Old San Juan cemetery: the white graveyard overlooking the ocean that is accessed through a tunnel.
According locals, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, even a cemetery is extraordinary. And, apparently, this is one of the most beautiful in the world.
Nestled on a hill in front of the blue Atlantic waters, and framed by the city walls, this beautiful cemetery is located amid two of the island’s busiest attractions, the El Morro fort and Castillo San Cristóbal. It lies close to the infamous neighborhood of La Perla, and is reached by way of a tunnel leading to the main gate.
The gravestones have been placed very close to each other, especially close to the ocean.
The cemetery, named in honor of Saint Maria Magdalena de Pazzi – an Italian Carmelite nun declared a saint by the Catholic Church – but known simply to locals as the Old San Juan Cemetery, dates back to early 1863 when construction was begun and it was then administered by Carmelite nuns.
Before it was designated an official cemetery, there was a “Cementerio Provisional” on the same grounds, dating to 1845. Construction for the official cemetery began in 1863 under the auspices of Ignacio Mascaró and it was opened in 1865, with an expansion in 1884. The side closest to the chapel is the older section, while the side closest to the current entrance is the newest section.
The oceanfront location of the cemetery is symbolic of the journey over to the afterlife and originates from Spanish superstition and fear of death.
In fact, can we imagine a better place to rest with the constant sounds of ocean waves, whistling of the trade winds, and the laughter of children running on the grounds of El Morro flying kites?
Burial site of some of Puerto Rico’s most famous citizens, including Academy Award-winning actor and director Jose Ferrer, liberal politician Jose de Diego, musician Rafael Hernandez, the founder of the Puerto Rican statehood movement Jose Celso Barbosa, and Rafael Cordero, known as “The Father of Public Education in Puerto Rico”, it is perfectly understandable why it is one of the most sought after by Puerto Ricans and many paying top dollars for a place here.
From inside the cemetery, there’s a great view of El Morro to one side, and La Perla to the other while, facing toward the island, you look upwards at the colorful houses of Old San Juan. In the center of the grounds is a small chapel, where you can get an elevated view of the nearby tombs, enjoy some shade, and feel the ocean breezes.