Conquistadora by Esmeralda Santiago is the story of Ana Larragoity Cubillas, a Spanish woman who is drawn to Puerto Rico by the diaries of one of her ancestors. When she makes the trip across the ocean at the age of eighteen, she soon finds that the country—and her role in it—is not what it seems. In this edition of Armchair Adventurer, we take a tour of some of Puerto Rico’s most beautiful and enduring sights.
When Ana Larragoity Cubillas gets her first view of Puerto Rico, one of the first things she sees is San Felipe del Morro, the 16th-century citadel that protects the city of San Juan. Located on the northwestern point of San Juan, San Felipe del Morro was built by the Spanish in order to guard the port from other conquering nations. “El Morro” successfully withstood attacks for two centuries—until the conclusion of the Spanish-American War, when Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States. The U.S. Army occupied El Morro until 1961, when the fort was turned over to the National Park Service for preservation.
These days, El Morro is part of the San Juan National Historic Site, which also includes an 18th-century Spanish fort, Castillo de San Cristóbal, built to protect the city from land attacks, and a small fort known as El Cañuelo. Explore the forts on your own, or take a guided ranger tour of the tunnels and outworks. If you’re lucky enough to be visiting on the third Sunday of the month, you can take in a special canon firing demonstration at El Morro. For a unique glimpse of history—and breathtaking views of the San Juan Bay—walk the Paseo del Morro trail, which follows the 15th-century masonry walls that surround Old San Juan. When you’ve had your fill of the forts, you can relax with a picnic (and a kite–the breezes off the bay are perfect!) on the bright green esplanade.
Those in search of shopping and authentic Puerto Rican cuisine can walk from the San Juan National Historic Site into “Old San Juan,” a 465-year-old commercial district with cobblestone streets and carefully restored colonial buildings. Start at the Plaza de San Jose, around which you can find souvenirs and local artisans selling carved religious figures called santos. When you’ve worked up an appetite, stop into Punto de Vista to try the mofongo—mashed plaintains combined with seafood or meat—and visit Cafecultura for a cup of strong Puerto Rican coffee.
Next up, put a little adventure in your trip with a visit to El Yunque, a tropical rainforest located in Puerto Rico’s Loquillo Mountains. El Yunque is home to thousands of plants and small animals, and the rainforest is packed with hiking trails appropriate for all skill levels. One of the most popular trails is called the Big Tree Trail—it’s paved, and takes about forty minutes to walk. The trail ends at La Mina Falls, where visitors can take a swim. If you’d rather stay try, consider visiting the Yokahu Observation Tower, which offers incredible views of the rainforest and the beaches beyond.
That’s right–the beaches! No trip to Puerto Rico would be complete without a day at the beach. Located a quick fifteen minute drive from El Yunque, Luquillo Beach is a popular choice for families. Spread out your towel on the white sand beach and enjoy the view of the rainforest as you take a dip in the (coral reef-protected!) surf. Luquillo Beach has ample parking, lockers, changing facilities, and local vendors selling food and drinks. And if you’re looking for the perfect beach book to match your surroundings, may we suggest Conquistadora?