Puerto Rico is as good as gold.
It was gold that lured Christopher Columbus, who discovered the island in 1493, wresting control of it from the Taino Indians - who made the mistake of showing him gold nuggets in a river and inviting him to take all he wanted.It was gold that caught the eyes of Francis Drake and his English booty hunters, and it was gold that enticed Dutch mariners - all of whom met defeat at the Spaniards' ingeniously designed harbor fortifications.
Gold still brings hordes to Puerto Rico - the glittering gold of its miles of shops and the molten gold of the sun that beats down on the whole teeming scene.
Last year airlines and cruise ships disgorged nearly 3 million visitors to this rectangular island that measures only 110 miles east to west and 35 miles north to south. The area contains so many delightfully split personalities, it's no accident that Puerto Rico translates to "rich port."
- There's sporting Puerto Rico - whether your sporting instincts lead you to the government-supervised gambling casinos (which are allowed only in conjunction with hotels) and race tracks (horse and drag) or to the tennis courts, fishing boats or swimming, surfing, snorkeling and diving beaches. And, naturally, golf and baseball are big in the homeland of Chi Chi Rodriguez and Roberto Clemente. (If your craving for local color is blood red, there also are cockfights, despite efforts of the U.S. Humane Society.)
- There's shopping Puerto Rico, which offers temptations ranging from junk to treasures, with all ranges of price and taste in between.
- There's multicultural Puerto Rico, a unique amalgam of Indian, Spanish, African and American.
- There's historic Puerto Rico, with the only walled city in the Caribbean that can boast four mighty fortresses of the Spanish colonial empire. Look out to sea from the ramparts and become an imaginary armored Spaniard, set to repel the forces of Sir Francis Drake. Or see yourself as Captain Kidd or one of the other pirates who swashbuckled through this area.
Old San Juan's seven square blocks are an extraordinary living museum, declared a National Historic Zone in 1949. Its narrow streets, lined with iron-balconied, pastel-painted shops, restaurants and art galleries, are paved with the blue glazed stones cast from furnace slag and used as ballast on the Spanish galleons that returned home with plundered gold.
It's an area to be toured on foot. Begin your explorations of the old city on Cristo Street at the Gran Hotel El Convento, that area's only major hotel. Now a member of the Ramada chain, it began life as a Carmelite convent, authorized in 1646 by Spain's King Phillip IV. After 250 years as a religious residence, it was abandoned by the church and went into decline. Saved from demolition in 1957, it underwent several restorations, one costing $3 million and the more recent one $4 million, preceding its reopening in 1983.
Inside, history is preserved or recreated. A 17th-century painting of St. John the Baptist over the lobby's tour desk recalls the building's original orientation. A 17th-century altarpiece and hanging tapestries confirm the mood.
The giant chandeliers were made in Spain to reproduce the 17th-century originals; heavy wooden doors were made by Spanish and Dominican Republic artisans to complement floor tiles handmade in the Dominican Republic.
Entrance to each of the 100 rooms and suites, which are blessedly air conditioned, is in typical convent style through arches and around an interior patio area that now houses a whirlpool, small swimming pool and bar and dining areas. ("If the nuns could see this, they'd turn over in their graves," mused a woman guest watching bathers cavorting in the pool.)
Room rates during the high season (Dec. 1 to April 30) range from Abbot ($125 single, $150 double) through Monsignor ($150 to $175) to Cardinal ($175 to $200). (For reservations, call toll-free, 1-800-228-9898.)
Across the street from El Convento is the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, which can trace its lineage to a 1520 wood-and-thatch structure, but is largely the result of 19th-century work. Since 1913 the cathedral has contained a marble tomb housing the body of San Juan's first governor, Juan Ponce de Leon, legendary seeker of the Fountain of Youth.
The cathedral is in a direct line from Puerta de San Juan, one of the Old City's original gates. Sailors and other travelers traditionally climbed the hill to the church immediately after disembarkation, to give thanks for their safe arrival. Then, of course, they dispersed for the secular activities to which most sailors in most ports devote themselves.
Climb the small hill on Cristo Street to meet Ponce again, this time in a statue made from British cannons captured during Sir Ralph Abercromby's unsuccessful 1797 attack. It presides over a small plaza that is a popular meeting place.
Behind the statue is San Jose, second oldest church in the Western Hemisphere, built in 1532. The church was designed and constructed in the 16th century by a Dominican friar with no formal architecture training; he adapted Spanish church design to island conditions. Ponce's body was buried in the church from 1559 until it was moved to the cathedral.