The Capital of Puerto Rico Celebrates Its Long and Vibrant History

On its way to top Caribbean destination, the island's culture thrived

Aerial view of Old San Juan cityscape and beach, Puerto Rico, United States
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The capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan ranks high on the list of most historic cities in the New World, with early explorers establishing a settlement there 15 years after Columbus’s monumental first voyage. The city has been the scene of many historic events, from naval battles to pirate attacks. Modern San Juan, now a top Caribbean tourism destination, embraces its long and fascinating history.

Early Settlement

The first settlement on the island of Puerto Rico was Caparra, founded in 1508 by Juan Ponce de León, a Spanish explorer and conquistador best remembered for his quixotic quest to find the Fountain of Youth in 16th-century Florida.

Caparra was deemed unsuitable for a long-term settlement, however, and the residents soon moved to an island a short distance to the east, to the present site of Old San Juan.

Rise to Importance

The new city of San Juan Batista de Puerto Rico quickly became famous for its good location and port, and it rose to importance in the colonial administration. Alonso Manso, the first bishop to arrive in the Americas, became bishop of Puerto Rico in 1511. San Juan became the first ecclesiastical headquarters for the New World and served as the first base for the Inquisition as well. By 1530, barely 20 years after its founding, the city supported a university, a hospital, and a library.

Piracy

San Juan quickly came to the attention of Spain’s rivals in Europe. The first attack on the island took place in 1528, when the French razed several outlying settlements, leaving only San Juan intact. Spanish troops started building San Felipe del Morro, a formidable castle, in 1539.

 Sir Francis Drake and his men attacked the island in 1595 but were held off. In 1598, however, George Clifford and his force of English privateers managed to capture the island, remaining for several months before illness and local resistance drove them away. That was the only time El Morro castle was ever captured by an invading force.

The 17th and 18th Centuries

San Juan declined somewhat after its initial importance, as wealthier cities such as Lima and Mexico City thrived under the colonial administration. It continued to serve as a strategic military location and port, however, and the island produced significant sugarcane and ginger crops. It also became known for breeding fine horses, prized by Spanish conquistadors campaigning on the mainland. Dutch pirates attacked in 1625, capturing the city but not the fort. In 1797, a British fleet of approximately 60 ships attempted to take San Juan but failed in what is known on the island as “The Battle of San Juan.”

The 19th Century

Puerto Rico, as a small and relatively conservative Spanish colony, did not participate in the independence movements of the early 19th century. As the armies of Simon Bolívar and Jose de San Martín swept across South America liberating new nations, royalist refugees loyal to the Spanish crown flocked to Puerto Rico. Liberalization of some Spanish policies – such as granting freedom of religion in the colony in 1870, encouraged immigration from other parts of the world, and Spain held onto Puerto Rico until 1898.

The Spanish-American War

The city of San Juan played a minor role in the Spanish-American War, which broke out in early 1898.

The Spanish had fortified San Juan but did not anticipate the American tactic of landing troops at the western end of the island. Because many Puerto Ricans did not oppose a change of administration, the island basically surrendered after a few skirmishes. Puerto Rico was ceded to the Americans under the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. Although San Juan had been bombarded for a time by American warships, the city suffered relatively little damage during the conflict.

The 20th Century

The first few decades under American rule were mixed for the city. Although some industry developed, a series of hurricanes and the Great Depression had a profound effect on the economy of the city and the island in general. The grim economic situation led to a small but determined independence movement and a great deal of emigration from the island.

Most emigrants from Puerto Rico in the 1940s and 1950s went to New York City in search of better jobs; it's still home to a great many citizens of Puerto Rican descent. The U.S. Army moved out of El Morro Castle in 1961.

San Juan Today

Today, San Juan takes its place among the Caribbean's top tourism destinations. Old San Juan has been extensively renovated, and sights like the El Morro castle draw large crowds. Americans looking for a Caribbean vacation like to travel to San Juan because they don’t need a passport to go there: it is American soil.

In 1983 the old city defenses, including the castle, were declared a World Heritage Site. The old section of the city is home to many museums, reconstructed colonial-era buildings, churches, convents, and more. There are excellent beaches close to the city, and the El Condado neighborhood is home to top-notch resorts. Tourists can reach several areas of interest within a couple of hours from San Juan, including rainforests, a cave complex, and many more beaches. It is the official home port of many major cruise ships as well.

San Juan is also one of the most important ports in the Caribbean and has facilities for oil refining, sugar processing, brewing, pharmaceuticals, and more. Naturally, Puerto Rico is well-known for its rum, much of which is produced in San Juan.