Learn Spanish » Spanish Culture Blog » San Juan, Puerto Rico
Founded in 1521 by Spanish colonists, Puerto Rico is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. The site was originally inhabited in 1508 and was known as Ciudad de Puerto Rico; however it was renamed as San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico after John the Baptist, once the decision was made to name the country Puerto Rico. Today San Juan is the capital of Puerto Rico, and is a thriving port city, and houses the country’s main financial and governmental buildings.
- San Juan, Puerto Rico is a city of juxtaposition, with the modern business centre sitting comfortably alongside the beautiful Old San Juan
- Thanks to Puerto Rico’s colonial history, San Juan has hugely varied architecture and culture that provides an exciting backdrop for this beautiful city
After its discovery in 1521 San Juan was a famous stopover for merchant ships sailing to the Americas. It became a target for other countries, not only due to its prominent location in the Caribbean, but also due to the many riches, such as gold and silver, that arrived there on their journey from the New World to Europe. Large walls were constructed as defences, and remnants of these can still be seen today. After its initial prominence, San Juan became somewhat less important, as other parts of Central America became more influential and thrived under colonial rule. Nevertheless, the capital remained famous thanks to its ginger and sugar exports, as well as breeding horses that were much revered by the Spaniards. Puerto Rico, and San Juan, remained under Spanish colonial rule until 1898 when the Treaty of Paris was signed which passed power to the Americans following the Spanish-American war, and it still remains that way today.
Nowadays, San Juan is the most important city in Puerto Rico. It is a booming tourist destination, particularly among American tourists who do not need a passport to visit. Old San Juan is especially popular with tourists, thanks to the beautiful architecture of the 16th and 17th Century Spanish colonial houses that line the streets. The El Morro fort is also popular with tourists, having been the main defensive fort in the city during the 18th and 19th Centuries, and it offers fabulous views across the Bar Channel and San Juan Bay. The fort, as well as the old city walls, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1983, and the old city houses many museums which are home to relics of the colonial era, remembering the city’s European heritage. The city of course also has many shops and modern buildings, making it a fascinating mix of old and new. In the surrounding areas of San Juan there are beautiful beaches, as well as adventure activities such as caving, hiking and zip-lining.
Similar to much of the Spanish-speaking world, there are numerous festivals in San Juan all year round. In January, Día de los Reyes (Day of the Kings) is celebrated, and the park in Old San Juan is full of merry-makers who enjoy the music, food and drink before the Three Kings process through the city. Most famously is the San Juan Bautista Day to celebrate the Patron Saint. This festival goes on for a week and sees religious parades, beach parties and dances, and on the first night of the festival, people walk three or seven times backwards into the sea as it traditionally wards off evil spirits and brings good luck for the year to come.