It’s hard to believe that San Juan was once a deserted spit of land dominated only by dramatic headlands and strong trade winds, but such was the picture when the Spaniards first arrived with their colonization plans in the early 1500s.
Unable to stave off constant Indian attacks or mosquito-borne malaria in the lower lands, they retreated to the rocky outcrop in 1521 and christened it Puerto Rico (‘Rich Port’). (A Spanish cartographer accidentally transposed San Juan Bautista – what Spaniards called the island – with ‘Puerto Rico’ on some maps a few years later, and the name change stuck permanently.)
The gigantic fortress of El Morro, with its 140ft-high ramparts, quickly rose above the ocean cliffs.
The Catholic Church arrived en masse to build a church, a convent and a cathedral. For the next three centuries, San Juan was the primary military and legislative outpost of the Spanish empire in the Caribbean and Central America. But economically it stagnated, unable to prosper from the smuggling that was pervasive elsewhere on the island.
That all changed after the Spanish-American War of 1898. The US annexed the island as a ‘territory’ and designated San Juan as the primary port. Agricultural goods such as sugar, tobacco and coffee flowed into the city. Jíbaros (country people) flocked to the shipping terminals for work and old villages like Río Piedras were swallowed up.
The unchecked growth surge was a nightmare for city planners, who struggled to provide services, roads and housing. By the 1980s, franchises of US fast-food restaurants were everywhere, but there were few places to get a gourmet meal featuring the island’s comida criolla (traditional Puerto Rican cuisine). Housing developments blighted much of the area.
Unemployment was rampant, and crime was high. Ironically, Old San Juan was considered the epicenter of all that was wrong with the city. Tourists kept to the overdeveloped beaches of Condado, Isla Verde and Miramar.
In 1992, the world marked the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of the Americas. That celebration gave city leaders the impetus needed to focus on the historic restoration of Old San Juan. The energy and finesse that characterized that effort waned slightly as the decade ended. However, the new century has brought several successful urban regeneration projects such as the super-efficient Tren Urbano (metro) that opened in 2005, a space-age convention center situated in the neighborhood of Miramar and a clutch of redeveloped hotels in revitalized Condado.