Uncommon Attraction: Capilla del Cristo Chapel, Old San Juan
Old San Juan is a treasure trove of historic sites, many of them steeped in religious traditions that date back hundreds of years. The majestic 16th century San Juan Cathedral, among the rarest of medieval structures over here in the New World, garners most of the attention, and rightfully so.
Architecture buffs revel in the Cathedral’s vaulted Gothic ceilings, while history lovers enjoy visiting the tomb of the legendary Spanish explorer, Ponce de León. It’s simply a magnificent attraction not to be missed.
Still, I like the humble little chapel pictured here better.
This is the Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud, otherwise known as the Cristo Chapel. Perched atop the ancient wall that once protected the old city at the very south end of Cristo Street (just a short walk from the San Juan Cathedral), Cristo Chapel is hallowed ground for those who believe in a Higher Power.
Before the Chapel was built in the mid- to late-1700’s, anyone venturing toward this end of Cristo Street needed to be careful, or else they might fall off the towering wall to their death. In fact, just such a fate once seemed assured of the man who built the Chapel.
According to the local legend related to me by the guy in the photo, the builder found himself one day riding aboard a runaway horse heading straight toward the end of the street. Try as he might, the man just could not get the horse to stop. As the steep drop drew closer, the man prayed to God, begging for salvation. Suddenly, at the very last instant, the horse stopped… directly on the spot where Cristo Chapel now sits.
The event was seen as a miracle, which was marked by the construction of the Chapel. It took 23 years to build the small and simple structure that today, some 230 years later, remains an enduring symbol of faith… and one of Old San Juan’s most unique attractions.
As for the guy in the photo, his name is Antonio. Born in a private home just a few blocks from Cristo Street, this 70 year-old man comes to this spot just about every day to play his accordion for anyone who happens by. If you have the time, he’s good for an interesting story or two as well…