Explore the Riches of San Juan, Puerto Rico
I’m standing in the sentry box at one of San Juan’s centuries-old forts, enjoying sweeping views of a rose-tinged sunset casting its hues over the rocky bluffs of the city’s historic old town. With the swells rising and crashing along the shore, I can imagine the island as one massive Spanish Galleon plying the waters of the Caribbean, San Juan the wheelhouse, and me in the crow’s nest scanning for pirates and privateers.
Of course, these days it’s mostly private yachts and cruise ships pulling into the popular destination, one that as a U.S. territory doesn’t require passports. But surrounded by so much antiquity, while standing on the well-worn stones where that first soldier watched for enemy ships, it’s easy to travel back through 500 years of history in one of the New World’s first settlements.
The seaside Castillo San Cristóbal, part of the U.S. National Park Service, is just one of the many historic wonders found in Puerto Rico’s largest city. Though the relatively new fort (completed in 1783) is also ideal for especially large and private events (it’s a fort!) under its porticoes and over its wide parade grounds. Just outside the gates, it’s an easy stroll through the cobble-stone streets of Old San Juan, the original settlement and a bastion of Spanish colonial architecture in pastels of blue, yellow and coral. The Cathedral of San Juan Bautista and San Jose Church which date to the early 1500s are both found here, along with boutique hotels and trendy shops and restaurants.
But San Juan is more than its history. A visit to the vibrant Santurce arts district during happy hour is a lesson in how much fun the locals can squeeze out of an evening. Revelers drift through the blocked-off streets from one open-air bar or café to another, enjoying the island’s famous rums and the latest culinary surprises from celebrated chefs like Jose Enrique. With a blast of drum beats and horns from an impromptu street band playing traditional Plena music, the crowd outside the historic market at La Placita (the little plaza) breaks out in spontaneous hip-swaying salsa dancing.
A featured attraction of a San Juan meeting is a mere 45-minute drive from downtown: El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System and one of its most biologically diverse. And rain it does, over 200 inches a year in some spots, creating a system of ever-flowing rivers and waterfalls to hike along, and a lush canopy that practically sprouts before your eyes. The tree-dwelling coqui frog with its distinct chirp, a popular symbol of Puerto Rico, are in abundance here.
You’ll get a serenade from those coqui as you drift off to sleep at the El Conquistador Resort, part of the Waldorf Astoria chain, located along the coast east of San Juan. Besides its golf course, water park and one-, two- and three-bedroom villas, the sprawling resort is a reminder that yes, you’re definitely in the Caribbean. Get shuttled by the resort’s ferry the few hundred yards across crystal blue waters to the resort’s private Palomino Island, where your group can snorkel, ride wave runners, paddle banana boats, or lounge on the white-sand beach sipping tropical cocktails from a coconut.
There are only a handful of places in the world to experience bioluminescent waters, and the lagoon at Las Cabezas de San Juan Reserve next to the resort is one of them. The sunset adventure starts at the bay at Las Croabas where your group can boat or kayak through a tunnel of mangroves, shining flashlights on resident iguanas as you go, and arriving at the wide lagoon around dusk. By running your hand or paddle through the water, the bioluminescent plankton emit a bluish glow, a magical phenomenon and memorable cap to any San Juan event.
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