The trip to Old San Juan shouldn't have taken us more than 10 minutes from our hotel in Condado. More than half an hour later - after missing turns twice - we stopped at a roadside in a San Juan residential area. My sister who was behind the wheels found it frustrating how our Hertz car's "NeverLost GPS" led us into this grungy neighborhood instead. A man nearby tried to help with directions but most of what he said were in Spanish. Now what do we do?
We've decided to add an extra day in San Juan before and after the cruise as a buffer against weather-related travel delays (Just 2 days before we were to fly from New York, a snowstorm did come). It's also meant to give us a leisurely pace at which we can savor Old San Juan. It may be my second visit here but I'm still excited to see this UNESCO World Heritage site again.
Puerto Rico's biggest city is about a 3-hour flight from New York. Shortly after our 11 AM arrival and reuniting with our bags at the airport, we found a waiting Hertz shuttle taking us to where we picked up our one-way car rental. We drove to our hotel at the Conrad San Juan only to be told our room won't be ready until 3 PM. Since we were hungry anyway, we walked along Avenida Ashford until we found a busy restaurant called Cafe del Angel and ordered a very filling Bistec Encebollado.
Returning to the hotel, we found a long line of guests waiting to check-in. It wasn't yet 3 PM but somehow the front desk clerk managed to give our room which turned out to be an upgraded ocean-view room. Even though we were up on the 10th floor, the sound of pounding surf can be heard which sounded like music to my insomnia. Add a very comfortable bed and I was looking forward to sleeping like a baby.
|Conrad San Juan in Condado|
|View from our balcony|
Of course I wasn't sleeping right away. The historic part of town was awaiting my return. While Old San Juan's narrow streets were not built with cars in mind, it certainly didn't deter us going there on four wheels. Especially after finding out there were parking garages available in Calle Commercio.
However, the car rental's GPS led us to the wrong street where we now got lost. Forget about the guy talking mostly in Spanish. We're losing time. Then my sister remembered something. Out of the car trunk, I got my sister's bag where she stashed her own much newer GPS. It showed the correct "Calle Commercio" at last. Duh! We should've just used that in the first place.
|San Juan Cathedral|
|Tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon inside the cathedral|
From the parking garage, pretty much everything in Old San Juan was within walking distance. It proved so convenient we decided to park there again the next day before embarking on the ship. Anyone who gets tired walking or isn't just up for it will find convenient free trolleys at Pier 4 running daily from morning till 7 PM with numerous stops at nearby attractions. With enough time on our side however, we reckon walking was better.
Immediately we felt the the old city's atmospheric vibe, its finely preserved colonial architecture grabbing our attention. Old forts, churches, cobblestone streets, plazas and townhouses painted in pastel hues all seem to pull us back into the time of conquistadors. Many of these old buildings now house art galleries, restaurants and shops selling artisanal goods. We walked into Plaza de Armas, gazing up at Alcadia (City Hall), wondering if we're somewhere in Europe instead.
|Plaza de Armas and City Hall|
|On the way to La Fortaleza|
|Capilla del Cristo|
Puerto Rico was after all integral in the Spanish conquest of the New World. Christopher Columbus may have set foot in the island first but it was Juan Ponce de Leon who founded San Juan in 1521 (the year Magellan sailed into the Philippines), erecting structures to support the cause of the Spanish Crown and the Catholic faith. It was then that the settlement was officially christened San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico.
Since San Juan was a vital military outpost and strategically located in the trade routes, it naturally attracted other invaders, notably the English and the Dutch. Several attacks from sea were hurled on the city's thick walls, a good part of which still survive today. The Spanish-American War of 1898, a war both fought in the Pacific and the Caribbean, led ultimately to San Juan and all of Puerto Rico into the hands of Uncle Sam.
|Kids frolic at the Quincentennial Plaza's water fountain|
|During weekends, kite flying is a favorite pastime among locals |
along El Morro Fort's wide and wind-swept esplanade
|Condado beach scene|
Puerto Rico to this day effectively remains an unincorporated US territory. In other words, while the island may not be part of the US proper itself, it's still under federal government and Puertorriqueños are entitled to American citizenship.Whether Puerto Rico's path should go all the way to US statehood or not is still subject of an ongoing debate.
For now, the mélange of Spanish-American-Taino culture is something locals are happy to show. Visitors like us are just too happy to indulge in. I would gladly visit even a third time - never mind if I get lost myself.