Enjoy this classic ghost story from ISLANDS magazine.
I open the window of the taxi as we cross the bridge that takes us into Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan). “You need to feel the wind, the heat, the smells,” insists my driver. “You need to hear the passion in the voices of my people. Otherwise, Puerto Rico will escape you.”
The driver slows down as we slip into the grid of narrow blue-cobbled streets. We pass by old men talking and laughing at the Plaza de Armas with its Four Stations fountain reflecting the start of twilight, a twilight with tints of orange and pink and a shiver of magic as the last touch of the sun glances on the high cirrus clouds that crown the city. The cloak of nightfall follows us from Calle Fortaleza to Calle Cruz and from Calle San Sebasti¿n to Calle del Cristo. The blue stones we travel upon came over in the ballast of Spanish galleons. From the 16th century into modern times, these same streets and buildings have felt the trod of soldiers, settlers, explorers, priests, mothers and fathers. They’ve known war, strife, fear, wealth, poverty and great joy, the deep passions of love and life, emotions that permanently embed themselves into buildings, shadows and even the hot Caribbean air and warm Caribbean Sea.
“Every night,” my driver tells me, “the ghost ships of every nation that ever attacked our great El Morro line up in the dark to try again.” El Morro is the 16th-century castle that was built to protect the island’s harbor.
He pauses, easing the car up next to an open door.
“They never succeed, of course. Even in the afterlife.” His tone is so matter-of-fact, it’s as if he’d witnessed the event the previous night.
“Have you seen this?” I asked.
“Sometimes ¿ if I’ve had enough to drink,” he laughs. “My sister is more sensitive to such things. But I have seen the sentries at their posts on las murallas, the walls of the rampart. They are there every night. I’m sure you will see them.”
He calls out of his window. A woman dressed in a cooking apron appears in the doorway. He tells her he will be by later. She says he’s crazy with a smile that speaks otherwise.
“Inhale,” he says. “Inhale. This is the key to finding the true Puerto Rico. The stomach, heart and soul are all together, you see. And, you must eat asopao. I won’t tell you what it is, only that you must eat it. They say the saints come alive at night to eat this dish.” He blows the woman a kiss.
Like all Puerto Ricans, my driver bristles with passion. And he fills my stomach with piquant dreams of asopao, tostones and mofongo. As he winds his way through the city, he slows down in front of a barely-there restaurante owned by some member of his family and lets the bouquet of sofrito, the base of many local dishes, waft into the car. These are local eateries, not part of the official restaurant guide.
I look into shop windows and the open doorways and windows of homes as we drive. I see santos (saints), the religious idols that populate every store, grocery and home throughout the city, and I imagine them all coming alive at midnight to search the shadowy realms of Viejo San Juan for a small taste of spicy and tangy stew. This I hope to witness.
“Do you cook yourself?” I ask the driver.
“I do,” he says. “It’s a small passion of mine. Food is like a miracle to me, a milagro.¿ You understand Spanish?”
“Yes, a little.”
“Then you know milagro ¿ when all the spices and meat and plantains come together just right. It’s, to me, you know, like a milagro that is never the same twice. I have a saint in my kitchen to bear witness to these miracles. She’s a gorda, too, from all the food.” He laughs, then quiets, staring out the window. I imagine he is remembering some recent culinary creation that erupted into the universe from beneath the cape of his kitchen and with the blessings of his own personal fat kitchen saint, too. El santa gorda de la cocina.
As we wend our way to Hotel El Convento, a converted 17th- century convent from which I’ll explore, it’s as if the car is enchanted. Lamps rouse themselves from the sleepy heat of the day as we pass, brimming and starting to life over homes and buildings whose presence whispers through Old San Juan’s past and present. Looking up, the brightest stars begin to fight their way through the nightfall, bursting out spectacularly as I gaze into the sky.
La Noche ¿ with all its insinuations and hidden shadows, with its candle-lit tables and expectant rendezvous, its 17th-century ghosts and alleyways ¿ comes with a sudden transformation, as if carried in on a passing breeze. The city becomes altered completely by the orange and yellow illumination of lighted buildings. And the streets glow with anticipation as the air stills.
