Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
VISITED: JANUARY 2017
Besides its production of rum, Puerto Rico is well-known for its sandy beaches, lush tropical rainforests, and an extensive underground network of caves. Along with all of its natural wonder and beauty, Puerto Rico has a rich history that has been preserved and displayed for visitors to discover. This history is most evident when walking along the cobblestone streets of Old San Juan and observing the architecture, churches, and citadels firsthand. Old San Juan is a 7-block area of Puerto Rico that is surrounded by bright or pastel colored colonial-style houses/buildings with wrought iron balconies. It is the oldest settlement in Puerto Rico and is a snapshot of what life was like in 1500’s. Even today as the city continues to grow, it maintains the integrity of the colonial-style architecture while preserving and maintaining its heritage. This enchanting city is what a tropical vacation should be, while providing visitors with the perfect mix of history and relaxation. It is best photographed during the mid-day’s sun since the light brings out the vibrant colors of the buildings with minimal shadows.
After researching and reading about what Old San Juan had to offer, I was bursting with excitement at the opportunity to photograph the iconic city. Upon arrival at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport it is easily discerned that this is a popular tourist destination. The taxi stand runs with precision where you tell the taxi stand attendant your destination and then they give you a receipt for how much your ride will be. The taxi fee is calculated based on the cost of your destination’s zone and the number of bags you have. Once you are in the taxi be sure to buckle up, since the driving can be a bit erratic. For a frame of reference, we used taxis three times on this trip and we were involved in one accident and two near accidents. Despite the chaotic nature of the local traffic maneuvering, once we arrived at the hotel our stress quickly melted away. From here we settled in and began our exploration of Old San Juan’s landmarks, which are:
El Morro (Fuerte San Felipe del Morro) – A 16th-century citadel with a commanding view of the of the entrance to San Juan Harbor. This picturesque fortification offers a glimpse into the history of Puerto Rico, as well as some of the best views in San Juan. It is a massive structure that consists of 6 levels that are accessed by various tunnels, stairs, and ramps, so be prepared for some walking. The site is rich in history and with countless photographable spots including a lighthouse, tunnels, garitas, and cannons. There is an entrance fee of $5, but this will give visitors a pass to see El Morro and Castillo de San Cristóbal for the week. As with Castillo de San Cristóbal, I would recommend arriving at 9am when the gates open in order to photograph the site without getting anyone in your shot.
Paseo del Morro – This is a walkway that runs along the water’s edge between Fuerte San Felipe del Morro and the southern part of the island. It is a wide, paved walkway that is great for early morning walks, when the foot traffic is minimal, or setting up for a view of sunset at the northwest tip. For blue hour, try setting up along the walkway just north of the Raices Fountain, but before the wooden pier and Old San Juan Gate. From here you get a perspective of the walkway with a view of the water, benches and rustic lamps, which look particularly majestic when they are on.
Castillo de San Cristóbal - The history and magnificent design of the castle make it one of the most popular attractions in San Juan. Castillo de San Cristóbal is the largest Spanish fortification built in the New World. The site provides ample opportunities for breathtaking views of San Juan from a countless array of angles. Due to its northeastern location in Old San Juan, this can be a great location for sunrise and early morning for soft light shots. I suggest arriving close to 9am, which is when it opens, so that you may photograph the grounds with minimal tourist interruption. Be aware that there is an entrance fee which covers you for a week for admittance into the Castillo de San Cristóbal and Fuerte San Felipe del Morro.
Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery – This is a colonial-era cemetery found wedged between the Old San Juan city walls and the Atlantic Ocean. It is close to El Morro and is arguably one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. The white headstones and ornate statues of Santa Maria spread across this stretch of land that overlooks the sea. It is best to photograph during the early morning hours when the light is more favorable and shadows are minimal. The cemetery offers countless perspectives so be sure to take your time when walking along the pathway that traverses the grounds.
Raices Fountain – This is found at the end of the promenade of the Paseo de la Princess in Old San Juan and just before the Paseo del Morro begins. The fountain is considered one of the most romantic spots, especially at sunset when the light illuminates the statues with its golden rays. Great location for sunsets, but also during the early/mid-morning when sun’s light best highlights the statues.
Looking for suggestions for sunrise, sunset, & blue hour locations? Then look no further, because here they are:
SUNRISE - Raices Fountain or Old San Juan Hotel Pool
Raices Fountain – Despite the fact that this is an ideal spot for sunset, it does have a draw during the sunrise as well. In fact, watching the actual sun rise above the horizon is difficult when staying in Old San Juan due to the location on the island and copious obstructions hindering the ideal shot. With this in mind, I set up with my back to the bay, La Fortaleza to my left, and Raices Fountain directly in front of me with the Paseo de la Princess in the background. Even though you won’t see the sunrise, you will see the sky and clouds change colors and create a spectacular backdrop.
Old San Juan Sheraton Hotel Pool – This is a rooftop pool found on the 9th floor and overlooks all of San Juan Bay. Although the hours of the pool state that it is open from 7:30am to 11pm, I found that asking someone at the front desk if it was okay to photograph the sunrise from the rooftop pool netted a positive response. Granted, I was staying at the hotel, but one of the hotel employees unlocked the pool door and allowed me to set up my tripod and get some shots. So I definitely would recommend this vantage point; however, it would require some finagling and sweet talking of whoever is working at the time.
