San Juan

Overview

To the east of the Dominican Republic and west of the Virgin Islands lies the thriving metropolis of San Juan – Puerto Rico's capital city. History and culture come to life here in the city's Spanish colonial-style neighbourhoods. Many of the city's old buildings have been restored, complete with fresh coats of paint in shades of pastel greens, blues, pinks and yellows. Visited by nearly five million tourists each year, San Juan offers more than just golden sandy beaches.

San Juan is a celebration of unique neighbourhoods. Condado and Ocean Park are known for their quaint bed and breakfasts, beautiful beaches and relaxed vibe. The recently revitalized downtown Sancture area is a vibrant arts community filled with galleries and theatres. In the Isla Verde area, you'll find beautiful high-end resorts, casinos and popular nightspots.

Old San Juan is one of the region's oldest neighbourhoods and arguably one of the best places to experience local history and culture. To the west, it is bordered by the historic Fort San Felipe del Morro, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. The fort's more than 15-foot thick walls were built around 1540, erected to protect the island from naval attack. Today, the old fort still stands, along with the lighthouse found atop its highest point and a lookout where visitors can take in panoramic views of the entire city.

You can easily explore the Old San Juan area by foot, travelling along its cobblestone streets and visiting the unique shops, museums, galleries and restaurants mixed in among colourful apartment buildings with French balconies. It's in this area you'll likely hear music pouring out of open windows and at open-air cafes. Stop for a drink and sip on a piña colada (invented right here in San Juan), taking in the unique flavour of local rums and watching as locals and visitors casually stroll past.

Home to the only tropical rainforest in the United States, Puerto Rico also boasts one of the world's largest underground cave systems, located only two hours from San Juan. Near the territory's outlying Vieques Island, visitors can travel by boat across rare bioluminescent bays where the waters appear to radiate with blue-green light after sundown. Visitors are sure to find plenty of opportunities to go scuba diving, snorkelling, windsurfing and kitesurfing as well. And as for the locals, they're just about as friendly as they come.

Airport served by: SJU

Destination basics

Simply put, the temperatures in San Juan are hot, hot, hot! The coastal city sees annual average temperatures around 26 C but regularly experiences even hotter temperatures during the summer months. In fact, it's not uncommon for July and August temperatures to reach over 30 C. Winter temperatures tend to be cooler (though not by Canadian standards) with lows in the mid to low 20s C. Despite these cooler temperatures, winter is San Juan's driest season.

The island is affected by the North Atlantic hurricane season (June through November) but rarely experiences extreme tropical storms. Throughout spring, summer and fall, periods of sudden, brief rainfall are common (especially in the mountainous regions) but sun typically follows.

With close to 3,000 hours of sun each year, you'll want to be sure you pack sunblock in your checked luggage or buy a bottle once you've arrived. Sunhats, sunglasses and bathing suits are also recommended year-round.

Average monthly temperature and average monthly rainfall diagrams for San Juan

The Taino people were the first inhabitants of Puerto Rico – the island later “discovered” by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Americas. In 1493, colonialists from Spain led by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon laid claim to the region. The Spanish forced the indigenous Taino into slavery, but the population soon began a rapid decline when the indigenous people fell prey to European diseases. Later, the Spanish brought Sub-Saharan African slaves to the island to perform manual labour along the coast. Today, visitors can still see the Spanish and African cultural influences in Puerto Rico's foods, music, art and customs.

During their more than 400 year rule, the Spanish largely inhabited and worked in the areas nearest to the coast, particularly in the San Juan region. Over time, the area became an essential port for Spain, who built numerous defensive forts to protect the island from attack by other European countries.

Fort San Felipe del Morro is the most famous of these forts, originally built in the 1540s. Today, the fort and its more than 15-foot-thick walls remain on the northwestern shores of Old San Juan, playing host to visitors from around the world. East of El Morro is Fort San Cristobal, the largest fort built by the Spanish in the region. The fort originally stretched nearly 27-acres across the coast of San Juan but part of the fort was later torn down to enhance road infrastructure.