“Keep your mind open and you will see the ghost ships off El Morro,” says the driver. “Go through the city gate. Lights dance at night in the sentry posts. Perhaps you’ll even feel the cold touch of the old nun that roams your hotel. But you must keep your mind open. Like the memory of a good meal, the old city remembers its people well,” he says, just before he pulls away.
He waves. I watch him drive down the Calle del Cristo, past the imposing San Juan Cathedral, turning at Calle Fortaleza and disappearing into the darkness. And just like that, he becomes a memory, ghostly wisps of conversation. I try to remember what color shirt he wore and for the life of me, I can’t.
When I was a kid in London, my parents used to take the family on haunted weekends. We’d go to castles, old manor homes and rectories, and after dinner we’d walk with flickering candelabras through dungeons, secret passageways, overgrown gardens and spiderweb-filled attics looking for ghosts. I remember noises, creaks, groans, cold spots, but no ephemeral encounter. But I’d been bitten by that euphoric combination of dread, fear and thrill that rippled up my spine, exiting the back of my neck with a hair-raising tingle. I’m always the first to sign up for ghost tours when I travel and love the local stories of otherworldly encounters and unquiet places. When I first visited Old San Juan with its interesting mix of magic and the familiar, its stoic fortifications and 400-year-old buildings, and the belief that esp¿ritu, spirits of the dead, roam the island by night, I knew I’d found a world ripe for nocturnal exploration. And with this thought, I step from my room and hotel to roam the calles in search of nightlife and a good asopao.
Old San Juan changes at night. It’s as if a different shift takes over. The streets quiet during the transition. For the briefest moment, one might believe the city is abandoned. Then, lights turn on in homes. Couples, dressed for the night ¿ men in slacks and pressed, long-sleeved shirts; women in dresses and heels ¿ make their way to their favorite restaurants, laughing and talking in hushed tones. Deep bass-beats from the early-opening clubs swell into the night. And all the art and sculpture that fill the parks of the city seem to inhale.
I ramble across the Plazuela de las Monjas, steps from the massive wooden doors and black-and-white tiled entry of El Convento. When I’d stepped from my room moments earlier, I’d stood right outside the door, eyes roaming the shadows. I could see the domed roofs of the San Juan Cathedral through the open air arches of the Convento’s courtyard. Fast moving clouds swept behind the crosses on the Cathedral’s domes, lit by the lights of the city, making the world look as if it were spinning extra-fast. I had felt the first rush of evening.
When I cross the plaza, I turn right down Caleta de San Juan Street, which was many a pilgrim’s, sailor’s and prisoner’s first entry through the thick walls of the city. The short street goes straight into the cathedral, so that all who entered could feel the might and beneficence of the Catholic church, go immediately to confession, and, of course, tithe. The gate has a presence, as all entryways do. It feels imposing, but the Paseo de la Princesa that it spills out onto and that wraps around the old wall is a favorite walk for lovers. Several pass through with me and continue onward hand in hand. I suddenly wish I were with my love as the romance of the place washes over me. But one of the old sentry posts sits right there in front of me. I look inside. Empty. A security guard stands nearby.
“Hola,” I approach. “Habla usted Ingl¿s?”
“You ever see anything strange in these sentry posts?”
“Oh, every night. Lights, shadows moving. When it gets very late, I’ve even heard voices.” He seems quite nonchalant about the encounters.
“Voices? What do they say?”
He shrugs. “I only hear whispers. It’s nothing.”
“No. I used to work at the old jail, which is now a tourism office. Every night, that place ¿ it was too much. Doors and windows would open, chairs would move, lights would turn on and off. I had to ask for a transfer. I still give that building space when walking past, even during the day. This whole town whispers, though. The buildings have lives when we aren’t looking.”
I sit for a while watching shadows. A cat walks up and sprawls out in front of the sentry post. The city lights reflect upon the harbor water. A couple walks past and I begin to feel a bit intrusive.
I decide to try the ghost ships instead.
