Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Old San Juan, First Port-of-Call

Although we all had a great time during our two and a half days at sea, we were ready to stretch our legs on land. Sighting land was exciting and sent us all running for our cameras. Willie had assured us that we were on the best side of the ship for all our port-of-calls and he was right. We only needed to gather on the balconies for the best views.

IMG_3711      IMG_3721      IMG_3734

El Morro, a fortress built by Spain back in the 1500’s, greeted us as we sailed into port around 3:00p.m.

IMG_3738      IMG_3741      IMG_3747

Our group was split in excursions. My daughters and their friends were going to enjoy the Bioluminescence Bay Kayak Tour while my son and his friend were joining hubby and I on the Old San Juan Walking Tour. Our tour left immediately upon the ship clearing. We disembarked without any trouble, found our tour group and boarded a bus. Unfortunately there was just enough room to squeeze into the seats or I would have taken a picture of the three tall guys accompanying me chewing on their knees. It was really a short ride to the beginning of our walking tour which began at El Morro!

Our tour guide gave us a preliminary introduction about the history of the San Felipe del Morro Castle before we entered. Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico in 1493 and claimed it for Spain. He originally named the whole island San Juan in honor of St. John the Baptist and what we know as Old San Juan was named Puerto Rico. It was only later that the names were reversed and the whole island became known as Puerto Rico. After Spain started colonizing the island pirates and privateers tried to invade and get some of Spain’s riches. Therefore they built a small fort that maintained a few men and 4 cannons. As Spain continued to increase it’s riches they found it more difficult to fend off attacks. As a result Spain improved it’s defenses by adding on to the original fort. The additions became an ongoing task taking 250 years to complete the fortress before us. Between  the trade winds that blew sailing ships here from Europe, and help by the ocean currents, San Juan became the first major island with water, shelter and supplies that sailing ships came to en route to the Americas from Europe via Africa’s west coast. We continued up the long dirt road to the entrance walking past these beautiful fields encasing the walkway.

IMG_3756      IMG_3757      IMG_3758

The Garitas, as seen in the third picture above are the sentry boxes located around the outer wall of the fortress. These have become a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico.

IMG_3761      IMG_3763      IMG_3765

Once through the entrance you find yourself in the Main Plaza where soldiers would assemble for parades and daily inspection. The three flags flown at El Morro today are the American Flag, Puerto Rican Flag, and the Cross of Burgundy Flag. The Cross of Burgundy Flag is the military flag that was flown from the 1500’s-1700’s. Tunnels and stairs wind through the six levels of the interior. Needless to say they have not been modernized. The steps and tunnels were very steep and uneven.

I believe we entered on level 5 the Main Level. From there our guide led us down to Level 4 – Level 1: discussing the main firing battery located on 4'; quickly passing through the Lower Plaza on 3; pausing for everyone to take in the original tower on 2; and explaining the Water Battery on level 1. Then we had to go back up which reminded me again that I was getting old. We didn’t stop at 5. We kept going up to Level 6 to gain insight on the Land Defense view. That was worth the extra huffing and puffing. What a beautiful view!

      IMG_3768      IMG_3788
Oh, and the Bacardi Rum Factory

We finished the tour of El Morro and started down the long path to continue through Old San Juan. On the way down everyone on the path became Ninja warriors. We were literally attacked by thousands, and that’s no exaggeration, of gnats!!!! They swarmed over us all the way down to the street covering sweaty shirts and sticking to the bug spray I had on my legs and arms. Defensive moves by everyone were hilarious but non productive. Yuck!!!

Our tour to the old city took us through beautiful plazas to El Totem. The totem was built in 1992 as part of the 500th anniversary commemoration of Columbus’ discovery of the new world. It’s about 40 feet tall and is made of black granite Taino ceramic pieces.

IMG_3796      IMG_3792      IMG_3800

We continued on to the Ballaja Barracks built in the 1800’s. Originally Spanish soldiers and their families lived there. At the end of the 18th century they were heavily used during the Spanish-American War. With the change in sovereignty the barracks became the quarters for the American infantry through 1939. During World War II the barracks were transformed into a military hospital. In 1976 the Government of Puerto Rico acquired the building restoring it for cultural, educational and tourist purposes. From there we visited the Las Americas Museum with the decorative flags and art work which hung on the walls. In the 19th century it served as the main marketplace.

IMG_3798      IMG_3801       

We left the museum to walk along narrow streets paved with adoquines, or blue cobblestone pavers, made with iron furnace slag.

IMG_3808       blue cobblestone streets      IMG_3819

By now we were not only very hot but thirsty. Fortunately street vendors could be found on almost every block. I treated to Gatorade. Our guide led us through several more squares and statues and down many beautiful streets. He explained that to stay cool the homes have open barred doors and window. As you pass their residency you can see everything inside their houses. Naturally we had to look.

IMG_3810      IMG_3815     

Our tour was coming to an end as we approached the Capilla del Cristo also known as Cristo Chapel.

IMG_3824      IMG_3825       IMG_3817

The Governor’s Mansion can be seen in the far background of the first picture above.Our guide explained that before the chapel, in the second picture, was built upon the wall at the south end of the city, people had to be careful or else they might fall off the towering wall to their death. Legend has it that during the fiesta of St. John’s Day a young rider lost control of his horse during a race down this very street and fell over the citadel precipice. The legend has the Cristo Chapel as being built to thank the Saint who saved the boy's life. However, it was really made to prevent further accidents. We didn’t go inside.

Our guide left us at this time explaining how we could either walk back to our ship or proceed down through the shopping and restaurant area. Hubby and I decided to go find something to eat and drink before heading back. We walked one short block and turned down the first street only to accidently find one of the most famous restaurants in Old San Juan. By the way I didn’t know that until I Google it prior to writing my Blog.

The restaurant was the Barrachina home of the original Pina Coloda. We ate inside as it was suppose to rain. It was a great eating experience with delicious food. I am very happy we found it. Finishing up we headed back to the ship. It was a beautiful evening to end a nice day.

IMG_3828      IMG_3835       IMG_3838

For now have a Firecrackin Great Day!
Remember find a way to make your memories keep on giving!

No comments: