Puerto Rico, our introduction to the Caribbean, had us excited about getting up early.
PUERTO RICO, CARIBBEAN
After a hop from Vancouver to Salt Lake City and a skip to Atlanta and then a jump to Puerto Rico, we landed in San Juan. A security lady pointed to two younger women in orange golf shirts by the airport’s curb. “Ask them,” she said, “they will give you a taxi voucher.”
We found out from one of the women in orange, that there was no longer a shuttle bus service from the airport to Old San Juan. She asked where we wanted to go and then wrote out a voucher, one copy to go to the taxi driver and the other for us to keep.
“Do you speak Espanole?” the driver asked after pulling away from the curb.
“No,” we confessed. The rest of the trip to Old San Juan was spent, with the driver’s help, brushing up on what little Spanish we did remember from our European travels.
Upon entering Old San Juan our excitement began to mount. We were still reeling from our incredible experiences in Africa and had not yet built up any anticipation for the journey around the Caribbean we had just embarked upon. We glanced down Old San Juan’s narrow streets … laneways really … made even narrower by block long rows of parked cars. The driver pointed out Fuerte (fort) San Cristobal, the Catedral de San Juan and the El Convento (the convent) then pulled the van-style taxi to one side of the street.
The surroundings did not look familiar. Since we had not personally been here before, the images we recalled were from the internet. “Hotel two doors down,” he pointed. Perhaps we were seeing the side of the building. We got out and paid the driver, all the time holding up traffic behind the van.
Two doors down there was a door to a hotel but no sign with its name. “El Convento Hotel,” the receptionist advised us. This is not where we were supposed to be.
She gave us directions to the Howard Johnson and we set out walking. The first blast we had of San Juan’s hot humid air at the airport repeated itself as we stepped out of the air-conditioned lobby and began our walk. Immediately we were thankful for the opportunity to walk the streets of Old San Juan as we passed beneath lights which cast dim shadows upon pastel-coloured buildings punctuated with outreaching balconies.
We reached the Howard Johnson far too fast and looked forward to putting our things in the room and heading back out as quickly as possible … even though we were tired after 13 hours of travel and the time nearly 22:00 local.
Our room at the Howard Johnson Hotel Plaza de Armas was small and windowless and the air-conditioner pushed out refrigerator cold air. It wasn’t what we had expected, ambiance wise, but it had everything we needed and being in the room was not high priority for us.
The hot humid air again made us gasp … we’ll get used to it (hopefully).
Around the corner and up a half block we dropped into Barrachina Restaurant for a light dinner.
They brought us samples of their pina colada. The menu read, “Birthplace of the famous Pina Colada 1963”. As good as it was, we stuck with water and a caesar salad, promising Roman, our waiter, that we would return tomorrow for a pina colada.
A downpour of rain came quickly and caused waiters to grab seat cushions from the stools at the open air bar. In a few minutes the rain was gone leaving only puddles and muggy air as a reminder of its passing.
We knew it was time to get some sleep. Our introduction to the Caribbean had us excited about getting up early.
Old San Juan, as it is called now, was in on the beginning of the “New World”. Fortresses, homes and religious landmarks reflect a past which stretches back 500 years.
Just outside our hotel the Plaza de Armas was waking up. An early morning rain shower had made the square sparkle, a sparkle which was carried skyward by the large fountain. Named for military defence drills carried out here, Plaza de Armas was built as San Juan’s main square.
The City Hall facing the square was built to resemble the same building in Madrid and as modern as San Juan is beyond “old town”, the mayor’s offices are still within this historic building.
At one end of Plaza de Armas there is a bandstand. Pigeons … lots of pigeons … were roosting on the roof, floor and railings; others were pecking for breakfast between the square’s cobblestones.
At the other end of the otherwise quiet square is a round coffee kiosk with tables and chairs scattered out front. They were doing a steady business supplying coffee ‘to-go’ to cell phone toting customers. Everyone we saw seemed to have a cell phone in use … everyone except the fellow who had arrived to power wash the square starting at the coffeehouse and working towards the pigeons.
As with most Spanish colonial development in the New World, planners used the Spanish model of streets radiating from a central square or the plaza of the mayor. Being the capital, Old San Juan had several plazas. We caught a free hop-on-hop-off tourist trolley to make a round trip of the old city and get our bearings. We soon realized the tourist trolley was also used by locals commuting to home, work, markets and their favourite bars. One friendly, local character boarded the trolley near La Perla.
La Perla is a narrow stretch of slum which sits between the old city walls and the rocky ocean shore. In the 19th century graveyards and slaughter houses were not permitted within the city walls so soon workers and farmers and their families built homes next to them. Today in its oceanside location, where most cities find their highest priced real estate, San Juan’s La Perla is home to illegal drug trade and criminals … activities which also infest the old cemetery next to it. We heeded the warnings about daylight and nighttime muggings in both places. Instead we watched as two girls bounded up the stairs, as they might from any other neighbourhood.
