San Juan, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is one of the largest of the Caribbean islands, situated directly west of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The city of San Juan, located on the north side of the island, is both its largest city and political and cultural heart.
Getting to San Juan is as easy, with non-stop flights from over 20 U.S. and Canadian cities. Among the airlines are American Airlines (non-stop from 14 U.S. cities), BWIA, Delta, Air Canada, British Airways, Iberia, Lufthansa, Northwest, TWA, United, US Airways and Virgin Atlantic. In addition, flights from throughout the Caribbean, Central America and South America are numerous.
There are taxis, hotel and cruise line shuttle buses waiting outside the main terminal. Cost by taxi from the airport to downtown and to the cruise terminal is $19 U.S. plus an addition $2 fuel charge and there’s a $1 charge for each suitcase. Because the island is a U.S. territory, the currency is the US dollar.
There’s no shortage of hotels in the area of the cruise terminals or within short distances to the old town. Among the major chains are Marriott, Hilton, Sheraton, Comfort Inn, Quality Inn, Radisson. . There’s also an abundant selection of smaller hotels located in strategic spots in the Old City and near the cruise terminal. Among them are the Hotel Milano, the Hotel El Convento, Ciqala Suites and the Hotel Plaza de Armes.
If you want to stay near the cruise ship terminal, keep in mind that ships dock in two places. Although relatively near one another, the Sheraton Old San Juan is just across the street from the docks that are virtually within the Old City. The other terminal is just across the bay and you’ll need to take a taxi to get there.
The history of San Juan dates back to Christopher Columbus’s second voyage to the new world. When he landed on the island in 1493, he named it “San Juan Bautista”, after John the Baptist. Then in 1508, Juan Ponce de León, Spain’s first governor of the island founded the original settlement just to the west of the present metropolitan area. The city soon became Spain’s most important military outpost in the Caribbean.
San Juan is the oldest city on U.S. territory while St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest city in the continental USA. And if you speak Spanish, you’ll find it useful when spending a few days in San Juan, for while English is the dominant language, Spanish is often the language of choice among locals.
Today’s San Juan is a combination of the old and the new. You can experience what life must have been like a couple of centuries ago simply by walking along the narrow streets of the Old City, with its early Spanish architecture, and then ambling through the old Spanish fort that, during the times when Spain dominated the Caribbean, guarded the entry point onto the island and into the Caribbean Sea.
Getting around the old town is easy. A free trolley travels around Old San Juan and to the forts. Pick it up across from the information booth, between cruise piers three and four.
Things to do:
Like many cities, San Juan has virtually everything for every taste. But it also has a distinct Latin character and many of the things to see and do offer a cultural exception to everyday North American life. San Juan is a mixture of America and Spain, a place where old European manners complement familiar landmarks and customs.
Many places in the Old City are easy to walk to and San Juan is a city that tempts you to forgo public transportation in your explorations. But be mindful that, depending on the time of the year, you could quickly succumb to the heat and high humidity. So judge the distances and time carefully. Of course, most streets have any number of cafes from which you can sit, sip and watch the world pass by.
San Juan is not a duty-free port, but there’s no shortage of buying opportunities. Calle Cristo is a great street for window and cash-on-the-line buying opportunities. Small shops harbor artists and artisans selling their work and nearby are factory outlets for Ralph Lauren and Gant.
Be sure to check out the historic sites of Old San Juan, because it’s one of the richest cultural experiences you’ll find anywhere in Caribbean. The old fort of El Morro is the first place to visit (See Special Places below). And try to tour the Catedral de San Juan that dates back to 1540. Classical music aficionados might check out the Museo Pablo Casals on the Plaza San Jose, where the Spanish guitarist’s collection of manuscripts, photographs and a library of video tapes of Festival Casals concerts are on display and can be played on request.
While the Bacardi Rum Factory tour is often part of a ship’s on-shore itinerary, it’s not difficult to do it on your own. Take the ferry next to the cruise ship dock for the six-minute ride to Catano then catch a bus or ferry for the 10-minute ride to the factory. The landscaped hibiscus-laden grounds augment the gift shop and a tour that includes an interesting film on the history of rum distillation.
Museums abound. Two of the best are The Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Puerto Rico, with the latter housing 700 post-1940’s works from artists of Puerto Rico, the Caribbean and Latin America.
Galería Botello on Cristo Street has arched halls and a revitalizing patio plus a collection of iconic sculptures and paintings from well-established Latin American artists. There’s a small but impressive collection of santos – hand-carved figurines of saints and one of Puerto Rico’s most loved handicrafts.
Want to test your luck? There’s casino gambling at the big hotels, including the Sheraton Old San Juan across the street from the cruise piers, and the Ritz-Carlton, regarded by many the best hotel in the city. And when you tire of winning, take a walk along one of the many beaches that rim the city. Try Luquillo Beach (near El Yunque) where you’ll find long stretches of sand, water sports equipment rentals and a great line of classic Puerto Rican beach food.
And if you have more than a few days prior to or after your cruise, take an inter-city taxi from San Juan to Ponce or another city. It’s a cultural experience finding yourself sitting in the back seat next to someone holding a chicken. Not for everyone, and decidedly down-market, but it’s something you’ll never forget.
The old fort – Castillo San Felipe del Morro — was named for King Phillip II, and is commonly known as El Morro. Construction of the 16th-century citadel began in 1540 and was completed in 1589. Most of the high walls were added in the 1760-80’s. Rising 140 feet above the sea, its 18-foot-thick wall proved a formidable defense.
Walk through the fort’s tunnels, dungeons, barracks, outposts and ramps and transport yourself back in time. Be sure to have a camera handy as the views of San Juan Bay from El Morro are spectacular. The area, with 74 total acres, is a National, Historic site and is the largest fortification in the Caribbean. It is open to the public every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. except on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.
— By Ray Chatelin