SUNSET – La Rogativa or Raices Fountain
La Rogativa – La Rogativa is a statue that is above the Paseo del Morro and can be easily accessed by walking through the Old San Juan Gate and climbing the stairs on the left. This is a smaller area so arrive early to find the best spot since it will fill up at sunset. As I will discuss later, be sure to stay around after the sunset in order to capture the blue hour magic. Since most tourists will start to head off after the sunset, there will be minimal foot traffic making it easier to compose a wider shot without someone walking through the frame. For sunset, there are small inlets along the wall that have railing and make great places to set up tripods and remain out of other peoples photographs. My favorite was the inlet that is directly to the left of the garita, since it gave me the best composition; however, I did move around from inlet to inlet and found that each one provided a different vista that may be more desirable to some.
Raices Fountain – Raices Fountain is the communal spot during the golden hour and sunset, so expect a large gathering of people. After witnessing your first sunset from the fountain, you will see why this is such a sought after destination to watch the day come to a close. Not only can you watch the sun dip below the horizon, but if you are visiting while a cruise ship is in port, then you will be able to watch them disembark San Juan Harbor. Unlike La Rogativa, Raices Fountain remains a bustling location for foot traffic after the sun sets. Due to this I wouldn’t recommend staying for the blue hour unless you don’t mind the blur of people walking through your photograph.
BLUE HOUR – Paseo del Morro or La Rogativa
Paseo del Morro – The Paseo del Morro covers a large area, but this specific location is on the Paseo del Morro and just below La Fortaleza. More precisely, it is about a 3-minute walk from Raices Fountain and is just as the Paseo del Morro makes a 45-degree angle and heads north towards the Old San Juan Gate. From this location the composition is quite pleasing with the high, aged walls of Old San Juan, rustic lamps, and weathered wood benches. I found that the early morning blue hour is more favorable to the evening blue hour due to the fact that fewer people are up that early. This makes photographing the Paseo del Morro without any foot traffic a much simpler undertaking.
La Rogativa – As well as being a great place for sunsets, La Rogativa also makes for a fantastic blue hour destination. This location offers an elevated vantage point of the Paseo del Morro, Old San Juan Gate, and the entrance to the San Juan Harbor in the background. Along with these background elements, the foreground offers the La Rogativa statue and a lone garita overlooking the Paseo del Morro. I found that there is a bright street light that shines down on the street and the statue creating a distinctive shadow, but playing with this also made for a unique photographable opportunity. As the shadow becomes more pronounced, I found a spot where my shadow, and the shadow of my tripod, were hidden, but the shadow of La Rogativa was cast against the wall facing the garita. If you are lucky and have the luxury that I did with having everyone clear out after sunset, then move around to try different perspectives that are visually appealing to you.
Honorable Mention outside of Old San Juan:
El Yunque National Forest – El Yunque is a tropical rain forest that is located on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains on the northeastern part of the island. The forest encompasses more than 28,000 acres of jungle-like terrain which is full of rivers, waterfalls, lush foliage, and rugged cliffs. For first time visitors, the El Portal Rain Forest Center offers an introduction to the rain forest and its history. El Portal also boasts two walkways that provide visitors an opportunity to explore the forest from contrasting points of view: ground level and above the canopy. From El Portal Rain Forest Center, the park road leads deeper into El Yunque where there are pullouts for an opportunities to hike and marvel at the diverse vegetation. There are numerous, well-marked hiking trails that start at these pullouts and traverse the local flora and fauna, while culminating at El Yunque’s most photogenic features. If you have a free day and a method of transportation, then this is a magnificent excursion.
Restaurants of Old San Juan:
*La Madre – La Madre is a modern Mexican cantina that offers traditional Mexican food in a quaint, nightclub-like atmosphere. The most delectable dish I tasted on my visit to Old San Juan came from La Madre. The dish was an appetizer, which was a Monterey Jack white wine fondue topped with a house mango pico de gallo salsa and served with crunchy totopos. After our first bite we quickly realized why this was such a popular menu item with all of the locals. The taste is indescribably delicious that leaves you craving more, which we made sure to do as we visited La Madre on several occasions.
*La Bombonera – This is an iconic, traditional café that has been serving visitors and locals for over 100 years. La Bombonera is a bakery and coffee shop where you can grab something to go or sit and enjoy a meal. Their most popular dish is the Mallorca, which is a sweet roll sprinkled with powdered sugar and filled with egg and ham. Whatever you order, be sure to eat in so that you may sit back and enjoy the quaint ambiance.
*Patio del Nispero – The Patio del Nispero is an elegant outdoor restaurant that can be found within the Hotel El Convento, which is a 350 year old restored convent. The restaurant gains its name from the famed century-old nispero fruit tree that casts a shadow over the patio. This charming restaurant provides an open-air, gourmet dining experience that is perfect for sitting back, sipping a cocktail, and relaxing. The portions may be small, but their fish tacos full of flavor and went well with an ice cold Medalla Light.
*Greengo's Caribbean Cantina – The moment you walk into Greengo's you will be floored by artistic nature of the wall art. The artist did a brilliant job at creating caricatures of the male and female skeletons enjoying some food and drink. Besides the wall art, Greengo's is a typical cantina that offers filling meals and sporting entertainment on various televisions throughout the restaurant. The nachos are a great appetizer, but make sure to get a side of the salsa verde because it is the perfect blend of tart and spice. Be sure to try their margaritas because they make some of the best in Old San Juan!
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