In 1898, Puerto Rico was overtaken by the United States following the Spanish-American War. However, it wasn't until 1917 that Puerto Ricans were formally granted U.S. citizenship. Today, the island region is self-governing – a territory separate (unincorporated) from the United States at large. This means that while Puerto Ricans are able to elect a governor, they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections. But much like incorporated U.S. states, Puerto Rico uses American currency and its residents speak both English and Spanish – although many locals prefer Spanish.

Religion (predominantly Christianity) is also an important part of Puerto Rican life. The majority of people here are of Roman Catholic or Protestant faiths with a strong Hispanic influence. One of Puerto Rico's main religious holidays is El Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day. Celebrated annually on January 6th, this feast day is celebrated with family gatherings as well as presents. It is customary for children to leave a tray with hay or grass under their beds at night to feed the wise men's camels – much like how children in the United States leave cookies out for Santa Claus. While they're sleeping, the three kings collect the grass, replacing it with presents as a way of saying thank you.

San Juan is the largest of the Caribbean's Windward Islands. With 158 km of rugged coastline tucked around its 616 sq. km land mass, it is approximately the same size as Toronto. In the north, it's dotted with lush rainforests and sandy coves. To the south you'll find rugged volcanic peaks and the island's famous Piton Mountains.

Most resorts are found along its western coast leading to the capital of Castries in the northwest. Between Castries and Soufriere in the south lies Marigot Bay, a natural harbour that was once a common hideaway for pirate ships.

There's plenty to discover in San Juan's central mountain range and the landscape is strikingly beautiful. Explore lush forests filled with wild orchids and giant ferns. You might even catch sight of the Jacquot—San Juan's national bird.

San Juan is a relatively simple city to navigate once you become familiar with common Spanish terms such as avenida (avenue) and calle (street). You can also pick up a map of the area at your hotel or use a standard GPS device.

San Juan is also home to all the standard American rental car companies, many of which offer pick up and drop off to and from the airport. To ensure you get a car, be sure to book in advance.

To get to attractions and activities outside of walking distance, it's easy to catch a taxi. Taxis in San Juan operate on a flat-rate zone-based fare system. For travel outside of the San Juan area, taxis go by metered rates. However, many taxi drivers will also offer visitors a flat-rate for long-distance travel. The choice is yours to make.

As for public transit, San Juan offers public buses as well as the Tren Urbano – a train system that runs every 8 minutes during commute hours and every 12 minutes throughout the rest of the day. The train runs along an elevated track to the city's Hato Rey financial district and then moves underground leading toward the suburbs. The train is also a great way to see authentic Puerto Rican life as well as great views of the city. It's also one of the cheapest ways to get around at only US$1.50 a fare. Ask your hotel concierge for route maps and details.

Where else can you kayak across a glowing bay, walk through a rainforest humming with the sound of singing frogs and tour a massive underground cave system all within just a few hours' drive? In Puerto Rico, you can experience all of these unique attractions, along with all the standard Caribbean vacation favourites, such as snorkelling, surfing, parasailing and sun tanning.

San Juan is also a great destination for families travelling with children. Here, kids can learn about Spanish colonial history and culture while exploring unique sites like Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal. And the whole family is sure to love the incredible bioluminescent bay that glows in the dark near the island of Vieques.

In Puerto Rico, you can make any trip your own. Pick and choose between the numerous historic sites in beautiful Old San Juan. Then go shopping at upscale boutiques on Avienda Ashford or visit the designer outlets on Calle del Cristo. End your day with a gorgeous ocean view or a trip to one of San Juan's many museums and galleries. No matter where you go, you're sure to encounter plenty of wonderful locals who'll greet you with a smile.

San Juan is a relatively simple city to navigate once you become familiar with common Spanish terms such as avenida (avenue) and calle (street).

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ˆTotal price one-way per guest. See terms and conditions. *Prices are per guest, based on double occupancy and are limited; may not reflect real-time pricing or availability. See terms and conditions.

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