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Travel Bytes

(Travel Bytes are local area descriptions provided by people who live in the area or have travelled through it. These comments are provided as is so please excuse the odd spelling or gramatical error.

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Puerto Ricos capital city (pop. 1 000 000) the Caribbeans commercial hub is an intriguing mixture of old and new. Start your tour in charming Old San Juan which is perched atop a hill on a small peninsula facing the Atlantic Ocean. (Parking is limited so its best to tour the area on foot.) This walled cityseven-square blocks of which are now a designated historic landmarkwas founded in 1510. Today it is a showcase for four centuries of architectural treasures and the heart of the islands unique cultural identity. Great efforts have gone into preserving this part of the city including millions of dollars that were spent prior to 1993 when the 500th anniversary of Columbus voyage was celebrated.

Take time to stroll along the narrow cobblestone streets and investigate the pastel-colored buildings restaurants boutiques museums mansions and nightclubs. The Paseo de la Princesa a newly revamped promenade that follows the waterfront and the Paseo de la Muralla which winds along the city walls are particularly romantic. These two beautiful walks are even illuminated at night. (While that would be the best time for a relaxing stroll after the days heat subsides it is also the most dangerous time because of street crime.)

Save some energy and time for the three trademark forts that have resisted attacks by foreign invaders as well as city developers: El Morro the largest which commands San Juan Bay with six levels of gun emplacements and walls that tower 140 ft/43 m above the Atlantic; San Cristobal which dates from the 18th century and has an intricate network of tunnels used for transportation and to ambush enemies; and San Jeronimo which is east of Old San Juan and has an interesting military museum.

Another must-see is La Fortaleza which was built in 1540 and is the oldest governors mansion still in use in the Americas. You can also visit two places associated with Ponce de Leon: the San Juan Cathedral (where the explorer is entombed) and Casa Blancahis family home a gift from King Charles I. The house is arranged to show how Spanish aristocrats lived in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Along Calle del Cristo one of San Juans most interesting streets visit the Parque de las Palomas where thousands of pigeons have made their home alongside the city walls and the small Capilla del Cristo (Christ Chapel). Other sights include the Pablo Casals Museum (a collection of music and photographs of the famous cellist-conductor); Casa de los Contrafuertes (oldest house in San Juan) and the Dominican Convent (a white domed structure dominating the Plaza San Jose). The multilevel Quincentennial Plaza is a park and cultural complex that overlooks the ocean and celebrates Puerto Ricos rich history.

Nearby the Ballaja barracks once home to the citys Spanish troops now serve as the Museo de las Americas (exhibits include a permanent collection of Latin American folk art and changing exhibits highlighting artists from Latin America and the Caribbean). The citys harbor which is the premier cruise port and container-ship terminal in the Caribbean has been extensively renovated and a new hotel and shopping gallery now face the ships berths. Many of the down-at-the-heel buildings nearby have had or are undergoing facelifts.

While sightseeing in Old San Juan requires a lot of walking several plazas invite rest stops. Allow a full day for the old city and prepare yourself for heavy traffic and crowded sidewalks which get worse as the day goes on.

In the San Juan suburb of Catano visit the Bacardi rum factory the Museum of Anthropology (worth an hour or so) and the botanical gardens (also worth an hourtheyre located at the Rio Piedras Agricultural Experiment Station). New San Juan is spread out and youll want to hire taxis or use a rental car to get from place to place. (If youre feeling energetic the walk between Old San Juan and the beach resort area Condado is not out of the question but most tourists will find that theres really little of interest between the areas.) For an interesting view of the city and the harbor there are also bay cruises that last an hour and a half. There are also hosted half- and full-day tours of outlying areas that leave from San Juan

When you are tired of sightseeing head for the beach. There are beaches right in San Juan but the best are east of the city at Condado and Isla Verde. Condados beachfront is a wall of hotels restaurants and boutiques which can make beach access difficult for nonguests. (Dont be intimidatedall beaches in Puerto Rico are public. You may have to pay to use the facilities however.) Isla Verde is lined with big chalk-white blocks of condos and luxury hotels. Though crowded on weekends its still one of the most beautiful beaches on the island.

San Juans pace never flags; if anything it picks up after dark. Most casinos in the larger hotels stay open until the wee hours (among them the hopping Marriotts San Juan Resort Caribe Hilton Condado Plaza Ritz-Carlton Wyndham El San Juan and San Juan Grand). Keep in mind that liquor is not served in the gambling areas and jackets are required for men in some of the casinos. Many of San Juans best clubs and discos are also in the large hotels including the Babylon nightclub in the San Juan Grand and the dance floors at the Condado Plaza and Marriott. The Caribe Hiltons orchestra is a local landmark and keeps the dance floor full. After hours in Old San Juan El Convento Hotel offers smooth jazz and piano music.

Throughout the year San Juan celebrates its rich heritage with festivals and music events. LeLoLai is a folklore show put on Tuesday nights at the Convention Center in the Condado. There is also the annual Casals Festival (classical music with world-renowned artistsJune) and the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazzfest (jazz with a Latin flairJune). Other festivals are San Juan Bautista Day (all-night celebration for the patron saint St. John the BaptistJune) International Light Tackle Tournament (premier game-fishing tournamentSeptember) Inter-American Festival of the Arts (classical popular and folk musicSeptember-October) Bomba y Plena Festival (celebration of the Afro-Caribbean heritageNovember) Bacardi Arts Festival (largest artisans fair on the islandDecember).

Note: Remember that some areas of San Juan have high rates of crime so make inquiries about a neighborhoods safety before exploring.Also if you are to stay in San Juan you can go to the Dorado Hyatt which is a lovely hotel or Cerromar Beach Hotel nearby.Always lock your car and keep valuables out of sight.

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