Just when you think you have seen it all, new secrets emerge proving you can always learn something new – even in a familiar port of call. Here are three of my favorite off-the-beaten-path surprises in Old San Juan and how to find them.
The Catacombs of San Juan
Starting at the Plaza Colon, with the namesake statue of Christopher Columbus in the center and the imposing fortress of San Cristobal looming over it, take Calle San Francisco until you arrive at an open plaza on your right. This plaza is in front of the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi, built in 1756 and where Franciscan monks wearing brown frocks tied with rope belts still walk the grounds and greet visitors. Down the short staircase directly in front of the main door, you will discover the catacombs of San Juan where departed Franciscan monks rest.
The Old Kitchen
Enter the main door of the blue university building on Calle Cristo and take the stairs to the second floor. The first thing you’ll notice against the wall to your right is a replica of the legendary Chest of Three Keys that once held the riches of the city. It could only be opened with three different keys simultaneously, each in the possession of a different person. Continue across the breezy atrium and up a short set of tiled stairs and through the doors at the left to find yourself inside a 17th-century kitchen, transporting you to a different era. You’ll see an old wood-burning stove and the wall behind the chimney vent displays a delightful mosaic of hand-painted tiles depicting fish, game, fruit, pies, cooking utensils and other culinary morsels of the era.
The Old Prison Cells
Paseo de la Princesa is San Juan’s own Prado, affording a stroll along a shaded boulevard with bustling local life and beautiful views. The charming Paseo leads from the port area to the Fountain of the Races and then continues along the boardwalk, with the Caribbean Sea on one side and the old city wall on the other. Along the way to the Fountain of the Races, which showcases the robust mix of races that comprise the population of Puerto Rico, stop at the gray tourist board building (Compañía de Turismo de Puerto Rico) and enter the door, continuing through to the door directly opposite the one you entered. A few steps to your right, you’ll find several ominous looking prison cells from the Spanish colonial era – this building was actually the San Juan jail during the 19th century! The combination of high wood-beamed and iron-rung ceilings, thick walls and iron gratings over windows several feet higher than a man could reach assured that no one could have escaped from these old prison cells.
Next time you visit San Juan, seek out these off-the-beaten-path gems and keep an eye out for even more wonderful surprises along the way!
About Sandy Cares
Guest lecturer Sandy Cares has been sharing her entertaining lectures aboard Oceania Cruises since January 2014. Drawing from stories by local authors as she weaves in anecdotes from travel and life, Sandy combines meticulous research with effervescent enthusiasm and humor for a fresh and fun look at destinations throughout the Caribbean and Central America.