I retrace my steps through the gate, walk up Calle del Cristo, and cross San Sebasti¿n where a younger crowd has gathered around the Ponce de Le¿n Monument. Music pours from the nearby clubs. Reggaet¿n, thick and heavy, spills out into the streets as young couples pulse in and out of doorways. I smell sofrito from somewhere, mixed with the heavy cologne and sensual perfumes that remind me of my own youth. My stomach rumbles, but I forge on, past the Totem, a pottery-shard-covered monument representing the different archaeological periods of Puerto Rico, and onward to the wide expanse of grass that leads to the imposing Fuerte San Felipe del Morro castle, or simply El Morro.
I stand on the massive wall that has held back the British and American navies, that has kept this island secure. I gaze out into the dark for an hour. Sailboats pass. A cruise ship, which surely has enough light to be seen from space, slips off to the horizon. Couples come and go, embracing, whispering, laughing. El Morro, which is lit, glows bright orange against the night sky. Its lighthouse sweeps the dark. I search the sentry posts that surround it. I think I see movement, but it could be hunger. My mind mustn’t be open. The ghostly galleons evade my senses, even the shadows.
I walk away feeling a bit deflated. I hadn’t heard the jingle of chains, otherworldly wails, footsteps of wandering esp¿ritu ¿ nothing in this night-haunted city. On the way back to the hotel, I pass the Plazuela de la Rogativa, which has a statue showing the Bishop of San Juan flanked by three even braver girls. It commemorates the suppression of an English siege in 1797. It was the passage of the rogativa, or divine appeal to God, that allegedly led to the milagro of the English retreat and saved the city’s residents from dysentery, which threatened them because of the naval blockade. Surely there is some energy left there I can tap into. I circle the statue then peer out over the wall to the lights on the other side of the bay. To have something to do, I take a photo of the nearby sentry post with its intriguing lights, shadows and secrets and then head to dinner.
I wander down Calle San Francisco to La Bombonera. This Old San Juan institution feels like it was transplanted from old world Spain. It is packed, as the driver said it would be when he’d recommended it. I manage a seat at the formica counter and order the seafood asopao, or asopao de mariscos. The food here seems to come straight from the kitchen of a local mother. The soup comes alive in me. The garlic, onions, rice, fish and spicy broth are like a milagro in my body. I now have a local haunt of my own. I finish up the night with a flan that melts like butter in my mouth and some coffee that I wouldn’t mind a bit of sleeplessness to enjoy.¿¿
Back in my room at Hotel El Convento I lie awake, wondering what history, what stories, the room has to tell. Where is the ghostly nun hiding? How can I gain access to the old jail? Just past 2 a.m. (yes, I look), the window to my room swings open with a click. I sit up in bed trying not to move or break the spell. Even though I know it is the wind, my imagination rides on its coattail. Then the front door to my room rattles. I feel somehow satisfied, and I quickly fall into a dream-filled sleep. When I awake, the window is still open. I sit at breakfast in the courtyard with birds chirping and fluttering, shafts of sunlight warming the day and muted conversations humming all around, wondering if anyone had a similar experience that night ¿ if anyone had seen a spectral nun. I ask the waiter what he knows.
“I think it’s over-active imaginations. There’s no such thing as ghosts. But, of course, I do not roam the streets of El Viejo late at night.”
He smiles, refills my cup, and for a brief instant I believe I see a face in the steam that rises from the hot liquid. And just like that, it disappears.
STAY UP LATE: Roam the old city under moonlight on a historic “Night Tales” story-telling tour. This two-hour walking tour takes place throughout the year and highlights the remarkable events that have unfolded within La Cuidad Amurallada, the walled city, since the 1500s. Rates from $220. www.sheratonoldsanjuan.com
THE OLD WORLD: Soak up the atmosphere of four-star Hotel El Convento, a restored and converted convent that dates back to the 17th century.¿ You’ll stay in the same rooms that once housed Carmelite nuns. The tapas restaurant, El Picoteo, is one of the best in the city. Rates from $185. www.elconvento.com
KICK IT: Stop by one of the many clubs that line Calle San Sebasti¿n. Locals flock into the old city around midnight and follow the deep reggaet¿n beats to their favorite hangouts. If you want something quieter, head to Calle Fortaleza where you’ll find a plethora of the Caribbean’s top restaurants, such as Parrot Club or Dragonfly. For an authentic Puerto Rican asopao, you must eat at La Bombonera.