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June 21, 2010 / ebretzel

Life in Old San Juan

What’s this you say? Tell me more about your Caribbean trip? Glad to oblige. Can you tell I wish I were still there? I swear I’m almost done and then I’ll be on to more mundane things, most likely crafts.

Since Sunday flights are so expensive we decided to stay one extra night in Old San Juan upon our return from the cruise. We promptly hopped into a taxi and Ryan tried to make conversation with the driver. It became clear pretty quickly that she didn’t fully understand English. “What time does the fort open?” Ryan asked. “Ah yes, the fort. It is very beautiful. Very close,” replied the driver. Both of these statements did turn out to be true, as our hotel was about 2 blocks away from the fort entrance and it was indeed very breathtaking.

In fact, you are pretty much always close to the fort, considering that the original city was built within it’s walls. It was too early to check into our room so we left our luggage at the hotel and wandered down to the pier to finish off our postcards. Early Sunday morning the place was deserted except for some pigeons. The first thing that struck me was the unusual blueish/silver cobblestone streets. I have never seen anything like it! Lined by tall colorful buildings I imagine it could be a village made out of candy.

Our one and only item on our agenda was to see the fort so we headed there next. El Morro was built in the 1500’s to guard San Juan which was considered the “Gateway to the Caribbean” at that time. After Puerto Rico became a part of the United States in the 1880’s it saw combat for the last time during World War II. There is supposedly a shell stuck in the wall somewhere from the Spanish-American war but we couldn’t find it.

We spent the day exploring every nook and cranny of the fort. For something so old it’s amazing how intact and solid it is. There is a wide grassy field on the outer part of the fort which is writhing with iguanas. Everywhere you stepped the things would slither out away from you with a creepy, scratching noise. Sometimes you would just see their tails disappearing into cracks and holes out of the corner of your eyes. Ryan made it his mission to chase every one he saw and got very frustrated when a lazy couple of iguanas would not even flinch when he tossed rocks at them from the top of the wall. I could live without ever seeing an iguana again. I think they’re kind of gross.

When Ryan finally got sick of chasing iguanas we headed over to the other side of town where the original part fort was built. Along the shore is a huge cemetery packed to the brim with tombs, and leading up to the fort is a long walkway up a grassy hill. All along the hill are people flying kites. I’m talking like hundreds of kites. It’s a pretty amazing sight. I guess it is windy all the time there on the peninsula sticking out into the ocean.

From the top of that fort you can see another, even tinier fort across the bay. It seemed microscopic but served a very important function, which was to provide crossfire to any ships that tried to come between the two. There are 5 levels to the fort that were built during the fort’s history. The last one was finished over 250 years ago.

Our feet were tired so we hopped on the free trolley that circled around the town. Unbeknownst to us, while were exploring history the town had filled up with thousands of people and cars, and had accumulated into a massive traffic jam. By the time the trolley got back to the first fort, 45 minutes had passed. If we hadn’t been so pooped we would have abandoned the slowest trolley of all time, but we were happy to take a break and hopefully get close to what we thought might be a castle. 2 hours later we found out that the trolley had skipped all of the stops in the middle and was heading back up to the 2nd fort, right where we got on. It was time to jump ship.

In about 15 minutes we had walked back to the waterfront which had been abandoned that morning, but was now transformed into a little street carnival. We wandered past street vendors and performers and stopped to look at crafts people were selling. We decided to share a monster sandwich from a cart which had beef, turkey and pork, topped with mustard, mayo and ketchup.

We ended our evening with a local beer, Medalla, at a Rasta/Jamaican bar next to our hotel. We stayed at Da House, which used to be a convent. After the nuns moved out it was taken over by artists and eventually turned into a hotel. As a homage, each hotel room is named after a particular artist and decorated accordingly. Our room was “close to the party,” as the website described it, which means it is next to the alley. Directly below us were at least 3 bars and we could hear people talking, laughing and singing along to live music into the night.

The next morning we awoke early to do our final exploration. The street carnival had once again turned into empty streets, save one booth selling Mavi – a mysterious root-beer like beverage made from some exotic rainforest plant. We walked along the wall until we reached a ceremonial gate into the city. It used to be used by visiting kings and dignitaries but is now permanently propped open.

Through the gate and up the street was what we took to be the elusive castle which was guarded by police, and near that we came across a small chapel which was on the top of the wall and overlooked the harbor. We took a break in a small park next to the chapel and gazed out at the rest of island. We could see pretty far, and it was clear where the city ended and the rainforest began. Maybe someday we’ll come back to hang out with the coqui’s and rent a treehouse like our shipmates Michael and Michelle did.

Old San Juan is definitely worth a visit, and we could have spent the rest of the week exploring it. We even stopped in at an open house, but space is such a hot commodity – you definitely pay the price for it. If I get a chance to come back I would love to see more of Puerto Rico. But until then, Hasta la Vista!

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