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San Juan


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Welcome to San Juan

San Juan

The capital city of Puerto Rico, San Juan is one of the busiest ports in the Caribbean and a third of all Puerto Ricans live here. Nearly every visitor to the island arrives at San Juan, many on cruise liners. The port is the largest home-based cruise port in the world, hosting 28 vessels and with more being added to the list each year.

San Juan is divided into three distinct districts: Old San Juan, the historic walled city; the beach and resort area; and the outlying suburbs. Tourists are concerned mainly with Old San Juan, the site of most restaurants, shops, entertainment venues and the beaches. The old city is linked to the new by the largely residential Puerta de Tierra area, and a series of modern highways leading to the Condado beach front, which is reminiscent of Florida's Miami Beach with its high-rise hotels and apartment blocks.

It is not only tourism that keeps the financial mills grinding in San Juan. The city is an important centre for petroleum and sugar refining, brewing and distilling, and the manufacturing of cement, pharmaceuticals, metal products and tobacco products. In the midst of all the hustle and bustle there are numerous attractions in San Juan to amuse, entertain and interest the many tourists, and the city is a perfect base for exploring the rest of what this small Caribbean island has to offer.

Information & Facts


San Juan, like all of Puerto Rico, enjoys warm, sunny days for most of the year. The tropical climate ensures an average temperature of 80°F (26°C) with humidity running continuously at around 80%. The rainy season peaks in August, and rain can be extremely heavy. Between August and November the island is vulnerable to hurricanes.

Getting Around

San Juan's old, cobble-stoned downtown area can be explored on foot (take comfortable walking shoes). To go further afield visitors can flag down one of the plentiful taxis or minibus taxis ( publicos). There is a rather irregular bus service covering metropolitan San Juan. International car rental agencies are well represented, and home country driving licences are valid.

Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico.

The United States Dollar (USD) is the unit of currency, which is divided into 100 cents. It is often referred to as the 'peso' in Puerto Rico. ATMs and bureaux de change are freely available and all major credit cards and travellers cheques are generally accepted. Banking hours are 9am to 3.30pm.


With its concentration of bars, clubs, salsa cafés and casinos, visitors to San Juan will find there is something to suit their partying and entertainment needs on just about any night. As in most Latin cities, the nightlife only really gets going late but when it does there's a good chance you will see in the dawn.

Being a major cruise port, much of the nightlife is suited to tourists looking for a bit of Caribbean flavour and fun. Start off by watching the sunset with a freshly made Mojitoor piña colada(the latter of which was invented at the Hilton Hotel right here in San Juan) at a beach bar in this sultry city before heading out to the Old Town to enjoy a leisurely dinner at one of the many stylish and trendy restaurants. Locals like to look sharp when going out in San Juan so don't be afraid to throw your favourite party outfit on before hitting the town for a night out.

Most of the nightlife is situated in the Old Town, while San Sebastian Street is a major hotspot dotted with pulsating clubs, bars and discos. El Batey's on Calle del Cristo in the Old Town is a favourite for a night of drinking, pool shooting and mingling, while the Lobby Lounge fires up the dancefloor with live bands jamming salsa and meringue beats and even offers dance lessons for visitors keen on shaking their hips.

On Sebastian Street head to Nono's for a bit of people watching on the strip, or El Patio de Sam, a popular hangout for locals and tourists alike, while for some salsa and tropical music, Rumba is place to be. Those who can't wait for the party to get started should stop by the La Rumba Party Cruise, a two-level minicruiser that is more often than not moored to a point near San Juan's cruise pier number 1, a popular hangout for tourists and cruise passengers looking for a steamy night out.


Shopping in San Juan is an exotic and often cost-effective venture, with the streets of Old Town (especially Calle San Francisco and Calle del Cristo) being the most popular destinations. Most stores can be reached via the Old Town Trolley and are generally open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 6pm, while some in Old San Juan are also open on Sundays. Malls in San Juan are open Monday to Saturday from 9am to 9pm, and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Only U.S. citizens don't pay duty (5.5%) on goods purchased in Puerto Rico.

The best shopping mall is Plaza Las Américas, in Hato Rey, which boasts over 200 upmarket shops. Local handicrafts include needlework, ceramics, hammocks and papier-mâché arts, while paintings and sculptures also make good souvenirs; wooden carvings of santos(saints) are also popular. These goods are available from Galería Botello, Olé or Puerto Rican Arts and Crafts. Sought-after antique lace products, such as mundillos(tatted fabrics) and torchon(beggar's lace), as well as entradosand puntilla(lace bands), can be found at Linen House.

