Approaching San Juan Puerto Rico, the crew of the Holland America Westerdam opened doors to the bow and balconies on several decks above that normally remain locked. People flocked onto the bow to watch the boat dock. Not being one for crowds, I quickly left the bow on deck 4. Instead, I headed for the balcony on deck 6, the same deck as our room, but on the opposite end of the ship. John wanted to stop by our room to get something for his camera. He said he would meet me there shortly. I opened the door and stepped outside. Score, I had the balcony to myself. I watched the castle looming in the distance and the crowd below scrambling to find room to take unobstructed pictures. The door opened. No, not John, somebody else. Oh well plenty of room for them and me. Where did he go, I wondered, after all he is the one with the telephoto camera. The door opened again, and once again it wasn’t him.
I had to zoom my little pocket camera to the best of its ability and take pictures of the old fort castle myself.
Finally John showed up. He got lost trying to find his way to the end of the hallway that leads to the bow. I’d laugh if I hadn’t been lost at sea without ever leaving port myself.
The ship passed the castle and found its way into the dock at the port, amidst a mix of old and new buildings and construction of some sort going on right next to the dock. We had no shore excursions planned for this port. Sometimes we like to just get off the boat and see what we find. This time we decided to follow the blue brick road. Spanish ships of the 1800’s used furnace slag as
ship’s ballast. Island settlers made good use of the blue brick cobblestones the ships left behind. Called adoquin, the blue bricks worked well for ready-made paving material. Modern cars have some difficulty maneuvering on these narrow streets intended for horse and buggy use. They often ride over the curb while turning corners. Sadly some of the blue streets have been paved over. We saw people working on one street, widening it and repaving. The city will lose some of its old world charm if all the blue streets
eventually get paved over.
The road led us to Castillo San Cristobal, one of the two major old forts, or castles in old San Juan. For a very small fee, we went inside for a tour. It is self-guided, but they do provide a map.
500 years ago, people built things to last. For all its crumbly appearance, most of the old fort is actually quite solid. It was a bit hot and muggy the day we were there, but inside the garitas, or look-out towers, a refreshingly cool sea breeze blew through. Nature’s air conditioning, making the temperature quite pleasant. The tower guards of yesteryear must have appreciated that.
Before we even got inside the castle, we noticed an iguana peeking
over the wall from up above. After going inside, we went upstairs and found a whole lawn full of iguanas. A man who worked there said they are not native, but descendants of pets people turned loose. They let them stay because they are good lawn mowers and save time and money on maintenance. They also make a great tourist attraction, and don’t seem to mind posing for cameras.
After touring San Cristobal, we set off to see Castillo San Felipe del Morro, otherwise known as El Morro. That was the castle we saw from the ship on the approach to old San Juan. We hadn’t gone far when the free trolley came by. We hopped on, glad for the ride, though on a cooler
day the walk would have been pleasant. Before going in, we paused for a look at the cemetery. Ponce de Leon‘s tomb is in the cathedral there.
The U.S. National Park service manages the old forts as national historic sites. They have a discount price for visiting both castles, and since we managed to dig up the receipt from the first one we only had to pay the difference and not the full price to see the second one. El Morro had a wide open space with many
archways painted yellow and a long stairway down to a plaza overlooking the sea. Waves crashed against the rocks in a frenzy of wild surf at the bottom of the sea wall. An old cannon still pointed toward the sea, with no ammunition against threats of the distant past. We did see cannon balls fused into a giant pile at the other fort though.
We walked back to the ship from el Morro. We saw lots of brightly colored houses along the blue brick streets. John had fun taking pictures of interesting doorways, many of which had cats sleeping in front of them. People of San Juan seemed to like cats a
lot, we even saw a group of people herding a large black cat that must have strayed too far from home. Some places had doors made of iron bars instead of solid wooden doors. The cats there went in and out as they pleased. We saw lots of other unique things on the way back, cat-shaped iron chairs, parts of the wall that once surrounded the entire city, and a park taken over by a flock of pigeons. We found horse carriage rides too.