Centuries-old castles and forts, colonial houses, military barracks, damp cellblocks, cobblestone streets… Like few other cities this side of the Atlantic Ocean, Old San Juan sets the stage for some good old-fashioned ghost stories. Forget recent paranormal phenomena like the Chupacabra (literally, “goat-sucker”) or the mysteries of the Bermuda Triangle (of which San Juan is the southern tip): some of the stories you’ll hear within Old San Juan are as ancient as the city itself.
As tends to happen with most tales dealing with the supernatural, ghost sightings in Old San Juan are mostly a matter of hearsay. Visitors and locals have repeatedly sworn that paranormal beings inhabit certain rooms of Hotel El Convento, or that full-moon nights are favored by the spirits of the damned who were executed hundreds of years ago at the city’s mighty forts, San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristóbal.
One particular story, however, is so entrenched in Puerto Rican folklore that it was immortalized in Cayetano Coll y Toste’s 1925 collection of folk tales Leyendas Puertorriqueñas. Commonly known as La hija del verdugo (The Executioner’s Daughter), the folktale is Puerto Rico’s version of Romeo and Juliet. Set in the mid-18th Century, the story focuses on María Dolores, the daughter of the city’s executioner. The young girl fell in love with a young Spaniard by the name of Betancourt who, unbeknownst to her, wreaked havoc in the city streets with his band of thieves. Soon enough, one of the thieves was caught, tried and executed by hanging. As a warning to the other robbers, his corpse was left dangling on the gallows for 24 hours on the present site of Castillo San Cristóbal, then just a seaside hill outside the city walls.
The entire city talked about the executed thief, and María Dolores wanted to see what the fuss was all about. Curiosity turned to horror as soon as the young girl realized that the unfortunate soul was none other than her beloved Betancourt. In a fit of desperation, María Dolores hung herself by her lover’s corpse. Her father, who was responsible for lowering the corpses of the executed, also perished at the sight of his daughter’s lifeless body. Some Old San Juan residents claim to have seen the spirits of María Dolores and Betancourt strolling the city streets as they did some 300 years ago.
Legends aside, a good starting point for those on the lookout for ghosts is the Night Tales in Old San Juan walking tour. Though not necessarily intended as a ghost tour, the 2-mile guided stroll invariably touches on supernatural tales while offering visitors a glimpse of the history and myth of Old San Juan.
The tour is held every night from 6 to 8 p.m., rain or shine, and the group meets by Christopher Columbus’ statue in Plaza Colón. Be sure to ask your guide about Old San Juan’s “timeless residents” as you enjoy a unique view of one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere.