A Typical Day in Old San Juan

Things to Do, Travel Tips, What's New — By Melissa Alvarado Sierra on May 25, 2012 at 7:21 am

A so-called normal day in the famous city of Old San Juan is really far from ordinary. Living in this walled city gives one the chance to experience many adventures in just one day. Let’s take last Tuesday, for example. As usual, I walk out of my place in the morning always carrying the book I’m currently reading (in this case The English Major) and my iPod. I wander around to get a feel of the city, letting my instincts guide me. Since it’s only 6:00 am, the city still has a quiet, almost sleepy mood. The cool and ancient aura of the centuries-old streets is talking to me. After walking for an hour, my stomach gets the best of me and as I reach San Francisco Street I have to stop at La Bombonera for my daily mallorca.

I head out at around 8:15 am to the now busy streets and head to the nearest plaza, where I share a bench with a gentleman dressed as a conquistador. I don’t even question the strange man and continue to mind my own business by reading my book about a man traveling alone around the United States. After an hour, I feel inspired by the character’s lonesome journey and decide to walk some more. My empty-mindedness leads me up Cristo Street and farther up by the Cathedral of San Juan. Every time I find myself staring gleefully at this grand cathedral I feel obliged to step inside, and so I do it. The cathedral dates back to 1521 and as such, is the second oldest cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. It is here that the remains of Puerto Rico’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León, are buried. The former governor supposedly died while looking for the fountain of youth.

After taking in all the history and spirituality of the cathedral, I go outside, look up to the wide sky and see a great gray cloud over my head. I look around to see where I can go next and spot El Convento Hotel just across the street. The rain begins to fall as I walk and drops start to wet my hair and my dress, so I hurry inside the hotel. The doorkeeper greets me as I step on the Andalusian tiles of the grand entrance that lead to the main hallway of this once Carmelite Convent and I feel safe.

Built in 1651, the convent has changed purpose many times, but was finally restored and became a hotel in 1962. The inside is warm though a bit gloomy, but that changes once I reach the open-air courtyard, and it is a marvelous sight. The rain is falling over this historic convent’s interior as it has done for centuries. Now I’m sitting on the terrace overlooking the courtyard. I’m at El Picoteo. The waiter swings by, I order empanadillas, some wine and continue my reading. Finishing one page seems impossible when the tempting thought of the great Ernest Hemingway sitting in the courtyard and Rita Hayworth parading her beautiful presence around the hotel can’t escape my mind. When it opened in the early 60s, celebrities flocked to El Convento to enjoy its exuberance and mysticism, and at the same time made the hotel very famous. My empanadillas arrive, along with white wine. I need to stop thinking about Hemingway and dig in.

When the rain stops and I’m finish my meal, I hear the old city streets yelling at me. I decide to leave Ernest and Rita in the courtyard and  head outside. The warm scent of the old city is intoxicating and a bit suffocating after a rain, and a need for a breeze is undeniable. But I mean the kind of breeze that only exists on the grounds of El Morro; powerful and haunting. Up Cristo street, crossing San Sebastian street and the Tótem monument at the Quincentennial Plaza, I arrive at El Morro and have the all-too-familiar feeling of utter enamorment with the space and its magnificence; the ocean always hugging it and San Juan’s historic cemetery sitting next to it as a reminder that life is very short. So I enjoy the now, the present moment in this great city.

I lie on the moist green grass and look up to the now open sky, feeling the tremendous wind that comes from the sea. I look to my left and see the 500-year-old fort, with tourists all around it taking pictures, desperately trying to keep a piece of this place. I wonder how it would be like be to see El Morro for the very first time. I’m sure they can feel what I’m feeling, but I wish they knew what I know now. That although a picture holds an image, it can never hold a feeling. They should just lie on the grass and feel the wind. Then the experience can last forever. □

Tags: bombonera, convento, cristo, Food, old san juan, sebastian