Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Old San Juan seen on approach to Isla Grande Airport.  The blue mansion at top is La Fortaleza, completed in 1540.
Old San Juan seen on approach to Isla Grande Airport. The blue mansion at top is La Fortaleza and the church at center bottom is the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, both completed in 1540.  Lowell Silverman photography

Second in a series on Puerto Rico.

One Puerto Rican success story is Old San Juan, successfully revitalized from a state of decay in the years following World War II.  The first settlement on Puerto Rico, it was once heavily fortified as it protected the vital port coveted by Spain’s enemies.  Two fortresses and much of the city walls remain as part of the San Juan National Historic Site.  Colorful old buildings host shops, restaurants, and hotels and cruise ships call dock in San Juan Bay.  Although crime in the greater San Juan area is high, Old San Juan is heavily policed.

Arrival in San Juan

We had an uneventful evening flight the evening of Saturday March 7, 2015 from BWI to SJU.  Southwest has an interesting approach to Wi-Fi perk on the flight.  Internet and movies are available for a fee while television and music are free.  I liked that they had a free flight tracker that you could load on your mobile device sort of like the maps that can be displayed on some long haul flight seatbacks.  We landed at SJU after dark.  We had to adjust our watches an hour ahead for Atlantic time. Ironically a few hours later Eastern time entered Daylight Savings and caught up to AST since Puerto Rico doesn’t observe Daylight Savings.  We took a taxi from the airport to the Coqui del Mar Guest House in a residential area east of Old San Juan, Punta Las Marias.  Taxis from the airport have fares based on set zones with small surcharges for extra passengers, luggage, and late night.  It cost about $23 including tip.

Puerto Rican weather doesn’t seem to very much day to day.  In March it’s humid with highs pretty much every day in the low 80s and lows in the 70s.  It rains frequently, sometimes heavily, though usually only for a few minutes at a time.  I had my first taste of Puerto Rican weather during a walk around the neighborhood Sunday morning.  The sun was shining when I left our guesthouse.  The sun was still shining as the rain started pouring down.  Some men who were detailing a car kindly invited me to take shelter under their overhang until the rain passed about three minutes later.

Old San Juan

We hate breakfast at a busy cafeteria-like restaurant/bakery, Kasalta.  It was filled with locals, and its claim to fame was a visit from President Obama a few years ago.  He had an item called Media Noche (midnight)- it was specially labeled on the menu as the President’s pick.  The food wasn’t great.  Afterward we had the frustrating experience of waiting for the bus to Old San Juan.  San Juan buses don’t follow set schedules- or at least they don’t release any online or in print.  Supposedly the buses run every 20-30 minutes, but we had to wait about an hour, during which we saw two buses going the other direction passed.  In hindsight it probably would have taken the same time if we’d walked the four miles to Old San Juan.  At least the fare is a bargain at $0.75/person.

Sentry Box at Castillo San Cristóbal
Sentry Box at Castillo San Cristóbal

I subjected Rachel to a visit to San Juan’s two historic fortresses, Castillo San Cristóbal on the north end of Old San Juan and Castillo San Felipe del Morro at the northwest tip of Old San Juan’s Island.   Admission to both fortresses in San Juan Historic Site is $10/person.  The weathered stone fortifications are extensive.  Numerous Garitas or sentry boxes are found in both forts and along the city walls and seem to be a symbol of the city, common in art and on many Puerto Rican license plates.  San Cristóbal’s dungeon is rather interesting, preserving graffiti of ships drawn on the wall by condemned prisoners.  Castillo San Cristóbal is perhaps less beautiful than del Morro, with its tip-of-the-island charm, but it does have a great view of the Puerto Rican Capitol building, skyline, and cruise ship terminal.

Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis with Castillo San Cristóbal in the distance
Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis with Castillo San Cristóbal in the distance

We walked along the city wall to del Morro.  A pet festival was underway in the field east of the fortress and there were dogs everywhere.  The field is also a popular place to fly kites.  The Cementerio Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis, with its attractive pastel colored dome, is visible between the wall and the Atlantic Ocean.

Castillo del Morro with its 1908 lighthouse as seen from the air
Castillo del Morro with its 1908 lighthouse as seen from the air

Castillo del Morro has a rather modern lighthouse built in 1908 in the middle of the fortress.  Vistors can enter its lower level; the beacon rotates but is not lit during the day.  The light is apparently shielded in some directions so the light can be seen out to sea but not in San Juan Bay, presumably to avoid drawing ships in the Bay towards land.

Green Iguana at Castillo del Morro- unfortunately it's not native to PR
Green Iguana at Castillo del Morro- unfortunately it’s not native to PR

Exiting the lighthouse, we were thrilled to see a large Green Iguana climbing on the walls of the fort.  I was disappointed to learn later that this South American lizard is in fact an invasive species in Puerto Rico.  After all that fascinating history that bored Rachel half to death, I couldn’t argue with skipping the rest of the nearby museums and walking into downtown Old San Juan to shop.  Her best find was a coconut piggy bank. We passed the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista with its tall facade and La Fortaleza, the first of many San Juan fortifications and the home to the governors of Puerto Rico for over 400 years.  Its security makes La Fortaleza hard to approach- it’s best seen from the Paseo del Morro, the walking path from San Juan Gate to the area below the fotress.

