Beaches and the Old Town of San Juan, Puerto Rico

When I left you last, we were headed back to San Juan.

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…..when I left you last, we were headed back to San Juan from La Parguera.

I think I mentioned before that when you travel for work you should pick your airline, pick your hotel chain and stick to them as best as you can to maximize points earning. Why? So that you can stay for free at gorgeous hotels like the Caribe Hilton, that’s why. I mean, look at this view.

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View from the Caribe Hilton

With hotel points to burn, we checked into the Caribe for our last two nights in Puerto Rico. The Greek-a-Rican had to get back to work, so we thought this would be a great chance for us to do a little more beach bumming and check out the more touristy sites of San Juan.

Early Monday morning, we called Uber for a ride up to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, an historic fort built on orders from King Charles V of Spain.  I don’t know if you know, but people have been fighting over the island of Puerto Rico for a long time.  This citadel lies on the northwestern most point of San Juan and is part of series of walls and fortifications built in the 16th Century to control entry into the harbor.  Construction on this World Heritage Site began in 1539 and the fort has been modified several times since to account for changing military technologies.

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El Morro

During the Spanish rule of Puerto Rico, 1539-1898, the Castillo was attacked several times but it managed to withstand attacks from the English, the Dutch, an earthquake, and the (ahem) Americans. From 1898-1961, the fort was part of an American military installment.  There is a beautiful esplanade in front of Castillo San Felipe del Morro and what did the Americans do?  Turned it into a golf course.  You can still see remnants of the putting greens today.

A walk around the fort was a lovely way to spend a morning.  It was sunny and steamy (of course) in San Juan, but if you wear your sunscreen and stay hydrated, you won’t have any issues.  Since the fort is a National Park (as of 1961), you can also find restrooms – the ladies’ room has an amazing ocean view, – a book store, and a place to buy bottled water or other refreshments.

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One of San Juan’s many stray cats in El Morro

Adjacent to El Morro, is the gorgeous little cemetery of Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis. Some people might think visiting a cemetery is creepy and weird, but not me.  In addition to the incredible artwork on the tombs here, I find that cemeteries are often one of the best places to uncover local history.  (I just cross myself, ask the dead people to forgive me for walking on them, and get to exploring).

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Tombstone at Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery

This little cemetery really had an old world charm and the artwork on some of the tombstones rivals anything you’d see in a museum.  The cemetery is fairly old; construction began in 1863 and some prominent Puerto Ricans have been laid to rest here over the years.  If you find yourself an El Morro, take the quick walk down the service road to take a look around.

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Cemetery of Maria Magdalena del Pazzis

Now if cemeteries aren’t your thing, you can walk (or hop the free trolley) down the road a bit to San Cristóbal.  This fortress was built by the Spanish and was completed in 1783.  It was the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World.  It too was attacked by the English, the Dutch, and an earthquake. It was also an active military base during World War II.  You’ll notices some of the “upgrades” made to the edification during that time.

In addition to interesting history and architecture at San Cristobal, you’ll find this sign. What on earth happened that the Park Service had to explicitly tell us NOT to drink from toilets?! Someone must have tried — there’s a sign.

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Sign – San Cristobal

I quite enjoyed walking both El Morro and San Cristóbal as I found the history to be very interesting.  You can also play “guess how many selfie sticks we’ll see” or “if that were my kid I’d throw him off the side of the fort.” Fellow Americans, you can use your National Parks Pass to get into both of these amazing sites.  (Your pass is good for three people here.  If your group isn’t that large, do like we did and invite some folks in the group behind you to enjoy a walk around on you.)

There is some walking involved at both places including some incline and few sets of narrow winding stairs.  I wouldn’t recommend flip flops.  Do yourself a favor and

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Cannonballs at San Cristobal

put on some real shoes for this outing.  Those real shoes will also prove handy as you wander into Old San Juan where you’ll be walking the blue cobblestone streets.

We had a sneak peak at Old San Juan, but I was thrilled to have an afternoon to walk it.  I felt like we were part of an old Hollywood movie set. The buildings are so charming and the blue cobblestones (historians tell us that the cobblestones were made with iron furnace slag that had been part of the ballast sugar-carrying-ships from Spain) add to that feeling.  My friend and I felt very comfortable walking in the historic district here.  It can get busy, particularly as cruise ships pull into port.

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Blue Cobblestoned Streets in Old San Juan

The streets are lined with restaurants (get your frituras!), shops, hotels, and residences. Give yourself some time to just wander and enjoy the

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El Convento

view.  A couple of places I’ll point out to you here.  #1 Enjoy lunch at El Jibarito on Calle del Sol.  They served several traditional Puerto Rican dishes and some kind of fried cheese ball that was delectable.  #2 Get a popsicle at Señor Paleta (I highly recommend the Nutella popsicle). #3 Check out an amazingly quaint little bar at a boutique hotel that was converted from a convent, aptly named El Convento.

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Old San Juan

There are lots of places to explore and several charming courtyards to sit in.  The main plaza, Plaza de Armas is centrally located and is a great place to watch the world go by. San Juan is full of stray kitties.  Now I love kitties, so I was happy to see that San Juan feeds their strays.  If you aren’t a fan of cats, just leave them be.  They won’t bother you. (If you don’t love 18557226_10213520334422467_5547991093904067578_nkitties, I think something might just be wrong with you.)

After our hot day in San Juan, we took a cab ride back to the hotel for our last opportunity to beach bum.  The Caribe Hilton has both a nice swim beach and a beautiful pool.  Pick your poison, as they say.  I prefer to swim in the ocean but we did give the pool a quick test run before leaving. My “tan” has all but peeled off as I’m back a week already from Puerto Rico.

Until next time, San Juan.  I can’t wait to get back.

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