San Juan

World Facts Index > Puerto Rico > San Juan

Many believe San Juan is just a small Spanish colonial town with a couple of bustling avenues--an impression that is far from true. Modern-day San Juan encompasses a vast area spanning some seven different and distinct districts. This makes for a mixed bag which is part of the wonder and joy of visiting San Juan.

Old San Juan/Puerta de Tierra
This traditional, colonial, Spanish, walled city is the actual seat of the island's bicameral government. It houses La Fortaleza, home of the Governor and El Capitolio, the seat of the House of representatives and the Senate, located in nearby Puerta de Tierra. Both of these areas have one thing in common, they are physically on the islet of San Juan and connected to the mainland via several bridges. Old San Juan itself consists of narrow streets encompassing over four hundred years in history and tradition. Dine in one of the great establishments on Fortaleza Street, party in San Sebastián until dawn or simply stroll along the charming streets. A famous tradition is to people-watch from one of several plazas that grace the area. There is something for everyone, young and old, in Old San Juan. A "must-see" is the huge Spanish fort built on the north side of the islet. Puerta de Tierra housse hotels like the famous Caribe Hilton and the Radisson Normandie. Apart from that, the area is not very touristy. Nevertheless, renovations are making this once decrepit area an acceptable place.

El Condado, as locals say, is the island's most glamorous district, featuring boutiques, fine restaurants and some of the finest hotels in town. Contrary to popular belief, many people do reside here in exquisite turn-of-the-century mansions. You'll notice the crowd to be a balance between tourists and locals and, if you're a savvy jogger, you'll love it. This district spans from the Condado Plaza in the west to the Ocean Park area in the east.

Isla Verde
Isla Verde is the home of high-rise apartment buildings, huge clubs and luxurious hotels. This area is actually part of the municipality of Carolina, connected to San Juan via several highways and streets. It spans from the Punta Las Marías area (adjacent to Ocean Park) to the area just beyond the International Airport. Isla Verde hosts world-class hotels like the Ritz-Carlton and El San Juan and its nightlife is certainly something to write home about. It also houses the enormous balneario, or public beach, where locals and guests come to tan their hides and get their fill of people-watching.

Hato Rey
Hato Rey, some miles apart from Old San Juan (but easily accessed), is the island's main business district. This is the district where local wheelers and dealers conduct their business. Thus, its restaurant scene is much more business oriented that anywhere else. The district also has a residential area, Roosevelt Avenue, just off Highway 52. Roosevelt is one of the most famous spots for nightlife in San Juan. Plaza Las Américas, the Caribbean's biggest mall, is also located here.

Both districts are located just off Condado and Old San Juan, but north of Hato Rey. Santurce was at once an upper-class neighborhood and entertainment. Today, see office buildings and abandoned structures with a small but very good marketplace (Plaza del Mercado). A huge effort from the City Hall is being conducted to restore the sector's vitality. Miramar is an up-and-coming area of apartment buildings, restored houses and even some hotels.

Río Piedras
This district is known as the University City because it houses the University of Puerto Rico. Visiting Río Piedras can be very exciting for the tourist who wants to know the real Puerto Rico, first-hand. The district has a traditional Plaza del Mercado and a very hometown atmosphere.

This is the main upscale suburb of San Juan. Guaynabo is home to several of the island's most prosperous residents. It is full of boutique malls offering fine accessories, jewelry and such. The houses here are simply colossal.

History of San Juan

It's been no easy ride for Puerto Rico, a land rich in history. Trials and tribulations have paved the historic roadways for its people. Their courage to continue to strive forward, to face new challenges and constantly battle for progress after periods of defeat and grief demonstrates the greatness of the Puerto Rican people.

Archaic/Igneris Period
First to 5th Centuries A.D.

History has proven that the Archaics (nomadic descendants from the North American Indians) were the first inhabitants of the island we now know as Puerto Rico. Not much is known of their culture leaving very little in the way of a legacy. The Igneri people followed, sailing in from what is now Venezuela, with many skills and advancements. This civilization built advanced canoes and use the soil to make pottery.

