Character and Life Amid Architectural Treasures
El Viejo San Juan, the seven-square-block landmark zone of the island’s capital, is a perfectly preserved microcosm of Spanish colonial architecture and a remarkable walk back through history. In fact, were it not for the chaotic traffic jams that are its liaison with reality, this 475-year-old theater set would look almost too beautiful to be authentic. Its narrow streets are paved with cobbles of ado- quine (a blue stone used as ballast on Spanish galleons) and its 16th-century fortresses, particularly the impregnable six-level El Morro, which rises 150 feet above the sea, still strike one as engineering marvels. This showcase of protected old-world landmarks is also chock-ablock with fashionable bistros, designer shops, art galleries, churches, and colonial town houses with flowering wrought-iron balconies.
The elegant El Convento is the only hotel in the heart of Old San Juan, recently refurbished after serving for more than two centuries as a Carmelite convent and later as a dance hall, a Howard Johnson’s, and even a flophouse. Understandably, it serves as the official government guest house for visiting heads of state. This is where the spirit of Old San Juan lives, and visitors who stay at the self-contained glitzy hotel-villages on the city’s outskirts are missing the point.