Capilla del Cristo Chapel
Capilla del Cristo Chapel

At the end of giftshop-heavy Calle del Cristo we got a look at Capilla de Cristo, a small 18th-century chapel.  According to legend it was built by a man who narrowly avoided falling to his doom from the place it was eventually constructed.  We eventually passed through the San Juan Gate (Puerta de San Juan) at the west end of the island and took a walk the length of the Paseo del Morro right before sunset.  The views of La Fortaleza and city walls are good- it’s a lot easier to appreciate the size of the fortifications looking up rather than down.  Sadly, the area is inhabited by large numbers of depressed looking stray cats.  The walk ends at the tip of land below Castillo San Felipe del Morro- some steps lead up towards the fortress, but there was not access by the hour we were there (or at all according to some websites I’ve seen).  Signage indicates that the walkway may eventually be extended further east along the Atlantic Ocean.

San Juan City Wall below La Fortaleza
San Juan City Wall below La Fortaleza seen from Paseo del Morro

We arrived back at the San Juan Gate around dusk.  The wall below La Fortaleza was lit up very attractively.  I’d scouted out a few restaurants in San Juan on TripAdvisor, but some were closed on Sunday.  TripAdvisor is my first stop in deciding which hotel to book.  After using their site for four years of studying reviews, it is only very rarely that a hotel has not lived up to expectations.

Using it for restaurants is a little bit more difficult, especially in major cities.  My usual method is to start at the top rated restaurants in the city and move through until I find a few that fit the location, cuisine, and price point I have in mind.  Generally, local restaurants are preferred and I usually avoid chain restaurants (especially fast food) while traveling.  I’d made a list of four San Juan restaurants, of which two were closed Sundays.  I figured one of the other two would meet our needs.  That proved to be a mistake.

One of the better rated ones, St Germain Bistro & Café, only had a limited menu on Sundays…crepes as I recall.  The other one that was open, Cafe Puerto Rico, known for its local food, had a 45 minute wait.  I’m afraid we were hungry and getting cranky after 30 minutes of searching for somewhere to eat that we decided just to go into the a nearby restaurant, Bar Moreno that seemed to have an ok menu.  As it turned out, the only high point of the meal was chucking at the English translation of Rachel’s dish – “Passion fill plantain spider with chicken breast”.  One might expect based on that translation that the dish would be interesting if nothing else, the food was neither good nor terrible, just really bland.  I think the spider reference was to the texture of the fired plantain coating- spider legs, if you find that appetizing.  I’m afraid it deserves its 2.5/5 rating on TripAdvisor…by the method I listed above, I never would have ended up coming across it had I actually been looking for a restaurant, given its 533/674 ranking!

We headed to the bus terminal near the cruise ship terminal after dinner.  We probably waited 20-30 minutes for the outbound bus.  With the lighter nighttime traffic, it took a lot less time to get back to our guesthouse than the ride out.  The driver kindly dropped us off at the end of the street the guesthouse was on even though it wasn’t an official stop.

Lessons learned:

  • Be prepared for it to rain at any time with little warning in Puerto Rico- if you don’t have an umbrella or raincoat you’ll just have to find a tree or building for five minutes until it stops.
  • In a major city where restaurants are spread out, make a list longer than two.  Checking menus, if online, might have let us avoid problems like going to St Germain on a day with a limited menu.
  • Start looking for restaurants before you get so hungry you make a bad choice.
  • When you know the bus service is unreliable (as my research had suggested) just budget for a taxi and save yourself the aggravation.  Saving $20 each way was nice, but your time – and good mood- is valuable on vacation.
Old San Juan city walls, with Paseo del Morro walking path below
Old San Juan city walls, with Paseo del Morro walking path below

Return Visit

We had a few more hours in Old San Juan on Friday March 13 between flights.  A family we met on Vieques recommended we try Punto de Vista Restaurant & Bar which was atop Hotel Milano.  We asked the hotel front desk if they were willing to hold onto our luggage until after the meal and they graciously agreed.  I’m not sure what we would have done if they hadn’t agreed, because even with wheeled suitcases would have been a drag walking around town!  The restaurant wasn’t open yet so we browsed some stores on Calle Fortaleza.  We found several with high quality local crafts and artwork.  In general the stores in this area seemed a lot better than the gift shops we’d visited on our first visit.

After walking along the city walls by San Juan Gate we returned to Punto de Vista.  Unfortunately the said they were not seating anyone outside this particular day because of the weather (which proved correct when a downpour started during our meal!).  The inside was still pretty neat, with chairs made out of barrels!  Punto de Vista had half price mojitos and the food was excellent.  In comparison with our previous bland meals in San Juan, our lunch was very flavorful and well seasoned.  Following our meal we retrieved our luggage from Hotel Milano and caught a taxi to SJU.

Series about Puerto Rico

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