see La Rogativa plaza. This statue commemorates the night a march through town by the Bishop and townswomen scared off British invaders. There is a small window across the street from the statue that says Limbers. Stop and get one. For $0.75, you will get a sweet fruit flavored ice. Very refreshing on a hot day. Then continue up Las Monjas street to Cristo Street.
Once on Cristo Street, turn right. You’re now in the shopping district! Stop in any and all of the stores and galleries! Here you’ll find everything from brand name outlet stores, to quality jewelry, to handmade items and souvenirs.
When you get to Fortaleza Street, turn right. At the end of the street, you’ll see a pretty blue building – La Fortaleza – which was built in the early 1500′s as the first fort to protect the city from sea invaders. It was soon realized it was inadequate to guard the entrance to the harbor. So, in 1846, the building was remodeled from a fort to the mansion you see today. Now it is the official Governor’s Residence, and a World Heritage Site. There are “garden” tours available ($3 donation requested) throughout the day, either in English or Spanish. Open Monday through Friday from 9:00 until 3:30 pm. You need to make reservations -either call or stop in at the yellow building on the left side of the street a few doors up from the Fortaleza. Proper attire (long shorts are allowed, but no sleeveless shirts, etc- think casual vacation clothing, just not too sexy!). Phone 787-721-7000 for more info and reservations.
Return to Cristo Street, turn right, and go to the end of the street. This beautiful old chapel is Capilla del Cristo (Cristo Chapel). It was built in 1753. There are different versions of the story of why it was built – either by a thankful father whose his son lived after his son and his horse fell over the wall, or by a sad father whose son died after falling over the wall on his horse. Either way, the alter is made from thousands of the silver "promesas" that are given as offerings for a wanted miracle. The Chapel is taken care of by volunteers, which open it occasionally every week. If you are lucky enough to be there when it is open, take a close look at the alter.
If you turn to your right , you’ll find Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park). Here you will be able to feed hundreds of pigeons that live in this park home. The views are great from this area on top of the city wall.
If you turn to your left at the chapel, you can wander back down to La Casita plaza, and perhaps pick up another complementary rum drink at the Visitor’s Center and Don Q. That’s where Part 3 of this self guided walking tour will resume.
Plan at least one full day to wander the streets of Old San Juan.