One of the best coffees in the world, Puerto Rico's Alto Grande is available from speciality stores such as Spicy Caribbee. An ancient building in Old Town serves as both a laundromat and art gallery, with paintings, etchings and photographs displayed (and for sale) above the coin-operated laundry machines. Art exhibitions are also hosted here. C aretas(papier-mâché masks) worn at local carnivals make a great souvenir for those with a morbid fascination, and can be purchased from La Calle.


San Juan is the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean and a major tourist hub and destination for North American travellers. It is a city with much to offer its visitors: the beauty and history of the old town, artistic treasures of the Museo de Arte, and sun-soaked beaches only minutes from the city centre.

The best way to see the sights and experience the city's attractions is to take a walking tour; either self-directed with a guide book, or led by a professional guide. The city is compact and flat, and so is ideal to explore on foot. One of the chief tourist attractions in San Juan will be below your shoes: the 500 year-old flagstones, first laid under the direction of Christopher Columbus. Take regular rests at the charming piazzas as you explore the old town - it can get busy and crowded as the day wears on.

High tourist season is from December to April, while June to November is far quieter (although the island can experience hurricanes during this period).

Local time is GMT -4.

America's ears and eyes are focused on the stars from the island of Puerto Rico. In the northwest mountains of the island, about 90 minutes drive west of San Juan, among the Karst Country hills, is one of the most important astronomical research facilities on earth, the Arecibo Ionospheric Observatory. Its massive dish is larger in area than a dozen football fields and is sited in a sinkhole, aimed at the heavens and tuned to detect the slightest sounds emitted from the farthest stars. This is the home base for NASA's 'SETI' (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) project, and as such holds great fascination for visitors. A Visitors Centre is equipped with interactive exhibits to demonstrate how the huge structure works. Visitors can hike to the viewing platform to view the vast tiled dish.

Children will feel like they are in an Indiana Jones movie when they visit the magnificent Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy(Camuy River Cave Park), a large network of natural limestone caves and waterways which can be explored by trolley. The caverns and underground tunnels were created over a million years ago by the tropical Río Camuy(Camuy River), which is the third longest underground river in the world and is home to a unique species of fish that is totally blind. Only three crater-like sink holes and two caves are open to the public, which are reached by a guided trolley that descends into a sinkhole lined with dense tropical vegetation. Kids will love the spacious grounds of the park, which include a cafeteria, picnic area, gift shop, walking trails, exhibition hall, and theatre. One of the country's most talked-about tourist attractions, the Camuy River Cave Park is an excellent addition to any Puerto Rico holiday itinerary.

Undoubtedly one of the top tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, a trip to the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre is a must for travellers to San Juan. Following their exile from Cuba in the 1950s, the Bacardi family moved to Puerto Rico and set up a small rum distillery on the outskirts of San Juan. Today, that small distillery has grown into the largest in the world - producing a jaw-dropping 100,000 gallons of rum per day, and 21 million cases per year. Tours of the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre last about an hour, as visitors are shown around a variety of exhibits (including vintage rum stills) and informed about the history of Bacardi rum (including a short movie). The tour culminates in a visit to an on-site, classically-styled bar, where a bartender will show you the 'proper' methods of preparing Cuba libres and mojitos. The best part? All visitors receive two complimentary drink tickets, which they can cash in on ice-cold Bacardi-based drinks. There is also a gift shop located on the premises, a perfect place to pick up some rum or Bacardi apparel for friends back home.

The 18th-century mansion known as Casa del Libro houses a vast collection of rare sketches, illustrations, ancient manuscripts and books, some dating from before the 16th century. The museum's most prized possessions are two royal mandates signed by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain in 1493 regarding the provisioning of Christopher Columbus's fleet for his second voyage to the New World. This was the voyage during which Puerto Rico was discovered.

The mighty six-level fortress of San Felipe del Morro, built in 1540, towers 140 feet (43m) above the sea on San Juan Bay, its 18-foot thick (5m) walls having proved a worthy defence against invasion. The largest fortification in the Caribbean, it is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, lookouts and ramps, offering spectacular views from atop its ramparts. Also in Norzagaray Street, Old San Juan, is El Morro's partner in defending the city, Castillo San Cristobal, built in the 17th century to a confusing and intricate modular design.

