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krisek San Juan - A travel report by Krys
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San Juan,  Puerto Rico - flag Puerto Rico
14097 readers

krisek's travel reports

Colourful. Hispanic architecture and mighty forts.

  11 votes
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Puerto Rico is politically tied with the United States of America. It is prosperous and its capital, San Juan, is one of the best preserved and largest Hispanic cities in the Caribbean. It is very colourful and UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Site.

By the fortified city walls
By the fortified city walls
I was supposed to just pass through Puerto Rico, de facto colonised by the USA, in transit between flights. However, having read about old San Juan in my guidebook whilst already on the airplane, and having spoken to a Puertorican flight attendant, I changed my ticket and stayed one day.

My ticket change did not cost me anything at all. I did mention to the lady that I wanted to see San Juan, and since she was Puertorican, she might have fooled the system. My ticket was not flexible! And I was very happy. And yet I was not quite sure what Puerto Rico was going to bring.

First, I needed to find a hotel. I spoke to the taxi driver (first in English, then in Spanish) what I needed and he took me to a slightly overpriced hotel, right outside one of San Juan's forts. My room was not ready so I immediately embarked on some sightseeing.

There are areas of San Juan dating back to 1520, the years it was founded. Interestingly, Puerto Rico waited 15 years for its first European settlers after it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. And yet even San Juan was not immediately occupied. For over 300 years then the island was invaded by pirates, competing European armies and native to the Caribbeans, the Caribs. Spain waited until the 18th century to regain full control of the island and this is how the majority of this magnificent colonial San Juan was rebuilt in the 18th century. The historic centre is compact and easy to navigate.

There is more. For San Juan is a large city with over 1 million of inhabitants. It is modern and its suburbs extended to the lagoons and along the coast. Some of them have been converted into holiday centres complete with clean and large sandy beaches, jumping nightlife and centres of gambling, like Isla Verde.

I had just about 24 hours in the capital, and it felt just about right to visit the majority of the sights, relax in (the posh) hotel, mix with locals on the green and have a nice meal in a nice restaurant in the new town.

Favourite spots:
San Juan travelogue picture
The morning and early afternoon weather was glorious. The old town of San Juan was not large but after three hours trekking I was sweating like some fur animal. Say, guinea pig.

The town was seriously photogenic. It was very Hispanic. The majority of the streets were cobbled, narrow and full of colonial houses painted in vivid, almost diabolical colours, if such description makes any sense. There were two types of streets. One - narrow with single storey buildings painted brightly sporting fake-arched doorways and small, in comparison, square windows. These lanes were calm with virtually no traffic at all, for they would only fit one vehicle. The other streets were busier. These boasted large, grand mansions with wrought balconies. They often had elaborate wooden doors and large windows. I am not sure what they hid inside. They looked residential. Ground floors of some were converted into a small, expensive shops or galleries. No cafes, no bars, no restaurants. Odd, I thought.

What's really great:
One of the forts
One of the forts
Right at the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, on a vast lawn, about a hundred of people flew kites. They had many different shapes and colours, from plain paper plane shapes to very colourful butterflies and four-winged dragonflies. I have never seen so many kites flying in one spot. That was quite surreal because an historical cemetery was just few feet away.

The fort was impressive. It was sophisticated and quite large, and perfectly embedded in the city walls. A real masterpiece! It was unusual, I think. I had seen many forts before, some on Cuba, some in Africa, some in Europe, of course, but this one looked very special. Its bastions were in fact part of the city walls. It was as if the fort was located in a city walls bubble. It had a few courtyards inside, one of them large with many arched rooms - almost cells - converted into museum and galleries, and naturally a souvenir shop.

And that was only one of the mighty forts. The second one was at the other side of old town.

Dream Machine
Dream Machine
One peculiar thing about Puerto Rico was that motor vehicles didn't have front registration plates. They only had the rear ones.

Many of the grand mansions in the old town were neatly decorated with various plants, some of them with colourful flowers. I'm not sure how to describe the atmosphere of San Juan. It was heavily Americanised by oversize motor vehicles, overweight citizens and little green pieces of paper circulating everywhere, called dollars. Yet, there was this Latino magic in the air.

Along the city walls, there were a few large haciendas and the main square in the heart of the old town was surrounded by very Hispanic grand palaces. In addition, the massive governmental halls and the capitol at the outskirts of the historical centre made a great supplement. I am not a museum person, so I did not visit any specifically, only accident. The magic of the old town, its ambiance and almost surreal combination of European architecture painted in vivid colours made my day.

