Old San Juan

By Tom Flynn

Puerto Rico is a small island in the Caribbean Sea that was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. In the early 1500’s, it was settled by Spanish Conquistador Pounce De Leon. Puerto Rico was the gateway to the NewWorld and whoever controlled the island and its deep harbor controlled access to the Americas.

The Spaniards spent nearly 300 years fortifying the area around the port, now called Old San Juan, with giant walls. Atop the walls are lookout towers, huge forts and heavy cannon. Soldiers scanned the horizon 24x7looking for enemy ships. And enemies came! French, Dutch and British all tried to take control numerous times and were turned away by the Spanish forces and their cannons.

Access to the city was gained through five gates in the giant walls. Every night at 6pm the gates were closed. If you were on the wrong side of the gates, you stayed there until morning. Inside the walls was a bustling city. Puerto Rico’s population exploded from a few thousand to nearly a million people by the mid 1800s, and all the needs of a modern society had to be met. Housing, shops, restaurants and markets lined the blue cobblestone streets (the stones were covered with slag from the cannon factories and shone a silvery blue). Churches were erected and it was standard practice for Spanish nobles to arrive in the harbor, walk through the main gate up the hill to the church and thank the Lord for a safe journey.

As the population grew, Puerto Ricans grew weary of Spanish colonial rule. After 400 years, Spain finally lost Puerto Rico during theSpanish-American war when resistance forces teamed up with the Americans. TheAmericans landed unopposed and marched over land with resistance forces to takeOld San Juan from behind. They also had an extremely large navel presence just off the coast, and the Spaniards didn’t want to see the damage the giantAmerican guns could cause. Very few big shells were fired and little damage was done.

Old San Juan is amazing. Most of the city is still surrounded by the original walls; the cobblestone streets still shine blue and are lined with thriving businesses. You can stand outside the main gate on the dock and look up at the walls stretching around the city, 18-feet thick and over forty feet high, and walk as the nobles did to the church; inside you’ll find Pounce De Leon’s tomb. The forts are in place and intact. Now museums, you can stand in the lookout towers and scan the ocean as Spanish soldiers did for hundreds of years. Everyone speaks English and the American dollar is the official currency, but you feel like you’re in Europe.

Stay close to town: The Condado Plaza Hilton

The Condado Plaza Hilton is less than five minutes from OldSan Juan. It offers great ocean view and access to a private beach access. It’s also connected to the bay where you can enjoy water sports such as kayaking and stand up paddle boarding.  This hotel offers the best of all worlds: stunning interiors, great dining, activities and access to all the wonders of Old San Juan.

Worth the drive: El Conquistador

Perched high upon a bluff in Eastern Puerto Rico sits the ElConquistador Resort. On the terrace you can sit back, enjoy a refreshing beverage and view the Virgin Islands scattered throughout the Caribbean.

The El Conquistador property is huge, over 500 acres of bluffs, golf courses, rain forests, playgrounds, pools, even a private island.Once you get there, there is no reason to leave. Twenty-three restaurants and bars serve everything from grab and go cuisine to the world-class steaks atChops Steakhouse. To help navigate the bluffs, a tram system that looks like across between elevators and gondolas angles from top to bottom. The beach, with all its activities, is on the private island; a large ferry loops between the island and the resort every hour.

If you like lying by the pool, you’re in luck. There are seven pools throughout the resort. The Cogui water park is not for wimps. The slides will get your adrenalin running; one has a forty-foot drop! You can experience elevation changes over 200 feet on the Arthur Hills designed championship golf course. After an adventurous day, you can work out the kinks at the Waldorf Astoria Spa.

El Conquistador has it all: views, fun and activities for all ages and excellent luxury accommodations. You can stay in hotel rooms, casitas or three bedroom villas. Puerto Rico is an American territory, so you don’t need a passport, foreign currency or a translator to get around.