Situated on the tip of the island and jutting out towards the Atlantic, Viejo San Juan is called "La Ciudad Amurallada", the walled city. Two forts that were built by the Spaniards to protect their conquered territory surround the old city, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal.
Strolling down the streets of Old San Juan, I notice the Spanish influence in the architecture. Over 400 buildings in the old area have been carefully preserved and date back to the 1500s. Narrow, cobblestone streets, and Colonial-style tropically colored red, pink, green, and blue buildings with quaint balconies and gardens give me the feeling that I am still in Europe. The tall, 500-year-old city walls tower in the background.
Puerto Rico was founded by Spain in 1508 and first settled by explorer Juan Ponce de León in his quest to find the fountain of youth. A large avenue right near to where I am staying is named after him in his memorial. As the island was quickly settled only 15 years after Christopher Columbus first claimed it for Spain on his second journey to the New World in 1493, it served as a base for the Spanish conquistadors during their colonization of the Americas. It has since served as one of the most important ports in the New World. Puerto Rico was a Spanish colony for over 400 years, fighting off the French, Dutch, and British in numerous wars to preserve it. Throughout this time, the slave trade brought thousands of Africans to the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory at the end of the Spanish-American war under the terms of the Treaty of Paris in 1898. Puerto Ricans are now American citizens and are under the laws of the federal government, but from what I can tell the political status of the country is much debated among Puerto Ricans. Many want an independent Puerto Rican country.
The culture here is a melting pot, infused with African, Spanish, Latino, and Taino (Native American) characteristics. Before coming here, I stereotypically assumed that Puerto Rican culture would be very similar to that of Mexico, but I could not have been more mistaken. Catholicism and architectural styles were absorbed from Spain, but art, cuisine, and music are a mixture of all the peoples who have lived here in the past 500 years. Even the Spanish language has a Caribbean twist to it.
Every day I stroll the streets of Old San Juan and am taken aback by the history in front of my eyes. While it's a great tourist and cruise destination, the old city is still functioning and thousands of Puerto Ricans live and work there, making me feel immersed and welcomed in the culture. Locals greet me with "buen dia", "good day", in their Puerto Rican Spanish. With no passport required for U.S. citizens, San Juan an accessible gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America. Come join me!