Half a thousand years ago, in 1508, Juan Ponce de Leon arrived on the island of Puerto Rico and set up an outpost near the back of the great harbor on the island's northeast coast. He had with him a company of soldiers, a famously vicious red dog named Becerillo, and permission to use whatever means necessary to convince the local Taino people that they would rather look for gold in the rivers and salvation in heaven than carry on enjoying their little tropical paradise.
The island, which the locals called Boriquen, had been previously discovered and named San Juan by Columbus, whose physician described it glowingly, especially the houses with their "beautiful gardens, as if they were vineyards or orchards of orange or citron trees." But Ponce de Leon, whom one historian described as "a bastard son of the best-known family in Seville," wasn't much interested in fruit. "We came to serve God," as one of his generation of conquistadors famously said, "and also to get rich."
Today, Old San Juan is a place of narrow cobbled streets and blocks of well-preserved colonial architecture where you can glimpse a microcosmic vision of the entire post-Columbian history of the Americas, from the essentially medieval mayhem of the early European invasion to the madcap Nuyorican partying of the 21st century. Though it's not in exactly the same location as Ponce de Leon's original settlement, that hardly matters: It is the restaurant-, nightclub- and museum-packed heart of what is arguably the most vibrant city in the Caribbean, not to mention the most exotic urban setting Americans can get to these days without a passport.
Following the wall
Having recently emerged from a long personal obsession with the Spanish explorers who followed Ponce de Leon to North America, a quest that resulted in my most recent book, I took my family last winter to the city. Like almost all visitors, we started at El Morro, the great fortress with its cannons pointing out to sea. It was Sunday midmorning when we walked across its great lawn toward the battlements, and it seemed as though all the residents of the city had gathered on the sunny hillside to picnic and fly kites of all shapes and sizes: there were dragons, ships of the line, bats and Spidermen, all dipping and diving in the trade winds and attached by long strings to smiling children.
El Morro, it seemed to me, belonged to all five centuries of the city's past and present. It was begun in the first decades of the Spanish occupation of the island, when the city's location was chosen because of its harbor near the border between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Construction continued through the second century, when its cannonballs flew against pirates and Englishmen, and the third century, when the cannonballs flew against pirates and Dutchmen. In the 1800s, nationalists were jailed in its dark dungeons, and the cannonballs flew against pirates and Americans, while in the 1900s the guns were fired by Americans against the Germans. Once the proud symbol of Spanish military power in the hemisphere, it's now a national historic site.
The paranoid grandeur of global empires is evident everywhere in Old San Juan. As massive as El Morro is, and as long as it took to build, it wasn't enough. With gold and silver flowing from Peru and Mexico, the harbor's strategic location near the major routes into the Caribbean made San Juan more important than ever and more forts were built there - La Fortaleza, San Cristobal and several smaller structures that are now gone.