Across a large expanse of grass from the graveyard and out on high rocky cliffs stands Fuerte San Felipe Del Morro or simply ‘El Morro’ which means ‘headland’ or ‘promontory’. This military masterpiece with six levels of terraces and walls up to 4.6 metres (15ft) thick dates back to 1539, and claims to be the oldest Spanish fort in the New World.
We walked up to Castillo de San Cristobal; Puerto Rico’s largest fort. It was completed in the 1780s to guard the only land access to Old San Juan. This massive structure covers 27 acres and is part of a system of fortifications which enclosed the city. The same trade winds which Columbus used to discover the New World led Spanish vessels to the safe harbour of Puerto Rico and the island became the “key to the Indies”. Today, along with El Morro, it is a United Nations World Heritage Site.
It’s nice to be driven around but it is even nicer to walk the narrow pastel-coloured streets of Old San Juan and stop into Tio Danny for a light lunch.
We could hear music and sporadic cheering. There were police at every street corner. People were heading uphill towards the noise. We stopped to ask an officer what was happening; he shrugged his shoulders, so uphill we went to the bandstand end of Plaza de Armas.
The flag waving, upbeat crowd grew louder and became more animated as towers of stadium sized speakers stacked on flatbed trucks rounded the corner. The bass notes beat against our chests with heavy thump thumps and the high notes pierced our eardrums. Pickup trucks and vans plastered with close-up photos of political candidates and filled with cheering campaign workers handing out or waving flags were sandwiched between more truckloads of booming speakers. When the rhythms turned Latin people danced in the street.
Finally the focus of the rally, the candidates, arrived on the cab of a truck. Speeches were accentuated with upbeat music, then patriotic singing; deafening rumba music and more patriotic singing. When the speeches were finished, candidates moved to street level where they shook hands, hugged supporters and stood for photo opportunities. To be amongst such political passion was stirring.
We had promised Roman that we would return to the bar at Barrachina’s for a Pina Colada; and we like to keep our promises.
Roman wasn’t on duty; behind the bar was 26 year old Luis. We asked about the invention of the Pina Colada and Luis told us how, in 1963, the head bartender at Barrachina concocted the first Pina Colada. “There is a plaque outside,” a waiter interjected. The actual genesis of this delicious rum, coconut cream and pineapple drink is disputed; but there is no disputing that the drink Luis made for us was most delicious.
Conversation turned from drink creations to the main topic of discussion these days – the US presidential election with contenders Obama and McCain. Then the topic naturally turned to the likelihood of Puerto Rico becoming the 51st state. Luis was very candid giving us a well balanced picture of the pros and cons of San Juan exercising such an option. He told us that one of the men we had seen earlier was running for mayor of San Juan … a position which is often followed by a trip to the Governor’s mansion. The incumbent mayor favours becoming a state, while his challenger feels keeping the status quo is in the best interest of Puerto Rico. A vote for one or the other would indicate the feelings of San Juan’s population. Feelings Luis felt would be evenly divided.
We returned to the streets and did some window shopping. There are plenty of tourist shopping opportunities, including an over abundance of jewellery stores and restaurants; but this is also a part of San Juan in which people work, live, go to school and party.
Today is October 31, Hallowe’en … and for anyone of Latin decent any reason to party is a good one. In San Juan there are approximately 30 celebration days each year.
Hallowe’en is not just for children here, it’s the adults who seemed to enjoy it most. Shopkeepers were dressed in costume, as were many of their customers, and cheerful “Happy Hallowe’en”s were being shouted across streets and from passing vehicles.
Today Old San Juan was also celebrating its annual ‘Culinary Fest’. Each year, for this event, restaurants put tables out into the street and serve small portions for small prices. In the middle of the street people sat at tables or milled around temporary bars or danced to live music set up at nine locations. It was a party and we joined in.
We came back to our cool air-conditioned room tired and happy. Tomorrow we would move on to the islands of St Thomas and St John in the US Virgin Islands.
We left the hotel with plenty of time to reach the airport for our 10:50 flight to St Thomas. The streets in Old San Juan were quiet; there were no reminders of last night’s gaieties.
Traffic was light … it is Saturday. We checked in at the Cape Air ticket counter. “Do you want to go an hour early on the 9:50 fight?” the attendant asked.
The two of us made up half the passenger roster as we walked out to the 9 passenger Cessna 402 and handed our daybag to the one and only ground crew who opened a … what we thought was the rear of the engine … compartment and popped it in. The word carry-on took on a different meaning and Ted, who was in the daybag, was about to experience the flight of his life.
This entry was posted in CARIBBEAN, PUERTO RICO