A Visit to San Juan's Old Town

A visit to Old San Juan was numero uno on our list of things to do on the trip. Tuesday morning, rested and relaxed we drove the thirty minutes to San Juan Viejo and by some miracle arrived at the intended parking deck, Dona Fela's. We got our parking ticket from a machine then found a spot with no problem--it was still early. We struck out on foot with the loose intention of taking a walking tour I found in the Fodor's guide book. Here's a picture of the deck exterior--hard to miss if you're in the vicinity. That turned out to be a good thing in the afternoon when we were looking for where we parked the car.

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San Juan de Bautista was founded in 1521 by rock star conquistador Ponce De Leon, much to the chagrin of the Taino indians, the previous owners of the island. The Spanish spent the remainder of the 16th century fortifying both ends of the peninsula to guard against ships from other nations like England wanting to use San Juan's natural harbor as a jumping off point for harvesting New World treasure. Read more about San Juan's timeline here.  The forts were used to defend San Juan from marauding English, Portugese, and Dutch. Sure enough, the English attacked San Juan in 1595.

I had a general idea of where I wanted to go, picked up from a Fodor's guidebook-recommended walking tour--west along Paseo de la Princesa to Castillo Morro, one of the two historic Spanish forts that bracket the old town area.  I never saw the Paseo but after taking a shot of a large statue of Christopher Columbus we spied a trolley stop and a trolley coming toward us along the narrow, blue-brick-paved street.  It seemed prudent, considering the heat, humidity, and bright sunshine, to reconnoiter via trolley. Trolleys are free and air conditioned! Repeat, free AND air-conditioned. An unbeatable combo. The numbered stops are easy to find and the trolleys trundle up the narrow streets fairly often.

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My curiosity about Old San Juan was partly piqued by my experience of St. Augustine, America's oldest city. It has the Castillo de San Marcos and a heritage of Spanish colonization. We jumped off the trolley near the east end of the peninsula and started walking. We found ourselves close by the Castillo San Cristobál. I found a small plaza with this statue of Christopher Columbus, the discoverer of the New World.

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Cristóbal Colón in Spanish. A beautiful blue sky, no?

We went into the Castillo Cristóbal Visitor Center and Dail purchased a Senior Pass. I conveniently left mine (purchased at the Fort in St. Augustine) at home. Maturity has its benefits. The Senior Pass gives you and three others free admission to all 58 U.S. National Parks.

I have many photos of the two Castillos in San Juan Viejo. I'm including a few here and will put them in context via captions. First up: Castillo Cristóbal.

 It took 150 years to build the castillo. It's the largest Spanish fort in the New World. This view looks east toward the modern downtown and beachfront.

It took 150 years to build the castillo. It's the largest Spanish fort in the New World. This view looks east toward the modern downtown and beachfront.

 An arched shaded walkway on the main plaza. There are three levels to the Castillo.

An arched shaded walkway on the main plaza. There are three levels to the Castillo.

 Dail photographing a mom and her son in a guard tower at El Morro. Taking a photo of Dail in the tower I lost my hat. I recovered it, luckily, but only after an extraordinary effort along the parapet. I thought it was gone with the wind.

Dail photographing a mom and her son in a guard tower at El Morro. Taking a photo of Dail in the tower I lost my hat. I recovered it, luckily, but only after an extraordinary effort along the parapet. I thought it was gone with the wind.


 A view of the Caribbean Sea from the fort to the west. You can just barely see the lighthouse of El Morro in the distance. 

A view of the Caribbean Sea from the fort to the west. You can just barely see the lighthouse of El Morro in the distance. 

 Spanish soldier cut-out figures, showing period uniforms.

Spanish soldier cut-out figures, showing period uniforms.

 The ideal cool and lightweight tropical fighting garb...

The ideal cool and lightweight tropical fighting garb...

 Cannon guarding against approaches from the sea

Cannon guarding against approaches from the sea

 What good is a cannon without balls?

What good is a cannon without balls?

 On to Castillo San Felipe Del Morro. It guards the entrance to the harbor. A wonderful place to shoot pictures but I won't post them due to the similarity to the Cristobal shots. Well, except for one...

On to Castillo San Felipe Del Morro. It guards the entrance to the harbor. A wonderful place to shoot pictures but I won't post them due to the similarity to the Cristobal shots. Well, except for one...

 This guy caused more than one tourist to beat a hasty retreat to another part of the fort!

This guy caused more than one tourist to beat a hasty retreat to another part of the fort!

We had used the Park Service open trolley to get from one end of the old town to the other. Touring the two castillos used most of the morning. We headed off on a city trolley to find a restaurant for lunch. We stopped at the second stop along the bayfront and headed inland. It had clouded up a little and a few raindrops fell. We were close by a restaurant, Palmas, and decided to head inside to escape the rain and to eat lunch. All the doors and windows were open and it looked inviting.

 Palmas Restaurant, looking back toward the ocean.

Palmas Restaurant, looking back toward the ocean.

We found the décor to be wonderfully ornate and funky. Food was Puerto Rican and very good indeed. Here's a shot of one end of the dining room.

Palmas was definitely an upgrade from the Asian Buffet where we dined Monday eve. Here's a shot of the veggie lunch entrée I had--I promise no more food shots. Dail's arroz con pollo (chicken and rice) got a big thumbs up from her.

 Un plato de magongo con vegetales y ensalada.

Un plato de magongo con vegetales y ensalada.

Truly Puerto Rico is the "Island of Enchantment"--the slogan on auto tags. And there's no limit on beautiful images waiting to be captured in Ciudad Viejo. I'll close this post with a shot of the colorful placemat at Palmas. Hasta luego!

 Magna was the best of a limited collection of Puerto Rican beers.

Magna was the best of a limited collection of Puerto Rican beers.