Plazas and Parks
Colonial Spanish towns are traditionally anchored by a plaza that serves as an important gathering place for the community, and Old San Juan is lucky enough to have several. There’s no better way to spend the morning than strolling the perimeter of a plaza or spending time on a bench sipping coffee, fending off pigeons, and watching the parade of people pass by. The plazas are also popular sites for arts festivals and evening concerts.
Not surprisingly, the largest concentration of historic plazas and parks is in Old San Juan. Plaza de Armas (Calle San Francisco, at Calle de la Cruz and Calle San José) is the main square in Old San Juan and a great place to people-watch. Once the site of military drills, it contains a large gazebo and a fountain surrounded by four 100-year-old statues that represent the four seasons. A couple of vendors sell coffee and snacks, and there’s a bank of pay phones popular with cruise-ship visitors eager to check in with those back home.
Plaza de Colón (between Calle Fortaleza, Calle San Francisco, and Calle O’Donnell) is a large square at the entrance to Old San Juan by San Cristóbal fortress. In the center is a huge pedestal topped with a statue of Christopher Columbus, whom the plaza is named after. There’s a small newsstand on one corner, and several restaurants and shops surround it on two sides. Unfortunately, there’s little shade, so it’s not that pleasant for lingering when the sun is high.
Old San Juan’s newest square is Plaza del Quinto Centenario (between Calle Norzagaray and Calle Beneficencia near the entrance to El Morro, Old San Juan). Built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World, the plaza features a striking 40-foot totem made from black granite and ceramic pieces created by local artist Jaime Suárez. The plaza provides a great view of the historic cemetery, El Morro, and all the kite flyers who gather on the fort’s long green lawn.
One of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful pieces of public art is in Plazuela de la Rogativa, a tiny sliver of a park tucked between the city wall and Calle Clara Lair just west of El Convento in Old San Juan. At its center is a spectacular bronze sculpture called La Rogativa, designed by New Zealand artist Lindsay Daen in the 1950s. The piece depicts a procession of three women and a priest bearing crosses and torches. It commemorates one of San Juan’s most beloved historic tales. In 1797 a British fleet led by Sir Ralph Abercrombie entered San Juan Bay and prepared to launch an attack in hopes of capturing the city. Because the city’s men were away protecting the city’s inland fronts, the only people remaining behind were women and clergy. In hopes of staving off an attack, the governor ordered a rogativa, a divine entreaty to ask the saints for help. As the story goes, the town’s brave women formed a procession, carrying torches and ringing bells throughout the streets, which duped the British into thinking reinforcements had arrived, prompting them to sail away, leaving the city safe once again.
Plaza de José (Calle San Sebastían and Calle Cristo, Old San Juan) is in front of the Iglesia de San José and features a statue of its most celebrated parishioner, Juan Ponce de León. After successfully thwarting another attack by the British in 1797, citizens of San Juan melted the enemy’s cannons to make the statue. This is a popular gathering place for young locals, especially at night when the string of nearby bars gets crowded.
Plaza de Hostos (between Calle San Justo and Calle Tizol, Old San Juan) is a bustling shady spot near the cruise-ship piers. On weekends it turns into a craft fair, and there are often food vendors selling fritters and snow cones. Just across the street, at Plaza Dársenas, concerts are often held on the weekends on a covered stage overlooking the harbor.
Beside Capilla del Cristo on the south end of Calle de la Cristo in Old San Juan is Parque de Palomas, a small gated park packed with a zillion pigeons. A vendor sells small bags of feed for those who take pleasure in being swarmed with the feathered urban dwellers. Kids love it!
© Suzanne Van Atten from Moon Puerto Rico, 2nd Edition