It’s expected that any edifice standing in Old San Juan holds a bit of history—the name is suggestive of such, after all. Hotel El Convento doesn’t disappoint, as it’s been standing as a convent site for about 365 years. Both a National Historic Landmark and member of the Historic Hotels of America (the only hotel in Puerto Rico of its kind), Hotel El Convento is a testament to the area’s historical richness.
Filled with quirks and perks for guests—like complimentary coffee and tea all day and night, a communal book exchange, bike rental, and a resident cat named Trixie, who can be found in the most comfortable and shaded spots—Hotel El Convento is, indeed, like no other.
On the corner of Calle Cristo, the convent was built in 1651 during the Spanish conquest, when Puerto Rico was without a convent. It was the first Carmelite Convent in the Americas and served as the nuns’ home for 252 years until 1903 when the Archbishop of San Juan deemed the repair costs too steep to continue living there. After years of vacancy, Robert Frederic Woolworth saved the convent from being bulldozed in 1957, and reopened it as a hotel in 1962.
Originally designed by an army engineer and erected by soldiers of Colonial Spain, Woolworth was resolute in honoring the original Spanish design during the renovation process; the open central courtyard, shaded by its legendary níspero fruit tree from Span, stayed, as did the tiered balconies and arched corridors. Two floors were added to the existing three, and Woolworth travelled to Spain in search of furnishings from the Golden Age. The hunt proved fruitless, and replicas of chandeliers, wrought-iron fixtures and decorative tiles were commissioned. Furniture, louvered doors and overhead beams were handcrafted out of walnut and mahogany. Guest rooms featured bedspreads and rugs woven in Granada and canopied beds with elaborate headboards. Antiques, tapestries, paintings, shields and swords, and carved chests filled the halls and galleries.
Its signature European style set the luxury hotel apart from others on the Condado strip, and the hotel’s presence prompted business development, tourism and employment in Old San, hosting celebrities like Rita Hayworth and Johnny Desmond.
In 1971, Woolworth gifted the hotel to the government to pay for the back taxes, and a slew of operators took over. A series of renovations that threatened the integrity of design happened: Red carpeting was glued over decorative tiles, wallboard was mounted to cover arches and concrete was poured over original brick walls. But in 1995, the Puerto Rican government sold the hotel to local business executives. The first two floors were redesigned to include restaurants, cafes, and meeting and banquet spaces. And perhaps most importantly, the original structure was restored before opening again in 1997.
Patio del Níspero, El Picoteo and Pizza e Birra are the three restaurants on-site. Executive Chef Luis Castillo, a native of San Juan, has made a name for himself not only in Puerto Rico, but in New York as well. Castillo uses herbs from the hotel’s rooftop garden, and finds inspiration in Puerto Rico’s culture and tropical surroundings.
I experienced Castillo’s expertise on a recent trip to Puerto Rico with fellow journalists while dining alfresco at the Patio del Níspero. Castillo crafted a menu just for us, displaying his versatility and command of the Puerto Rican culinary scene. Five courses and over two hours of eating later, we weren’t stuffed to the brim (one thing I learned in Puerto Rico was how to juxtapose moderation with indulgence), but perfectly content and delighted.
First Course: Tomato gazpacho, scallops, horseradish snow, served in a block of ice
Second Course: Roasted carrots and fennel marinade with honey and orange served with sour cream and mole, lemon grass vinaigrette
Third Course: Roasted Calabaza with zucchini marmalade and ricotta, served with Castillo’s personal olive oil he picked up in Spain on a recent trip
Fourth Course: Pan seared halibut over blood sausage, pasteles and cauliflower and potato fumet
Fifth Course: Passion fruit sorbet toasted grain granola and bay leaves
Meetings & Banquets
Despite being a historical site, Hotel El Convento’s five spaces are undoubtedly modern, complete with gourmet catering, the latest technology and audio-visual equipment, and an on-site and attentive staff. Banquets, fundraisers, board meetings, executive retreats are among the hotel’s meetings and events repertoire.
Style >> Exposed mahogany beams, warm colors, Spanish Colonial-style chandeliers; recent renovations to the flooring
Specs >> 1,500 square feet; 80 guests for a sit-down meal; theater-style, classroom-style or u-shaped configurations; flat-screen display screens; high-tech audio components
Style >> Spanish tiles, wrought-iron flourish, high ceilings
Specs >> 2,900-square-foot grand ballroom; 210 guests theater-style; 300 capacity for cocktail reception; flexible configuration; high-tech audio-visual equipment
Style >> Ornate
Specs >> 800 square feet; 70 guests
Style >> "Las monjas letradas" (Nuns & Letters) theme; paintings, glass doors, lettered lamps, murals, metal plants and tablecloths depict images of nuns and their writings
Specs >> 800 square feet; 40 guests; complimentary high-speed wireless Internet access; state-of-the-art audio-visual equipment and support upon request
Style >> Mahogany conference table and executive chairs
Specs >> 10 guests
Hotel El Convento | elconvento.com