At El Jibarito, a cafe in the heart of Old San Juan, diners ate platters of fish with the heads still on and vegetables I didn't recognize. Chicken Cordon Bleu was the only thing on the menu that looked familiar, so I asked the waiter to order for me. Just not the fish, I said.

The dish he brought, pollo criollo with yucca mofongo, had the creamy sauce of a basic chicken stew, but also a spicy lime kick. The texture was familiar, but the taste exotic. The same could be said for Old San Juan, where a 16th-century stone fortress stands five blocks from a Marshall's discount store and you can buy a Puerto Rican vejigante mask with U.S. dollars.

I went to Puerto Rico in part because it's easy. Flights are nonstop, I didn't need a passport and most people speak English. A couple of my friends discouraged me, saying that San Juan was a lot like Miami, but I also wanted a Caribbean experience that I knew I couldn't get while sipping fruity drinks at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico or strolling Miami's South Beach.

I stayed in Old San Juan, a small island that's connected to the rest of San Juan -- Puerto Rico's largest city -- by several causeways. As I made my way there by taxi, I passed rows of high-rise condos and resorts that stand shoulder to shoulder along the Atlantic coastline. Near the old town, traffic slowed and I watched through clouds of car exhaust as kids dove from bridge railings into a shallow lagoon.

My taxi dropped me at Plaza Colon, near my hotel on a pedestrian-only street. There a statue of the plaza's namesake, Christopher Columbus, who became the first European to land on the island in 1493, stood amid shade trees and park benches. The afternoon air was heavy with humidity and the streets quiet except for the thumping of my roller suitcase as I dragged it over hazy blue cobblestones to my hotel. Those same worn stones -- made from the ballast of Spanish ships that stopped here on their way to plunder the riches of the New World nearly 500 years ago -- line many of the streets of Old San Juan.

After checking into my hotel and setting out to explore the town, a seven-block grid of streets, I wondered if Old San Juan really had gone the way of Miami.

Near the boat docks, a hulking new Sheraton Hotel with a casino and neon window signs was almost tall enough to block views of three massive cruise ships in the harbor. Most of the town still has its two- and three-story Spanish Colonial buildings with tall windows and balconies, but the narrow sidewalks below are lined with electronics stores, fast food chains and souvenir shops.

The town seemed overwhelmed by tourists, too, including some who were padding around in swimsuits and flip-flops, an odd sight because Old San Juan has no beaches.

Music and moonlight

Back at my room, I sipped sweet pineapple juice I'd bought at a corner store and watched night fall over the city.

Later, I ate at a restaurant on Plaza Colon, where tourists who had just stepped off cruise ships in the nearby harbor hurried from shop to shop in search of a piece of Puerto Rico. A dark cloud moved in and poured down rain, sending shoppers back to their ships, presumably with nothing more than a trinket and a wet memory of Old San Juan.

I felt grateful that I would have several days to explore the city. After dinner, I ventured out into the damp, empty streets lined with dark storefronts and glistening cobblestones. At night, I could see what Old San Juan must have looked like before the tourist boom in the 1960s. Moonlight filled the narrow alleys and streets, exposing cracks like wrinkles in an old man's face on the stucco facades of buildings. And every once in a while, the silky voice of some Puerto Rican pop star floated from an open window above the storefronts.

Back at my hotel -- a budget option in the heart of the old town -- I dimmed the lights and waited for the music to begin at the salsa bar downstairs, the Nuyorican Cafe (a melding of New York and Puerto Rican). A few posts on complained about the noise and suggested bringing earplugs, but I was excited to eavesdrop on the sounds of San Juan, so I opened the windows.

A history lesson

I worried that San Juan had lost itself to the cruise ships that bring in nearly a third of all tourists who visit every year, so early the next morning I walked the town from end to end in hopes of getting my bearings -- geographically and culturally -- before the crowds arrived.

At the Parque de las Palomas (pigeon park) at the top of a fortress wall, I stopped to enjoy views of the mountains of central Puerto Rico and the still bay below. Pigeons cooed in a canopy of tree branches above and from small hiding spots in the fortress wall, while a vendor selling birdseed hosed the stained cobblestone courtyard. Most people come here for the view, but the faithful return because it is said that if you feed a pigeon and it drops a "pearl" on your head, you'll be blessed by God. I watched where I walked and left unstained and unblessed.

At El Morro, one of two forts perched along the high cliffs along San Juan's Atlantic coastline, a park employee explained the various influences on the culture of San Juan. In the 1500s the Spaniards built the forts at the entrance to the Bahía de San Juan (Bay of San Juan) to protect access to other parts of the New World, including the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America and South America. The island had been inhabited by Taino Indians when the Spaniards arrived, but they couldn't survive exposure to the diseases introduced by the newcomers. African slaves were brought to the island by the Europeans. In more recent years the island's relationship with the United States has influenced its culture.

Knowing that helped me understand the island's unique criolla cuisine, a reflection of the African, Spanish and other Europeans who lived here.

During a walking tour of the old town, guide David Longley said that many Puerto Ricans resist any cultural association with the United States even though they carry U.S. passports. We passed a field where workers were cutting the grass with hand tools, a job that could be done more quickly with a hand mower, but adherence to old ways is typical for many in Puerto Rico, he said. "Time has no relevance here on this island," he said.

Feeling the beat

By the end of the second day I was already feeling the rhythm of the city and beginning to see beyond the cruise ships, street vendors and the straw hats with "Puerto Rico" emblazoned on the brim. I started my days at La Bombonera, where regulars play dominoes, waiters in red aprons drop oranges into a juice machine and the specialty of the house is Mallorca, a sweet bun that's buttered, grilled and sprinkled with powdered sugar. I came here for a taste of what Old San Juan must have been like before Walgreens moved in down the street.

During the evenings I visited "SoFo," a neighborhood south of Fortaleza Street that's become the epicenter of Latin fusion cuisine. At the Parrot Club I sipped a mojito and watched waiters deliver platters of plantain nachos, and on another night I ate at the Dragonfly, famous for its sake martinis and lobster summer rolls with fresh mango and crispy noodles.

After several days of seeing the ocean from a distance, I moved to a small resort outside the old town. On my last day in Puerto Rico, I rented a bike and rode along the Atlantic coastline into the old town for the last night of the annual San Sebastian festival, held each year in January.

During the day the celebration was a traditional street fair with artists hawking wooden santos figurines said to carry the powers of the saints, and replicas of the masks that were used to scare sinners back to the church. The enticing smell of bacalaitos -- cod fritters -- floated in the air, and kids too young to drink guzzled cheap Mexican beer from neon plastic sippy cups.

By nighttime, crowds had clogged the streets and I was standing shoulder to shoulder with people from all over the Caribbean. Revelers hung from balconies, and I watched two elderly couples dance the night away, getting lost in the sweaty beat of a salsa band that played on a stage overlooking the bay. I was getting lost in the moment, too, and had long stopped wondering if San Juan had sold its soul and had become just another Miami. Now I was sure it hadn't.

Jim Buchta • 612-673-7376