Puerto Rico has to be flat-out one of the warmest, friendliest, most interesting destinations I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. I spent two weeks there recently (most of that on Vieques, to be the subject of an upcoming post); but had 3 wonderful days in Old San Juan on the main island of Puerto Rico.
Old San Juan is an incredibly beautiful colonial, blue-cobble-streeted city that’s part of the larger San Juan metro area; it is located on an island, with one side facing the Atlantic Ocean, and the other by San Juan Bay. Because of its location, both in relation to the rest of the island, and where its located in the Caribbean, it has a long history and has been much-coveted by colonial military forces.
Because it’s such an old city (with the oldest buildings constructed in the 1500s), it’s very walkable. In fact, I’d say that having a car here would be way more trouble than it’s worth; you definitely want to walk around, not drive, otherwise you’ll miss all the little nooks and views that make this place special. There’s really SO much to see on every block. Plus parking does not look to be much fun in the narrow streets.
WHERE TO STAY: CASA SOL
The uber-green bed-and-breakfast, Casa Sol, was the perfect place to stay in Old San Juan. Located inside a Spanish Colonial home that’s been fully-restored by renowned Architect Billy Ramirez Castellano (and the lovely family who owns the B&B), it’s highly rated on TripAdvisor and Yelp for good reason.
Casa Sol’s green bona fides include solar panels for both hot water and electricity; local breakfast foods; energy-efficient lights and water-saving faucets; antique or refurbished furniture; and rainwater collection to an on-site cistern (which was the way the house was originally built; the cistern was rehabbed by the new owners and is fully functional again). Casa Sol is Green Key certified, a certified Sustainable Tourism Facility and is a TripAdvisor Platinum Green Leader.
Each of the tall-ceilinged rooms face onto a corridor which connects to the beautiful garden/hangout/breakfast area. It is a lovely oasis that is open to the sky! I enjoyed relaxing here and looking over the map to the city before I headed out for the day.
My breakfasts at Casa Sol were all hearty and delicious—as well as healthy! And they were adjusted to my needs; before I arrived, I let Eddie and Margarita know that I was vegetarian, and they made me perfectly delicious breakfasts to suit. They can accommodate full-vegans, gluten-free, and of course, those who eat meat too.
There’s also an incredibly sweet family dog (look at those eyes!!) who makes the place feel like a real home, as well as a cozy library room and kitchen with filtered water, which I took plenty of advantage of. I was able to avoid buying any bottled water at all due to this trip, saving plastic bottles from the landfill and keeping cash in my wallet!
The original wood in Casa Sol was restored or replaced with wood from a tear-down, so the house maintains quite a lot of original character; the image above is from the two-floor family suite, one of just five rooms in Casa Sol, and the largest.
My room, La Garita, was comfortable and remarkably quiet for a city accommodation, due to the thick walls and high ceilings (you can’t see it in this image below, but the ceiling goes up another 15 feet from what is shown here!).
There is air conditioning in the rooms, but I found I didn’t need it—I turned it off when I arrived and never turned it on again; the house was designed (pre-A/C) with all kinds of smart airflow and those thick walls/high ceilings keep it cool during the daytime, naturally. It’s amazing how smart, location-conscious design can solve so many problems that modern architects just throw wasteful fossil fuels (electricity) at. One of the many advantages of staying in historic homes is that they are usually much more in tune with their environment.
WHERE TO CAFFEINATE: CAFILCULTURA and ST. GERMAIN
There’s quite a bit of good coffee in Old San Juan, but one of my favorite places was Caficultura, which is located on a town square. If you sit outside on the street, you have a lovely view of some of the old fortifcations from the 1500s just up the street. I recommend the cortadito, which is like a mini cortado (pictured above).
I also loved the cappuccino I drank at St. Germain Cafe too; more of a French style coffee, with lots of foam, and I the waitstaff there was so kind and accommodating!
WHAT TO SEE: CASTILLOS DEL MORRO AND CRISTOBAL
The San Juan National Historic Site includes two incredible places to visit: The Castillo San Felipe del Morro and the Castillo San Cristobal. Both castle-forts are connected by a fortification, and walking from one to the other along the wall, which faces the sea, is a maybe-20-minute ramble and is 100% worth doing (even in the rain, as I did!).
I began at Castillo San Cristobal, which is a fascinating journey into history; there was plenty of info to read, so you could situated yourself in these amazing environs, which were built in the 1500s!
There is so much to see, from views from the topmost lookouts, to secret staircases, to hideouts of various sorts and my favorite—a tunnel to the deepest, darkest dungeon that I’ve ever been in.
Imagine being the only one in this dungeon, with just the gate above as the only way out; while I was looking at the drawings of ships (below)—made by an imprisoned captain hundreds of years ago; thunder crashed above.
