An Impregnable, Walled City


No story about Old San Juan can be made without taking into account the massive walls that surround it.


"Founded by Juan Ponce De Leon, the eternal optimist who for a substantial portion of his life had unsuccessfully searched for the Fountain of Youth, San Juan had quickly become a key strategic outpost in the incredibly lucrative trade route that existed between the New World and Spain. Puerto Rico was the first of the large islands--the Antilles--to greet the battered ships that crossed the endless Atlantic Ocean from Europe, and the last port to shelter those returning to their mother country. Like blood in shark-infested waters, the ships laden with treasure that docked in San Juan had attracted the attention of every pirate, privateer, and the navy of every nation hostile to Spain. To protect its strategic possession, the Spanish government had been forced to build massive defenses, including a sixteen-foot thick wall that enveloped the entire city..." Justifiable Evil, Chapter I, page 2-3.


A portion of the western wall of the old city facing San Juan Bay, with the Convent of the Siervas de Maria in the background.

Part of the southern wall of Old San Juan, as seen from the Paseo de la Princesa.

Another portion of the western wall, between the Gate of San Juan and El Morro Castle. Barely visible behind the sentry post (or "garita") is the monument to "La Rogativa", commemorating the torchlight procession of the "11,000 virgins" that scared away an overwhelmingly strong invading English force.


"For several centuries, a massive wall had surrounded the city of Old San Juan. Its proportions were epic, averaging forty feet in height, and ranging in width from a mind-boggling twenty feet at the bottom to approximately fifteen feet on top." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 152.

The present walls enclose Old San Juan's northern side (facing the Atlantic Ocean), it's western boundary (facing San Juan Bay), and most of it's southern fringe (along the Paseo de la Princesa and the tourist docks).


There are two places where the population of the ancient city grew beyond the walls: the community of La Perla (shown below), and Puerta de Tierra (literally, the "Land Portal"), to the east of the Old San Juan. Both places play prominent roles in the Justifiable Evil story.

Photo of the northern walls, facing the Atlantic, with the community of La Perla below, and El Morro in the background.

La Perla, from another angle.

The San Juan Municipal Cemetery, with La Perla in the background.

"(Colonel Calderon) had been to La Perla twice, to reconnoiter the area and locate the safehouse to which he and his men would withdraw...He had found the place to be a self-contained community, leading a completely unconnected existence from the rest of Old San Juan. It was an anomaly. La Perla was located in a small pocket of land on the northwestern shore of San Juan Island, and only separated from the rest of the city by the giant, twenty-foot wide wall that had encircled the ancient town and connected the San Cristobal and the El Morro fortresses. But it was true; La Perla led a separate existence from the rest of Puerto Rico. The police hardly ventured into its narrow streets, and only a few cars--those of its residents--ever dared to cross the only, tunnel-like portal that connected it to the rest of the world." Justifiable Evil, Chapter LXVI, page 840.



A partial view of Puerta de Tierra

Puerta de Tierra is the portion of the island of San Juan that exists between what used to be the eastern wall of the old city and the Condado Lagoon. The main State Police Station in San Juan is there, as is El Falansterio, the Supreme Court, the Muñoz Rivera Park, the Millennium Park, Fort San Geronimo, and the island's Capitol building and legislative offices. It is also the place where the fictitious Grand Laguna Hotel is situated (presently the location of the luxury resort, the Caribe Hilton Hotel).


"Six large portals had regulated the inflow of supplies and people into the city. One of them provided access from the bay; the other five from the surrounding land. At sundown, the portals were closed shut by sets of huge, wooden doors, and any traveler who had failed to enter the city was forced to spend the night outside. But not even the walls could contain the growth of the population that they sheltered. By the mid-to-late 19th century, the inhabitants of San Juan had spilled over the fortifications into the unpopulated land that lay beyond them to the east. That growth, coupled with the eradication of pirates and privateers from the neighboring waters, had spelled the partial doom for some of the walls surrounding the city. In 1897, one year before the onset of the Spanish-American War, the portal facing the land...as well as its connecting wall, had been demolished, allowing the city to expand unhindered in that direction. The vast new urban area, larger in size than Old San Juan itself, had been called "Puerta de Tierra" or "Land Gate", as a reminder that it had once served as the antechamber to the city. And with time, even that information had generally been forgotten by the modern sanjuaneros who now drove in and out of the ancient town in their modern automobiles." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 152.



La Puerta de San Juan (the "Gate to San Juan"), as it faces San Juan Bay.

La Puerta de San Juan, as seen from inside the city.

"The Portal to the Bay survived unchanged, although now its giant doors never closed. Being the only portal left, it was now called 'La Puerta de San Juan', or the 'Gate to San Juan'. In the olden days, the portal had led to a wharf and a modest staging area where the rowboats of the sailing ships anchored in the bay could tie up, meet the customs officers, and unload their freight." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, pages 152-53.



19th century photo of part of the walls of the city facing San Juan Bay


Present day photos of the same area as above, which allows people to stroll outside the walls.

Another photo of the modern promenade outside the walls facing the bay.

The promenade goes all the way to the mouth of San Juan Bay.

"Most of the city walls facing the bay...had originally risen directly from the water, or had been bordered by jagged rocks that made it nearly impossible for would-be enemies to approach the city from the water. But that had changed. Now, a wide pedestrian walkway skirted the entire rim of the bay under the city's mighty walls, interspersed with small plazas and rest areas. The walkway went all the way to the very mouth of the bay, and had become a popular spot at night for lovers to watch cruise ships sail away." Justifiable Evil, Chapter XIV, page 153.

It is from one of the plazas along the promenade that the terrorists in the book stage their attack on La Fortaleza, and from where later the U.S. Navy SEALs attempt to rescue it. (See image below)


Part of the small plaza used by the terrorists in Justifiable Evil to climb into La Fortaleza.



Whenever describing the walls that for centuries have enveloped the city of San Juan, the words "massive", "huge", or "gigantic", among many others, immediately come to mind. It is not until you walk under them, however, that you can really appreciate their enormous scale and strength. But even more, the walls exude an inevitable sense of the history compressed within them, of the countless generations who built them, who guarded them, who fiercely defended them, and who lived within them. As long as San Juan exists, these silent sentinels will testify about the old city's long and glorious past, and assure future generations about it's bright, exciting future.



(To be continued...)
















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