A Weekend in Old San Juan

    Puerto Rico stole my heart. However briefly, Jae and I were transported to a different world, and every minute that we spent there reminded us of it.

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Espresso with a kick at Caficultura, a small street-side coffeeshop on the corner of Calle San Francisco and Calle O’Donnell.

    Old San Juan was a pleasant assault on the senses — the crisp, rapid Spanish erupting from its jovial people, the strong aroma of coffee and mallorcas wafting from open-air cafes on street corners, and the humid air barely urged to motion by the warm breezes that snake through the close-set colonial buildings.

    The city’s architecture is, I exaggerate not, a feat of historic preservation. Calle de la Fortaleza literally took my breath away, and for a few seconds I forgot we were supposed to be looking for our hotel. The streets are cobblestone, and in some areas, so polished by foot traffic that the blue stone shines strangely metallic.

Calle de la Fortaleza.

Calle de la Fortaleza.

    Along major streets, buildings up to seven stories loom close on each side; I felt almost claustrophobic as Jae and I walked between two colorful walls extending to the horizon, one building’s facade distinguishable from the next only by the alternating pastels and the subtler variations in design.

    Churches, museums and the graceful remains of castles long-dead lay casually throughout the city.

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Quaint terraces.

    Quaint terraces — sometimes of wrought iron, sometimes of wood — overhang the already narrow streets, often dripping green aerial plants. I loved peeking out of our fourth-floor hotel window and seeing a baby playing on the porch straight across the street, so close I could reach out and give him back his toy. I loved looking at the patterned floors of the terraces and getting glimpses of home life through the louvres of doors and windows.

    Anthropologist Ricardo Alegria opposed the destruction of historic structures, urging politicians to make sure that any new construction within the old city uses Spanish colonial motifs. The city retains its old-world charm that now acts as a magnet for tourists.

El Morro at sunset.

El Morro at sunset.

     El Castillo San Felipe del Morro was a sight to behold, perched on a low hill jutting out onto the ocean. Its walls are thick and ancient, worn by the centuries but still watchful and defiant. The interior is a maze of rooms, tunnels and levels on a massive scale. During the day, it’s a warm ochre between the sky and rolling green grounds; at sunset, it’s a dark silhouette against a golden sky.

   

Kite-flying at El Morro.

Kite-flying at El Morro.

The forbidding fortress is now somewhat softened by families picnicking or flying kites on the surrounding field. Jae and I spent some hours there launching our own kites into the air, eating helado, or just watching humanity happen all around us. At El Morro, every day was Sunday.

    On the actual Sunday, Jae braved the busy Puerto Rican thoroughfares (they drive on the right!) to drive to El Yunque, the famed bosque nacional one hour out of the metro, to get his nature immersion. We drove through the dense tropical rainforest all the way to the top of the mountain to take in the trails, the waterfalls, and the panoramic views. Jae was ecstatic; apparently old buildings only worked on me. He said we were going back just for El Yunque.

    If you managed to get this far, thank you for reading through. I hope that the photographs somewhat share what Jae and I have experienced on this anniversary trip, this wonderful place and its gracious, big-hearted people. There are truly beautiful places in the world, and after my homes — the Philippines and the Virgin Islands — Puerto Rico ranks high on this girl’s list.

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