I looked up in time to see just a tiny bit of lightening through the single narrow window in the cell—then CRASH! the thunder roared again, right above my head, so loud I felt it come up through the earth and up through my feet and then up into my teeth.
But not to worry, the Castillo has stood steady for hundreds of years, and it didn’t shudder or belie any weakness. It was one of the most wonderful and completely creepy things I have ever experienced. If you want to know why I travel, THIS is why!
This view is framed by the walls from a shooting patio; there was room to observe attacking navies, and shoot; but you were otherwise protected.
It was incredibly windy on top of Castillo San Cristobal! It was so fun to look out from the (somewhat) protected lookout and imagine soliders there hundreds of years ago in that same place, gazing across the sea.
After the rain let up, I walked along the ancient wall (which was now weaved through modern habitations—see the juxtaposition of the 1500s lookout parapet at the top right of the image below, and the basketball court.
On my way to Castillo Del Morro, I found a fairy ring of mushrooms, which I always take as a sign of good luck; ancient people believed that these were a sign of fairies—mycologists will tell you that mushroom spores tend to distribute in circular patterns.
It started to rain again on my walk, but I enjoyed it; rain in tropical weather is just like swimming through the air. You can see it really coming down in the image below; this is one of the many lookout spots along the fort wall; this one’s not even in the protected tourist area, but from what I could see, it seems like the local people really love and respect these ancient monuments in their midst; I didn’t notice any destruction or graffiti at all.
Once I reached Del Morro, I hid out and dried out inside for a bit, wandering the big, beautiful rooms where Spanish troops had formerly slept, cooked, eaten, stored munitions and lived their lives waiting to defend Puerto Rico from foreign invaders. They were successful in thwarting several attempted takeovers by the British and French. There were plenty of more-fascinating-than-you’d-expect informational placards; but being in the blank spaces was wonderful in its own way too.
Both circular and triangular staircases connected various levels of the fort; these were for quick access for people only; other ways between levels were connected by long ramps so that cannons could be moved around from one place to another.
It’s hard to capture how huge and strange and mysterious the fortifications at El Morro and San Cristobal were; but I spent several hours in each, living in the past, imagining hundreds of years of history.
After such a wonderful long morning exploring ruins in the rain, I grabbed an empanada, headed back to Casa Sol, and headed right back out (this time with an umbrella—which of course, I used for about 10 minutes, and then the sun came out!). I had heard there were some great ethical boutiques to check out:
WHERE TO SHOP: LUCA, CONCALMA & POETS PASSAGE
Concalma was my first stop, an easy 10-minute walk from Casa Sol; the store stocks housewares, jewelry, accessories, and local designers.
It’s also the flagship store for a line of locally made bags under the Concalma label which are very popular on the island and have garnered a real following internationally as well.
From pouches to purses, fanny packs to totes of various sizes, all in interesting fabrics, these bags are an ideal souvenir; so useful! Concalma even does designer collabs (see some examples of that above).
The top and sleeves of this dress from Agnes Anna at Conclama are made of handwoven, sustainably made pineapple fiber, or pina textile. It’s translucent and tough; I had heard about this fabric but hadn’t seen it IRL until I stopped at Concalma.
Just a few minutes’ walk from Concalma was LUCA, another boutique specializing in local Puerto Rican designers and ethical, slow fashion.
As you can see from the images, LUCA is a beautifully curated space, and while petite, offers a range of wonderful pieces, each hand-chosen and therefore all the more special.
And I don’t have a shot because I was SO distracted by the gorgeous art prints, etc., which I have on my walls at home, but Poet’s Passage is also worth a visit; really beautiful original drawings, paintings, gifts, and jewelry, plus a live-performance space and cafe in the back!
WHERE TO EAT: VERDE MESA
After a long day of exploring, photography and local shopping, I was ravenous. Eddie at Casa Sol had recommended Verde Mesa, so I headed over; everything seemed to be a 10-minute walk away in Old San Juan and this sweet restaurant was no exception. I walked inside to see this delightful scene!
As you can see from the menu at Verde Mesa the night I visited, it’s a vegetarian/pescatarian restaurant. Many of the dishes can be made vegan—just ask! The very friendly waitstaff is happy to make changes and accommodations.
I started with the beet flower dish which was a sweet, fresh beet carved into a flower, and was filled with fresh creme freche. I also tried the egglplant rollettes (another appetizer; I wanted two of them rather than a big meal).
I finished up with the house dessert: the Purple Cloud. It’s a simple combination of fresh cream, fresh berries, and crushed meringues. It’s basically like a deconstructed pavlova and it’s DIVINE.
I highly recommend wandering around Old San Juan at night (it’s a brilliant way to see things you don’t see in the daytime and also a healthy way to digest a large meal!)
All images by Starre Vartan with all rights reserved except for Casa Sol interior shots of La Garita and wood detail; those images courtesy Casa Sol.