“It was a dark and stormy night . . . .” How many works of fiction start like that? Well, this isn’t a work of fiction and it was morning rather than night when we sailed into San Juan’s harbor on December 17, but the rest of that phrase applied. We got up early in the hope of seeing the sail in past the fort of El Morro that is supposed to be a good one. But the captain double-crossed us by arriving about a half hour before the scheduled time. So we missed it, getting out on deck only after we were well into the harbor. It was pretty dark still and rainy and overcast, so we probably wouldn’t have seen much anyway (those grapes were probably sour anyway, right?).
We have been to San Juan a few times, most recently on the 2018 world cruise. On that occasion we were docked right by the old town, where you could step off the ship and walk into town. You can see that visit, and read more about San Juan, here:
This time we were docked quite a distance away so that we had to take a shuttle bus to get into town. Here is what it looked like from there.
It rained off and on for most of the morning and a lot of passengers decided to spend the day on the ship. But not us! Carrying our umbrellas we ran through the rain to the shuttle bus and boarded for the lengthy trip into old town. The old town is built on a fairly steep hill up from the waterfront and the shuttle dropped us off in Columbus Square, a little way up. We walked around that delightful neighborhood for awhile, uncharacteristically gray from rain and overcast, and had to run for cover several times.
We walked over to the Parque de las Palomas (Park of the Pigeons). The park sits on top of the old city walls where it was originally built in the second half of the 18th century as a gun emplacement. Its name comes from all the pigeons that can usually be seen here (but not on the rainy day we visited) and the fact that part of this park is the only place were it is legal to feed pigeons in San Juan. The park was closed for renovation in 2015 and after being damaged by Hurricane Maria in 2017 it did not reopen until May of 2022, about 7 months before we arrived. A brick and stone wall lining the city side of the park has holes, like a dovecote, where the pigeons hang out. There are some old gnarled looking trees, colorful decorations and a killer view of the bay over the top of the city wall that must be even more spectacular when the sun is out. There were pigeons in residence but nothing like the huge crowds of birds that can be seen here on nice days when local folks are out spreading corn meal for them to eat. An arch was above the walkway in the park with a blue sign next to it: “Please do not feed the birds beyond this point.”
Leaving the park we headed up to the top of the hill where we walked along the cobblestone street past the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista (the city’s namesake) to the statue of the conquistador Ponce de Leon, who founded the city in the early 16th century. The statue is in a park next to a church called Iglesia de San Jose, built shortly after the city was founded, where Ponce de Leon’s body was interred for almost 300 years before being moved to the cathedral.
Finally getting our bearings we realized that El Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the fort we primarily wanted to visit today, was actually in the opposite direction. So we walked back along the soggy streets a good way until we finally spotted it.
San Juan was a very valuable city for the Spanish, known as the “key to the Antilles.” So they built several fortifications to defend it from attack. The two largest forts in old San Juan are Fort San Cristobal, built in the 16th and 17th centuries, and El Morro, first constructed in 1540. We explored San Cristobal when we were last here in 2018 so this time we decided to visit El Morro, which we had once visited many years ago.
El Morro is built on an imposing spot, on a high rocky promontory (which is what el morro means) at the entrance to the bay. It was originally just a round tower with four cannon, but by the end of the 18th century it looked pretty much as it does today. It held off repeated attacks by the British and Dutch and in 1898 the Americans attacked the fort three times, but took over only after Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the US at the end of the Spanish American War. It was transferred from the military to the National Park Service in 1961 and restored mostly to its appearance during Spanish rule.
We entered through the front gate passing what used to be a moat and were given a booklet with our free admission. Admission to this fort is $10 for each adult, but if you have a National Parks Service Senior Pass it is free, so we saved $20. We learned about this on our last visit to Puerto Rico when we had to pay full admission to Fort San Cristobal because we had left our Senior passes at home, forgetting that the last stop on our world cruise was actually in the United States where that pass would be honored. I guess we are not yet too old to learn a new trick.