The Taíno People
From 1400 to 1492

After the Igneri era, the Arawaks inhabited Puerto Rico. They were known as the Taínos, a peaceful people armed with expert agricultural skills. Historians and archaeologists have uncovered their rich culture, which is now remembered at the Tibes & Caguana Ceremonial Parks, in the municipalities of Ponce and Utuado, respectively. Many of today's Puerto Ricans are allegedly descendants of the Taínos.

European Discovery & Conquest
From 1493 to 1521

On the 19th of November 1493, Christopher Colombus first sighted the western shore of Puerto Rico. Some of his Spanish crew landed, but then left shortly thereafter. It wasn't until 1508 when Juan Ponce de León and 50 compatriots arrived, that things changed. They established a small community, called Caparra, near what is known today as Guaynabo. By 1511, the Spanish began to move to a small islet across the bay from Caparra, which they fortified. It was first called Puerto Rico, while the country itself was called San Juan. The names were later reversed, as we know them today. In 1518, due to the critical situation of lack of workers (the Taínos were exterminated, via wars and diseases), African slaves were brought to the island.

The Spanish Years
From 1522 to 1898

During the almost 400 years of Spanish dominance, San Juan experienced sporadic growth. Conditions of life in the city were controlled mainly by what was happening back home, on the Spanish peninsula. During this period, San Juan was heavily fortified with walled forts such as El Morro and San Cristóbal. The Spaniards suffered numerous crippling attacks by English and Dutch military units, yet San Juan remained a stronghold. During the 1800s, an independence movement took hold, with its peak in the 1868s, namely, "Grito de Lares." This revolt attempted to free the island from Spanish dominance. By 1873, slavery was completely abolished and Spain was granting Puerto Rico autonomy, just as the Spanish-American war exploded and U.S. troops invaded the island.

Enter the United States
From 1899 to 1951

After the Spanish-American war, several changes were made in San Juan. No longer did the Spanish flag fly over the land as the Star-Spangled Banner was now de rigour. Governors appointed by the U.S. President lived in La Fortaleza and the little island country endured very hard times. During this period two key laws, the Foraker Act of 1900 and the Jones Act of 1917, granted Puerto Ricans self-government and American citizenship. The Prohibition and the Great Depression caused further havoc in the city with smuggling and bootlegging. Puerto Rico participated in the first and second World Wars as American citizens while screaming for autonomy.

Commonwealth Era
From 1952 to Today

Local leader Luis Muñoz Marín had become governor of the island,
thanks to a 1947 act which granted free elections for that post. At first, he promoted independence for the island, but sensing that the option would not offer the best for his people, Muñoz opted for a degree of self-autonomy is called the Estado Libre Asociado (Associated Free State), a commonwealth of the United States. Under this status, Puerto Ricans do not vote in U.S. Presidential elections nor have representation in Congress (aside from a nonvoting member) and paid no federal taxes, yet they received federal financial aid. "Operation Bootstrap," under the leadership of Muñoz Marín's government, converted the island's industry from an agricultural to manufacture-based. The island, for better or worse, experienced enormous development in a number of sectors.

Contemporary Puerto Rico

Puerto Ricans today have the highest per-capita income in Latin America and have one of the most stable economies of the hemisphere. The standards of living are higher than most other Latin countries, but still lag behind the U.S. The island has a tri-party system; the PDP (Popular Democratic Party) defends commonwealth (the party was founded by Muñoz Marín), the NPP (New Progressive Party), advocates statehood, and the much smaller PIP (Puerto Rican Independence Party). The first two parties have constantly switched in power since 1968. Today, most Puerto Ricans enjoy prosperity and still strive to improve their standard of living.

Film buffs will appreciate knowing that Puerto Rico has produced a bit of film history here -- José Ferrer was born in San Juan in 1912, and famous on screens worldwide. An actor, producer and director, Ferrer won an Oscar for his performance in Cyrano de Bergerac.

In 1961, the film, West Side Story launched Rita Moreno to stardom The film version won an Oscar in 1961 and became a classic Broadway musical, still loved today. Moreno was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico in 1931.

Another famous actor from Puerto Rico is Raul Julia, born in San Juan in 1940. He ventured first to New York to join an acting troupe before playing Romero character in The Adams Family and roles in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, Moon over Parador, Havana, Tequila Sunrise and One from the Heart.


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