Puerto Rico’s capital city of San Juan attracts visitors to hotspots like the fort garitas and the old town’s Fortaleza “umbrella” street, but there are many more secret buildings and stories inside this walled city. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory that Americans do not need to show their passport to visit. The number of doors in each colorful façade tell the history of taxes; and, the world-famous “Puerto Rican rum” is not originally from Puerto Rico. So, if you like piña coladas and want to learn who really invented them, read on for 21 Secrets of San Juan Puerto Rico. 

1. The colorful houses used to be all whitewashed

The now colorful old town houses were originally all whitewashed to protect the bricks. Puerto Rico was one of the only remaining Caribbean islands without colorful buildings so in 1954 they began painting the buildings different, vibrant colors. 

2. San Juan cobblestone streets are not from ship ballasts

Despite what many think, San Juan cobblestone streets are not from ballasts, but originated from 1890 Liverpool, England. Many other cobblestone streets, in Boston or Philadelphia, for example, were built from weight balancing ballasts in ships that were thrown overboard in exchange for gold and treasure to bring back to Spain. San Juan’s cobblestones have a blue color, and the bluer the stone indicates a higher metal content. 

Perla restaurant shell hotel la concha beach chairs ocean

3. Why are there so many shells around San Juan and Puerto Rico? Where is the shell shaped hotel restaurant?

There are a number of symbolic shells around San Juan and Puerto Rico since it is a popular Spanish and Christian symbol for baptism and pilgrimage. That is why there are many shells along the Camino Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The scallop shell design symbolizes many starting points for pilgrims that converge into one destination. There is an iconic modern Perla restaurant in La Concha that is built to look like a shell floating over ocean waves. This seashell-shaped architectural wonder is a popular wedding venue.

4. San Juan airport is not in San Juan

The San Juan airport is not in San Juan, but in the neighboring town Carolina. 

5. San Juan, Puerto Rico is considered the oldest U.S. city.

It is considered the oldest city in the U.S. as the National Park Service states, “San Juan, Puerto Rico, is the oldest continuously inhabited post-European contact city in United States territory and the second oldest in the entire Western Hemisphere.”

San Juan Puerto Rico secrets street with umbrellas huge Puerto Rican flag

6. The island of Puerto Rico was originally called San Juan.

The Island of Puerto Rico was originally called San Juan by Columbus after Saint Juan Bautista. Later, the island was renamed Puerto Rico, meaning “rich port” in Spanish. 

7. There is only one of the six original walled city gate entrances.

The walled city originally had six gate entrances. Puerta de San Juan is the only remaining gate, which you can still walk through today. 

8. The oldest standing cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is in San Juan.

The San Juan Cathedral is the oldest cathedral still standing in the western hemisphere. It also houses the tomb of the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León. 

9. This cathedral houses the mummified remains of Saint Pius, San Pio.

The San Juan Cathedral houses the mummified remains of Saint Pius, San Pio. Twelve popes have taken the saint’s name. 

10. Where is the oldest Catholic elementary school?

The Colegio de Párvulos is the oldest Catholic school for elementary education in Puerto Rico, built in 1865. 

Pina colada San Juan barrachina

11. The piña colada was invented in San Juan, but which bar and bartender originally served it?

The piña colada was invented in San Juan, but the original bartender and location are up for debate. A marble plaque outside Barrachina states Ramon Portas Mingot mixed the first piña colada there in 1963. However, the Caribe Hilton claims Ramon Monchito Marrero created the piña colada in the Beachcombers Bar in 1954. 

12. Bacardi rum is not from Puerto Rico, but originally began in Cuba.

Bacardi bottles read “Puerto Rican Rum” but Bacardi actually began in Cuba. Now you can tour its Puerto Rico factory, now the largest premium rum distillery in the world. 

13. Why does the Bacardi bottle have a bat symbol on it?

The Bacardi bottle dons a bat symbol for good luck. This represents the fruit bats living in the old distillery and the luck of the brand surviving so much, from an earthquake to exile.  

14. Is Teatro Tapia the oldest theater in the U.S.?

Teatro Tapia, founded in 1832, is the oldest, still-operating freestanding performing arts theater in the U.S.. It is named after the local playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera.  

15. Who are famous celebrities from Puerto Rico?

There are many famous celebrities from Puerto Rico including Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, Bruno Mars and Joaquin Phoenix. Lin-Manuel Miranda, known for In the Heights and Hamilton, is also from Puerto Rico. 

16. Where is the narrow house in San Juan, Puerto Rico?

La Casa Estrecha, the Narrow House, is only five feet and three inches wide. The exact address is 101 Calle de Tetuan, San Juan, 00902, Puerto Rico. Antonio Álvarez turned the neglected alleyway into a two-story yellow home, complete with living room, dining room, kitchen, bathroom and bedroom. The other, less popular, narrow house in San Juan is located at 152 Calle Sol. 

17. When was San Juan and La Fortaleza named an UNESCO World Heritage Site?

La Fortaleza and San Juan were named an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. 

18. Significance of two or three door houses in San Juan, Puerto Rico

The more doors a house had, the more taxes were paid. Often you will find two-door houses and three-door houses alternating one another. This is because the two-door houses were built later, in the space between the larger houses. 

19. Where are some early examples of concrete tiles from Spain?

Puerto Rico has some of the earliest examples of concrete tiles brought from Spain. They were cheap and decorative tiles that were revolutionary and replaced dirt floors and carpets.  

San Juan Secrets fort

20. Which is the oldest and most popular fort in San Juan? Which is the largest fort in San Juan?

El Morro might be the oldest and most popular fort, but Fort San Cristóbal is the largest Spanish fortification built by Spain in the New World.

21. Where is the haunted devil fort garita in San Juan?

The most famous of the many garitas, or sentry boxes, overlooking the water is the Garita del Diablo, built in 1634 in a remote location. This is where a soldier disappeared from his post, either to run away with his love, or, as legend says, he was taken away by the devil. The fort is closed to the public, but can be seen from the nearby street. 

Which San Juan, Puerto Rico secret surpised you most? Comment below! 

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