Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Approaching old San Juan by sea, time regresses about 500 years. Weather worn towers (garitas) top the seemingly endless brownish walls dominating the horizon. Looming over the city, the ancient battlements stand guard. The somewhat crumbly appearance deceives the eye, as they seem in fact quite solid.
Garita on Castillo San Cristobal, San Juan Puerto Rico
San Juan, Puerto Rico is the first of many old fort cities that once dotted the Caribbean protecting residents from pirates and invading armies. Standing on the bow of the Holland America Westerdam as our ship entered the harbor, no cannons fired. Only a multitude of cameras shot the historic fort.
Castillo San Cristobal
Christopher Columbus discovered Puerto Rico in 1493, but never returned. His lieutenant, Ponce de Leon, returned in 1508 to claim the island and by 1521 began building forts and walls. Construction of Castillo San Felipe del Morro began in 1539 by the Spaniards to protect their treasure ships. El Morro served to guard the entrance to the bay. Residents added new structures for the next 400 years. The original lighthouse was added on top the castle in 1843. The US military built the current one in 1908. After a city sacking and burning attack from the land side by the Dutch in 1625, the Spaniards surrounded the city with massive walls about 18 feet thick. It took 48 years to wall the city in, with construction starting in 1634.
iguana lawn mower
After the attack on the land side of the city, The Spaniards started building a small fort on Cristobal hill in 1634. Major construction over the next 150 years resulted in the monstrous Castillo San Cristobal
, once far larger than it is today. In 1897 much of the wall and about a third of the castle was dynamited to allow the city to grow.
Remnants of the formidable wall that once surrounded the city remain visible in much of old San Juan. Heading up the hill from the cruise ship dock, the vivid blue, orange, yellow and other colors of the buildings and bright blue roads create a sharp contrast to the drab weatherbeaten stone walls of the fort.
Old San Juan, Puerto Rico
A short scenic walk from the cruise ship dock brings guests to San Cristobal. Iguanas dot the grass, placidly posing for pictures. Not native to the area, the park department allows them to stay for the free lawn mowing service they provide. Travel through a tunnel and find many great views and a giant stack of cannonballs on an upper level. A refreshing sea breeze through the garita feels like nature's air conditioning.
From San Cristobal tourists could walk to El Morro in about half an hour. On a hot muggy day the free trolley or the hop on hop off tour bus makes the trip far easier. Bike rentals are also an option for getting around town. Horse and buggy rides are available too. See both forts for one price, or just one for a little bit less.
Blue Brick Road
Walking up the long approach to El Morro, the notable absence of iguanas leaves much longer grass. Once inside pass through a long hall of many doorways, painted yellow and white. Head down a narrow stairway alongside a long steep ramp to a pavilion by the sea. Check out the ancient cannon, or peek over the walls or through the garita (sentry box) to the wild surf crashing on the rocks below.
Both forts served the United States through World Wars 1 and 2, with bunkers and artillery added during World War 2. Now both castles invite tourists to defend the city with dollars to help keep the economy viable rather than soldiers with weapons repelling the many enemies who threatened the city throughout the centuries.
Retired from active use in 1961, the castles fell under the protection of the National Park Service, and became World Heritage Sites in 1983. El Morro has a cathedral and an old cemetery with the remains of Ponce de Leon.
Cat in the Doorway
It's a pretty easy walk through town back down the hill toward the cruise ship docks. A stroll through the blue brick streets of town reveals colonial architecture, brightly colored buildings, and cats sleeping in fanciful doorways. The blue cobblestones, called adoquin, are a remnant of Spain of the 1800's. Cast from furnace slag brought over from Spain as ship's ballast, they make for unique and beautiful streets. Shades of blue vary from periwinkle to indigo. Modern cars have some difficulty maneuvering on streets intended for horse and buggy use. They often ride over the curb while turning corners.
Pigeons on the Wall
Everywhere you look you'll find something new to see. Ornate railings and statues decorate overhanging balconies. Potted plants high on verandas and low in window boxes or on the street add color and life. Quaint shops in colorful buildings offer a variety of things for sale. The unique blue brick roads themselves are a sight to see. Turn a corner and find ruins of the old wall or castles. We found one bit covered in pigeons, next to a park full of birds. We strolled through a section of town where many buildings had doors of iron bars. The cats passed through at will, unlike the ones sleeping in front of solid doors. One group of people walked by, herding a rather large black cat that must have strayed too far from home.
San Juan is a major port for cruise ships. Some stop by and others start or end their journey there. Either way it makes a great opportunity to see the town. For those wishing a longer stay, several airlines fly into San Juan. Hotels are available in both the old and new sections of the city.
by Lois Beath http://mycruisestories.wordpress.com