Exploring Forts Of Old San Juan - Express Style!

Trip Start Feb 01, 2005
Trip End Dec 31, 2020

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Where I stayed
Hotel Plaza De Armas Old San Juan
Read my review - 2/5 stars

Flag of Puerto Rico  ,
Sunday, December 9, 2012

It's feeling like Christmas in Old San Juan.

The trees in the park opposite our hotel all have fairy lights, the shops and restaurants are decorated in Christmas hues and there is a 15 minute laser light show every hour projected on the Governor's residence close by. It's a Sunday night and crowds of locals dressed in their best are out promenading on the cobblestone streets to see the lights.

It took us a frustratingly long time to get ourselves out and about sightseeing. The frustration was heightened by the knowledge that we only had the one night in Puerto Rico and, importantly for us, UNESCO World Heritage Sites to see. Our delay was just common travel woes. First our flight from Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico was delayed, then on arrival there were far too few immigration officers. Finally out of the airport one and a half hours later, we grabbed a cab but as we got closer to our Hotel in the old part of town our taxi driver found road closures everywhere (due to Christmas celebrations we think). We inched along in almost gridlocked traffic. Finally we arrived at our hotel at 2.30pm to find our room wasn't yet ready! Off we went to get a late lunch but when returning to reception we found a queue of people checking in, and only one receptionist who seemed in no hurry at all.

Eventually we got our room key for our 4th floor room and entered the ancient lift. It slowly, slowly rose at a speed less than our own stair climbing speed and then clunked to a stop half way between level 3 and 4. By now we are both desperate for the toilet and can't believe it when the lift descends ever so slowly again to the ground! We tumbled out of  this wretched lift, once we worked out how to get the old-fashioned gate open, and panted up the four flights of stairs with our backpacks. Once again we are grateful for our philosophy of "travelling with less". Without it we would still be waiting for the lift!

Now we were seriously late to get to see all we planned but as usual for us it all worked for the best. We had researched and mapped out a plan before arriving and got straight off on foot to Fort San Cristobal arriving just after 4pm. (Our original plan had been to start sightseeing  at 1pm). We found to our relief that both forts would be open until 6.00pm and we could buy a ticket for both now to save time. Off at express pace, we saw all levels of San Cristobal (much quicker than most visitors!) and then made our way to the massive El Morro Fortress.

As we neared El Morro, rolling hills of lawn either side of the path were populated by locals flying kites and happy families Sunday picnicking. Storm clouds rolled in but nobody seemed really perturbed even when it rained. We spent the rest of our time exploring the massive 6 level fort built with 15 feet thick walls dating back to 1539. They sure knew how to build things to last in the 16th Century! This was the era of the buildings we had just seen in Dominican Republic as well. It is wonderful to become absorbed in the history and to imagine living in that time. The interpretive panels were excellent at both forts and we even tagged along at the back of a guided tour for a while at El Moro.
The history of Puerto Rico following its discovery by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 is quite c omplicated and revolves around the El Moro fort which was commissioned by Charles V King of Spain in 1539. In 1586 Mexico approved funding for the construction which began in 1589. 1595 saw the first attack by Sir Francis Drake which was repelled. However in 1598 George Clifford, Earl of Cumberland conquered El Morro Fort, but had to relinguish after his troops contracted dysentery. Then it was not until 1625 before a new assault was made on El Morro, this time by the Dutch under the command of General Bowdoin Hendrick who besieged the Fort and burned San Juan. The Spanish back in control in 1630 spent the next 167 years building city walls and planning the present fortifications. In 1797 the English under Sir Ralph Abercomby mounted their last and again unsuccessful assault. Finally in 1898 ownership was settled when Admiral William Sampson took the honours for the USA.

After the fort closed we wandered around the cobblestone streets for several hours enjoying the ambience of the locals' Christmas anticipation, and loving the air of living history that is Old San Juan. We watched the laser light show, shared some bad red wine at a street side bar, then a meal at a local restaurant.  

Slowly, reluctantly, we headed back to our hotel (and our 4 flight stair climb - we did not trust that lift!) not wanting the night to end and not wanting the holiday to end. Tomorrow would bring the unthinkable - the start of an almost 40 hour transit, taking us back to Perth -  3 long flights plus airport time. For now we just want to stay immersed in the beauty that is Old San Juan.  

Footnote: La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico are UNESCO World Heritage Listed.
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