Because Puerto Rico was the first freshwater island for 16th-century travelers from Spain, and because it guards the entrance to the Caribbean, its Spanish masters went out of their way to defend it, not only with the huge fortifications at the entrance to the bay, but also with hugely thick walls surrounding the entire city. In fact, from the 1600s until 1897, there was no way in except by sea or by gate.
From the outside, looking up into the city.
Ships arriving from Spain or elsewhere in Spain's colonies entered the bay and anchored outside the walls. Merchandise, passengers, officers and men all entered the city under the watchful eye of the city guards, and through the Puerto de San Juan, the main gate of the city. Other gates in the city wall were for locals. The gate, like the city, was named for St. John the Baptist.
From the gate, looking back toward the end of El Morro, the foritificaation
The road from the gate leads up into the main part of Old San Juan, rising up past the Cathedral and government buildings, including La Fortaleza, then and now the official residence of the governor, and to storehouses and markets. Over time, the city, which is located on an island, filled the area within the walls, and needed room to grow, first onto the rest of the island, and then into adjacent areas.
Portion of the wall, with typical "garitas," or lookout posts
Following a plan drawn up in the 1860s, a southeastern portion of the wall, following the line of Calle Receinte de Sur and Calle Commercio was removed, and the city not only expanded to the east, but developed a modern commercial harbor along the open shore.
In the meantime, life spread outside the walls in other ways. On the north side, just east of El Morro, the community of La Perla developed below the walls. It's kind of an ugly story. La Perla dates to the late 19th century, when slaughterhouses were moved outside the walls, as were cemeteries—and former slaves and homeless non-white servants. The area, home today to less than 1000 people, once had more, and has had a century-long reputation (deserved or not) as a place ridden with crime and drugs and unsafe for outsiders or police. I'm skeptical...based on appearance...but we didn't go.
On the south side of the island, outside-the-wall development took a different form. Along the walls and east of the gate, La Princesa was built in 1837 as a prison, a role it kept until 1976. It's now home to the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, still with few windows indeed. Around the back there are still original cells to visit...if that's your thing.
But the best part, we thought, of San Juan outside the walls is the walk that's been developed along the way from the San Juan Gate to the edge of the modern port. Called Paseo de la Princesa, it offers pleasant walks, wonderful views out into the bay, and more. It's not a long walk; Old San Juan is not a large city, but it makes a good connector between the eastern and western ends.
Still need help identifying this tree and its attachments. Beautiful, but puzzling.
That's artwork, there...not something to keep you from climbing the walls. Honest.
Here the walk passes by La Princesa itself, above left, and the former Carmelite convent, below, sitting next to La Fortaleza
The Raices (Roots) Fountain, commissioned by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. It's by Spanish artist Luis Sanguino, and depicts the diversity of Puerto Rico's heritage of Amerindian, African and European people. Nearby is a humbler statue, honoring all immigrants.
A children's playground and a fountain offer a bit more opportunity for people-watching or staying out of the heat (there's not much difference in San Juan between winter and summer...and it's NOT winter-like!
And then, at the end of the walk, you come to the end of the wall, and the beginning of the modern port. While we were there, there were as many as five huge cruise ships in port, looking like huge buildings lying on their sides. I preferred this kind—at least it looks like a ship!