After 500 years, this Stunning Caribbean City has Stories to Share
On his second voyage to the New World in 1493, Christopher Columbus “discovered” a large island that he named San Juan after St. John the Baptist. Sailing into the large natural harbor, he named it Puerto Rico (rich port). Spanish settlers later switched names of the island and the port, although one legend holds that an excess of rum caused Columbus’s cartographers to make the clerical juggle.
San Juan is an embarkation and/or disembarkation port for Crystal Serenity’s brand new Simply the Best fall 2020 Caribbean itineraries; a midway anchor between back-to-back voyages. These newly added itineraries offer travelers the ability to combine seven-night sailings without repeating ports.
Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, and steeped in Spanish tradition. Old San Juan, an easy stroll from the pier, has 16th-century restored buildings, 200-year-old balconied houses overlooking cobblestone streets, museums, art galleries, cafés, shops, plazas and traffic, all within a small seven-block-square neighborhood.
At less than one square mile, Old San Juan is easy to explore on your own if you so choose. To the right of the pier and up the hill along Calle O’Donnel are Plaza de Colón (monument to Columbus) and El Fuerte de San Cristobal, the 18th-century fortress. The original main square is Plaza de Armas at Calle Cruz. North of the square is the impressive Casa Alcaldía, patterned after Madrid’s city hall, with arcades, towers, balconies, and a beautiful inner courtyard. Just two blocks north are Plaza San José, San José Church, and the Pablo Cassals Museum, all worth a visit.
Up Calle Norzagaray, past San Juan Cemetery and the 20-feet-thick old City Walls built in 1630, lies El Castillo del Morro, the city’s oldest fortress, built from 1539 to 1787 (!); rising 140 feet above sea level, it commands the best views of the historical city and surroundings. San Juan Cathedral is along Calle del Cristo. This beautiful Catholic shrine dates back to 1520 and houses the remains of Ponce de León.
Having just crammed 500 years of history in a few hours and a square mile, you may want to try a local lunch or mojito, and perhaps you have some time left for some of San Juan’s signature charms. Shop for santos, hand-carved wooden religious figures, carnival masks, ceramics, lace and other needlework (mundillo), hammocks, hand-rolled cigars, traditional men’s shirts (guayaberas), paintings, prints and sculptures by Puerto Rican artists, and of course, Puerto Rican rum. Old San Juan is filled with shops, especially along Cristo, Fortaleza and San Francisco streets.
Beach lovers will also feel at home here. The government operates over a dozen good public beaches nearby (balnearios), each with lockers, showers and picnic tables; among the best are Dorado Beach, Cerromar Beach and Palmas del Mar. Snorkeling, scuba-diving and deep-sea fishing are available almost anywhere on the 3,500-square-mile island.
Crystal’s Simply the Best Caribbean itineraries allow you to and save on the acclaimed all-inclusive Crystal Experience for newly announced Crystal Serenity sailings this October and November. Crystal Cruises itineraries in 2020, 2021 and 2022 showcase the varied wonders of San Juan and surrounding Caribbean locales, from lush rainforests to rich Spanish heritage and all the distinct character in between.