San Juan – Puerto Rico’s Capital City
San Juan is many things. It is Puerto Rico’s largest city and the capital of the territory. It is also the commercial hub of the island. Two million people call the city home. The city has several main industries including sugar refining, clothing manufacture, cement, metal goods and brewing. Exports to the United States include sugar cane, fruit, coffee and tobacco. The city is also the island’s financial capital with many offices and distribution centers of US banks and corporations located there.
Founded in 1521 by Juan Ponce de Leon, San Juan is the oldest city in US jurisdiction. Puerto Rico was originally discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 on his second voyage. He named the island “San Juan Bautista” or “St. John the Baptist”. In 1508, the Spanish government named Juan Ponce de Leon as the island’s governor. He established a settlement in Caparra, today known as Pueblo Viejo. The settlement took advantage of the natural harbor near modern day San Juan and developed the area into a military outpost. The settlement was moved about a year later to the area that is currently known as Old San Juan. Settlers named the new area Puerto Rico or ‘rich port’. During the 1520s, settlers changed the name of the town to San Juan and the island itself became known as Puerto Rico.
As a walled city, San Juan is the second oldest city in the Americas that was founded by Europeans. Santo Domingo is the oldest having been founded in 1498. The city is divided into three districts including Old San Juan, the beach and resort areas and the surrounding communities. Several of the surrounding communities such as Rio Piedras, Hato Rey, Puerta de Tierra and Santurce also have long histories but as San Juan has grown, they have become part of the city. For instance, Rio Piedras was founded in 1714 but officially become part of San Juan in 1951.
As the Spanish continued to explore the New World during the 16th century, San Juan became a major point of departure. The city, its inhabitants and its valuable port were protected with major fortifications. In 1595, these fortifications drove away Sir Francis Drake, the English explorer. Anchor
This is a 465-year-old neighborhood originally conceived as a military stronghold. Its 7-square-block area has evolved into a charming residential and commercial district. The streets here are paved with cobbles of adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag; they were brought over a ballast on Spanish ships and time and moisture have lent them their characteristic color. The city includes more than 400 carefully restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings. The Old San Juan attracts many tourists, who also enjoy the gambling casinos, fine beaches, and tropical climate. More tourists visit San Juan each year than any other spot in the Caribbean. A leisurely foot tour is advisable for those who really want to experience this bit of the Old World, especially given the narrow, steep streets and frequently heavy traffic. To really do justice to these wonderful old sites, you’ll need two mornings or a full day.
Old San Juan provides a free trolley service to get you around the city. The trolley runs every day Monday through Friday from 7am until 6 pm, and Saturday and Sunday from 9am until 7pm every 15 minutes. Most of the trolleys are accessible for wheelchairs and mobility devices and identified with the blue International Symbol of Accessibility.
The Many Plazas of San Juan
The Plaza de San Jose in Old San Juan is a favorite gathering spot for locals. A bronze statue of Ponce de Leon keeps watch over the square. Interestingly enough, the statue was created from British cannons that were captured in 1797 following an attack by Sir Ralph Abercromby.
In 1992, Puerto Rico celebrated the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World by opening the Plaza del Quinto Centario (Quincentennial Square). The plaza features a 40-foot-high sculpture by artist Jaime Suarez. The sculpture, which is composed of black granite and ceramics, symbolizes the elements of roots in American history.
Old San Juan’s main square is the Plaza de Armas. Statues symbolizing the four seasons are the square’s focal point. Visitors can learn more about Columbus from the statue of him in the Plaza de Colon. As bronze tablet there records the important milestones of his journeys.
One cannot visit San Juan without visiting the fort known as El Morro. Named in honor of King Phillip II, San Felipe del Morro is a fortress built during the 16th century. Construction of the six story citadel began in 1540 under the rule of King Charles V. The entire complex was completed in 1589. Though attacked many times, it only fell once during an attack by the forces led by the Earl of Cumberland in 1598. As the largest fort in the Caribbean, it was designated a National Historic Site in 1949. From this fort, visitors are rewarded with breath taking views of San Juan Bay.