We walked around the main courtyard and looked at the museum exhibits inside the rooms there. Then we climbed up to the top of the walls, which are some 18 feet thick. At the corners of the walls are turrets called garitas that were used as sentry posts and sea watchtowers. From the walls was a nice view of the city beyond the large grassy open space in front of the fort. This open space had been a defensive feature, providing a vast area without shelter that any enemy attacking by land would have to cross under heavy fire from the fort. When the American military occupied the fort after the Spanish American war they built recreation facilities there, including a baseball field and a golf course.
The gray tower visible over the top of the fort’s walls is a lighthouse. It was first built in 1846, making it the oldest lighthouse in Puerto Rico, but it became unusable after American naval bombardment in May of 1898 during the Spanish American War. The Americans had it up and running less than a year later but in 1905 it developed a dangerous crack and had to be replaced with the current tower. When we visited the lighthouse was closed and fenced off, perhaps for more repair and renovation.
On the ocean side of the fort was a triangular extension on a lower level that once contained cannon emplacements (I’m pretty sure each of the circular markings was for one cannon). This must have been a formidable barrier for any hostile ship trying to turn this corner to enter the bay. The surf was vigorous on the rocky promontory and there was a long island with palm trees in the distance.
We left the fort and headed back into town to find somewhere for a late lunch. Because of the intermittent rain we wanted to eat and, more importantly, sit down inside. We ended up having two generous plates full of delicious empanadas at a small place called La Danza. We were seated at a nice table in an open doorway on a side street, which was blocked off for some reason and guarded by police. With the rain outside not quite hitting our table it was a very pleasant place to eat and relax after a lot of walking on wet and uneven surfaces.
Then, a bonus! looking across the side street from our seats in the open door we spotted a sign on the wall for Anita’s gelato place. Jeremy, our cruise and travel director, had raved about this gelato place during his port talk so we decided to have dessert there. And boy was Jeremy right! We have had gelato in a lot of cities around the world but this was certainly one of the best. Not only was the gelato really good but they dished it out very generously. Only in New Zealand can we recall them packing more gelato into a single scoop. Its fun to watch them keep adding more after your cup or cone already looks more than full. We have never seen anything like that in the US before.
It turned out we had inadvertently come full circle. At the end of the street our restaurant was on we saw the Capilla del Cristo, a small chapel built in the 18th century. Legend has it that during a horse race one rider lost control and went over the wall. A bystander invoked the deity to save him and although the horse died the rider lived. This chapel was reputedly built as a monument to this miracle. The chapel is only open one day a week and it wasn’t the day we were there, so we weren’t able to see the inside. But the left side of the chapel in the picture below is also one side of the Parque de las Palomas we had visited in the morning and a number of the park’s denizens were perched on top under a dull gray sky. We walked on toward the shuttle bus stop, stopping for a while in a small park full of flowers where we talked to our daughter on the phone (easy since this was in the US). The bus was waiting when we arrived and took us back to the ship.
Thus ended our voyage around Africa, since San Juan was our last port before disembarking in Ft Lauderdale on December 20. It was a fascinating and eye opening journey with many new and different areas and peoples to see and meet. It had its downside (particularly the time in quarantine) but overall it was well worth doing, with many experiences we will long remember.
But before we leave it should be recalled that one of the downsides to this trip was the timing, getting us home (after a two day drive) on December 22, just two nights before Christmas Eve, with no time to prepare our usual family activities. The ship’s crew began decorating the ship for Christmas shortly before we left the continent of Africa, however. There were decorations all over, but Christmas Central was in the atrium with a large display that took about four days for them to complete. And when we arrived home we still had the best part of the Christmas season, spending several days with our family and watching our usual Christmas fare together on TV, primarily that old Christmas favorite the original Star Wars trilogy on Christmas day. So we will leave this episode of the blog and the entire voyage with a few Christmas pictures from the ship’s atrium.