Isla Verde ('Green Island') is San Juan's hippest area, and home to many of its best beach resorts and upmarket hotels. The area's name is inspired by the colour of the water in its bay: a rich, green-turquoise shade that will prove irresistible to swimmers and divers. While the beautiful crescent-shaped beach - with its soft sand and tall palm trees - is a tourist attraction in its own right, most visitors to Puerto Rico will seek out Isla Verde for its excellent beach resorts, plush hotels, international dining options, world-class spa treatment facilities and vibrant nightlife. Isla Verde is home to two of the island's best casino hotels and a wide range of raucous night clubs and bars, where live local music is often staged. A natural base for well-heeled travellers to San Juan, Isla Verde makes for a luxurious home away from home during your holiday in Puerto Rico. A fantastic winter sun vacation destination, Isla Verde sees most of its tourist activity between December and January, when days are warm and sunny and there is no threat of hurricanes or storms.

The family of Puerto Rico's first governor, Ponce de Leon, built the historic homestead of Casa Blanca in 1523 and then went on to inhabit it for 250 years. It was subsequently taken over by the Spanish and then the United States military. Today, the mansion house contains two museums. A small section is dedicated to artefacts associated with the Taino Indians, while the rest of the house depicts the life of those who lived there through the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

The Fortaleza was built in 1540 as a fortress to guard the entrance to the San Juan harbour, but later became the official Governor's residence. During succeeding centuries the original structure has been remodelled and expanded, with a neoclassical façade being added in 1846 to leave the building with its palatial aspect. The current governor of Puerto Rico is in residence - the 170th Governor to live in the Fortaleza.

Named in honour of Puerto Rican statesman Luis Muñoz Rivera, and featuring plenty of wide open space, picnic areas, walkways and even a small children's playground, the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park is the perfect place to take the kids for a day of fun in the sun, especially those who have been cooped up on board a cruise ship. Pack a picnic or simply enjoy the fresh air and scenery along the tree-lined paths, decorated artistically with mosaics.

Puerto Rico's showcase art gallery opened just a few years ago at a cost of millions of dollars. The gallery is housed in a former city hospital in Santurce and offers a permanent and visiting exhibition. The aim is to highlight the island's heritage through the work of local artists, such as Francisco Oller, who studied in France with Cézanne, and Jose Campeche, a late-18th century Classical painter. The museum has been described as a 'living textbook of Puerto Rico', providing on overview of centuries of the island's history through the medium of art.

San Juan's Museo del Nino (Children's Museum) is housed in a gorgeous 300-year-old building directly across from the city's cathedral. Started at the turn of the 21st century by a group of sociologists and student volunteers, the Children's Museum provides a hands-on learning environment for kids that features a lot of interaction, if not a great amount of high-tech gadgetry and visual stimulation. The exhibitions at San Juan's Children's Museum are educative rather than all-out fun, teaching young ones about the benefits of brushing their teeth, recycling, and caring properly for their pets. In fact, the great attraction of the museum is not its range of exhibition material, but the energy and dedication of those who work there. The museum's staff - largely comprised of student volunteers - will usually play with visiting children either one-on-one or in small groups, providing a much-needed way to burn off some pent-up energy.

This area, encompassing about seven blocks, dates back about 500 years to the Spanish occupation when it served as a military stronghold that even withstood Sir Francis Drake's armies. The original cobbles on the streets are blue-tinged, and were originally used as ballast on Spanish ships. The ancient stones set off the more than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings that fill Old San Juan and draw thousands of tourists to walk the narrow, steep streets every day. The old town is enclosed in amazingly thick, high walls and features numerous attractive plazas bearing sculptures and memorials.

San Juan's Cathedral was originally built in 1521 by Puerto Rico's first Spanish bishop as a thatched wooden church, but was destroyed in a hurricane in 1526. The current medieval structure, built from stone brought in from inland quarries by horses, dates from 1540, although extensive renovations and reconstructions were carried out in 1917. The cathedral features Doric columns and elliptical vaults, and contains the marble tomb of the island's first governor.

The University of Puerto Rico campus in the Rio Piedras offers several attractions for visitors and non-students. The Museum of History, Anthropology and Art contains archaeological and historical exhibits and holds monthly art exhibitions, and the Art Museum Dr. Pío López Martínez de Cayey has a large collection of Puerto Rican silkscreen posters. The Botanical Gardens in the grounds of the University are a living laboratory, displaying the native flora of Puerto Rico, and containing more than 200 species of tropical and sub-tropical plants as well many sculptures from artists such as Leopoldo Maler, Carlos Guzman and Rolando López Dirube.

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