The Capitol
The Capitol
The little boutique hotel, The Gallery Inn, the taxi driver took me to, was massively overpriced. For a very small single room in the basement, I paid over $150! But there were also rooms for over $300! I was not happy at all, but it was the end of my holiday, so I suffered quietly. It was indeed a nice little place full of horse sculptures and paintings of large parrots. The owners kept a few large macaws and a white/pink cockatoo, which was rather naughty. The birds were flying around freely and they were locked only at night, so they would not disturb the guests.

This small multistorey villa was filled with books and little (very expensive looking artistic) sculptures. I heard that the couple who owned the hotel cast bronze themselves. The hotel had very Bohemian fell throughout, and there were only about 20 rooms inside. The terrace at the roof was great for old town and ocean views.

The personnel were mostly ignorant, and hardly helpful, truly Bohemian, it seemed.

San Juan travelogue picture
Isla Verde, a suburb of San Juan is where all the night action is happening. The old town is almost entirely free from clubs, discos or lounges. There is an odd pub in the US Coast Guard area, near El Arsenal, but nothing special.

Taxi drivers were raving about a few places in Isla Verde, but after the entire day of walking in the sun followed by a great dinner, I felt so lethargic that I decided to skip the dancing and jumping around. A few places came recommended like the Shots (more American than Caribbean) and Lupi's (more Latin). For real Salsa dancing there was actually a place in the old town called ... Rumba, but when I visited it was closed for some reason. It's closest competitor, La Habana Club, which reportedly was overtaken by the Dominicans (and not the Cubans), was extremely Caribbean and I was told to think twice before going there unless I could dance salsa perfectly.

The green between the Castillo and the city
The green between the Castillo and the city
The air actually shivered. It was so hot. One would imagine that in the town like San Juan, there would be plenty of cafes, restaurants and bars so one could stop and have a drink. I was walking around, first looking for a place to drink something, and then, to grab a bite. In vain! I was so disappointed.

I kept looking and looking. It was so bad, that I had step into a little shop, buy a bottle of Snapple and drink it standing by the counter! There were few places serving food and most of them were closed during the day. I could not believe it.

The only place to hang out in the town was either by the old city walls or in the small parks scattered around the town. There was one by the Puerta de San Juan, below the Casa Blanca. Sadly, there was no beach in the old town - the nearest one was 15 minutes drive away. Alternatively, one could fix a kite and join the others outside the Castillo de San Felipe del Morro.

San Juan travelogue picture
I enquired about a Thai restaurant. It was bound to be somewhere! I found out about two of Thai restaurants, one in the old town and the other in the adjacent modern and over touristy town of Isla Verde. By the time I found out about them, it was raining very badly. And I did not have an umbrella. I would not matter, because one of the restaurants was close to the hotel, so I could quickly walk there. I could not take a taxi there, because it was simply too close. Yet, I had to wait for the rain to stop a little, because it was literally bucketing.

I borrowed an umbrella from the hotel and totally determined, I went on tracking the restaurant. The front desk guy had no idea, in which direction I should head although I gave him the exact address. I had a slight dej√° vu, as I was again wandering around the town looking for a restaurant, like during lunchtime. The old town one was closed. I had to take a taxi to Isla Verde in the end. The restaurant moved there from the old town...

Other recommendations:
San Juan travelogue picture
A few interesting walks are recommended for San Juan in the old town, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. One would often start at the tourist office near the inner harbour and then re-start at Plaza de Armas, complete with the amazing Town Hall. Then towards the Governor Residence dating back to 1520 (restored in 1846) and north towards Cathedral de San Juan and downhill to Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, which took almost a quarter of a millennium to complete.

Then, one can go along the walls towards the Fortaleza de San Cristobal, passing the Cementerio de San Juan and Convento Dominicano, or venture back into the little colourul alleys of the old town, stop at Casa Blanca and have a drink from a shop at Plaza de San Jose.

Published on Friday July 18th, 2008

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Tue, Jul 22 2008 - 07:46 AM rating by marianne

another excellent report, a pleasure to read

Mon, Jul 21 2008 - 09:00 AM rating by eirekay

Marvelous photos and great information - as always! Nicely done!

Fri, Jul 18 2008 - 11:42 PM rating by jorgesanchez

Good report, as usual. Thanks for writing about Puerto Rico. I love that island very much, and especially the Boricuas (that is why Puertorrican like to be called because in trhe past Puerto Rico was called Borinquen). Gracias, bien hecho. But for salsa, better tr Santo Domingo, in Dominican Republic!

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