The tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon is in the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Old San Juan, a short walk from the San Juan fortress.
Ponce de Leon was the first governor of Puerto Rico and the first conquistador to explore the coastline of Florida. His remains were transferred from Cuba where he had died to the cathedral of San Juan in 1912. The site is worth a visit, if only to realize that this legendary explorer actually existed.
Enter the cathedral and take the side aisle. About two thirds of the way though the nave and just before you arrive at the sanctuary, there is a small chapel which contains the monument and burial site of Juan Ponce de Leon.
I looked in vain for a descriptive pamphlet or even a page of explanation about the symbolism of the monument and tomb. Neither is there any attempt to capitalize on the “Fountain of Youth” myth which is associated with Ponce de Leon.
The monument, by Spanish sculptor Miguel Blay, is in a side chapel, poorly lit and dingy. It’s difficult to make out but the sculpted figure of a woman, a queen, dominates the monument. Her cape frames a large basin from which she is drinking. It’s likely Queen Isabella representing Spain and drinking from the “Fountain of Life.”
The basin is supported on an altar-like pediment in which are entombed the remains of Ponce de Leon. The dedication, In Latin, reads in English: “Within this monument lie the bones of a lion whose great deeds proved the worth of his name.”
He probably was not the first European to see Florida, but he did name it in April of 1513. He had been driven out of his position as governor of Puerto Rico in 1512 by the son of Christopher Columbus and had been on his way to Bimini to claim another governorship.
Recently, the story that Ponce de Leon had been searching for the “Fountain of Youth” has been debunked. Apparently Ponce de Leon was simply looking for the Island of Bimini where he was to be governor. Instead, he stepped foot on the shore of the land he named “La Florida.”
In 1521, Ponce de Leon returned to La Florida with materials and colonists to secure the new land for Spain. Later in that voyage, somewhere along the west coast of Florida he was shot in the abdomen with an arrow and sought refuge in Cuba where he died from his wounds.
The year 2013 is the five hundredth anniversary of the “discovery” of Florida by Ponce de Leon.
The cathedral is open daily and there is no charge to visit the shrine of Ponce de Leon.
Gerald Watt speaks Spanish, enjoys travelling to historical sites and loves to translate Latin inscriptions.
New York Times, April 3, 2013, Op-ed piece “Ponce de Leon Exposed” by T.D. Allman, author of “Finding Florida: The True History of the Sunshine State. Visiting San Juan, Puerto Rico: the Tomb of Ponce de Leon.
“Juan Ponce de Leon” in the Encyclopedia of World Biography, www.encyclopedia.com