High above the glittering Caribbean and still enveloped by the thick, curved walls of Spanish fortresses built to deter English buccaneers in the 16th century, Old San Juan sits at the end of a 2 ½ mile limestone outcropping, separated from the noisy sprawl of the modern capital of Puerto Rico. The second-oldest European colony in The New World and the oldest settlement within the territory of the United States, Old San Juan was established by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1508 and has been continuously inhabited for over 500 years. Although pillaged by pirates for centuries, burned by the Dutch in 1625, and bombarded by the American Navy during the Spanish American War, the old colonial city remains remarkably intact. When the Treaty of Paris gave the island to the United States in 1898, San Juan was described as “one of the most attractive cities in Latin America, with stately marble-tiled public buildings,” but economic and political malaise during the 20th century left the old city in decline and nearly empty—its historic forts crumbling in the sea breezes like huge sandcastles before the tide.
Since being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, Old San Juan is returning to the refined grandeur of its former glory. In the June 2009 Conde Nast Traveler, Amy Engeler avers, “It’s hard to imagine a more beautifully preserved and lovely walled colonial city.” The narrow, deep blue cobblestone streets (made from bricks cast out of iron slag from Spanish foundries and brought over as ballast in ships,) vein quaint city blocks of lovingly restored pastel-stuccoed houses from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, their heavy wooden beams framing glimpses of sparkling San Juan Bay. Youthful new restaurants and night spots abound, providing enticing regional cuisine and the lively Latin beat of island music. Galleries and studios flourish in one of the most vibrant artist communities in the Caribbean.
Mari Carmen Ramirez, Wortham Curator of Latin American Art and director of the International Center for the Arts of the Americas at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston, has participated in planning private tours of art museums, galleries and private collections, and studio visits with distinguished Puerto Rican artists. We will stay in the heart of the old city, at the four-star Hotel El Convento, an elegantly restored 350-year old Carmelite convent and Small Luxury Hotel of the World, and the oldest member of Historic Hotels of America (a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.) We will dine in exciting restaurants showcasing Puerto Rican culinary art, including a memorable evening at chef Dayn Smith’s Perla, the stunning seashell-shaped restaurant in the newly renovated waterfront Hotel La Concha (featured in Architectural Digest, August, 2009)—a dazzling tropical Modernist icon of the 50’s, featuring Murano glass, polished wood and white marble. Other trip highlights include a walking tour of the architecture of the old city; private tours of San Felipe del Morro, La Fortalezza, and Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico; lecture on Puerto Rican history and politics; and visits to Espacio 1414 and other private collections. We will take a day trip to Caguas to visit the ceramics artist Toni Hambleton, and then to Ponce where we will meet artist Antonio Martorell, and have a behind-the- scenes tour guided by Agustin Arteaga, director of the newly renovated Museo de Arte de Ponce.
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