Day 5 – San Juan, Puerto Rico
15 years ago, I had the great fortune of working on a project in Old San Juan where I met some wonderful and generous people who turned this paradise island into my second home for the better part of a year. As a result, I had been looking forward to our 2nd port of call since we first booked our cruise. As soon as we confirmed our booking, I immediately reached out to my dear friend Oscar Pita who I hadn’t seen in 15 years to see if we could meet up when we arrived. Oscar was as excited as I was to reconnect and immediately suggested that he would take the morning off work and be our personal guide on the island he calls home.
Our ship docked in the early morning of August 17th in the downtown Cruise Port just before 6:00am and by the time we roused ourselves from bed, the sunlight was streaming through our balcony door filling our stateroom with the bright light and promise of a new day. By the time we had dressed and were ready to disembark, 2 other cruise ships had quietly inched their way into the port and were parked beside us – it was going to be a busy day in San Juan!
We made our way off the ship, down the gangway and onto the pier in the heart of the old town, where we were greeted with the heat and humidity of a typical Caribbean morning. At just before 8:30am, it was already 30 degrees and the predicted high of 36 degrees was not far away. The forecast was for scattered cloud and the possibility of rain, but most of the cloud had already cleared and the sky was bright blue.
Oscar had suggested we meet across the street from the Port and a few hundred yards to the west at the entrance to the CVS Pharmacy. From experience he knew how busy this area becomes when the cruise ships arrive, pouring more than 10,000 passengers into the old town in a very short time. Fortunately for us, since ours was the first ship to dock, we were able to get off the ship and out of the port before the crush of the crowds. It took us less than 5 minutes to walk to our rendezvous point where we waited for Oscar and his lovely wife Enid to arrive.
A few minutes after 8:30am a car pulled up to the sidewalk not far from the CSV and I recognized the beaming smile of my old friend as he emerged from the passenger side of the vehicle and strutted confidently to where we were waiting. We greeted each other with hugs and after saying our hellos, I introduced him to Kim, Ian and Laura. Oscar let us know that Enid was going to park the car and would meet us at a restaurant that he had picked where we would have breakfast and go over the plans of our discovery of Old San Juan. We walked north from the pharmacy up a narrow, cobblestone side street. I had forgotten how hilly the old town is and within a few minutes of walking up the incline, I had already started to perspire.
A short time later Oscar led us through an arched doorway into a dimly lit room with dark floors and large overhead ceiling fans. The hostess directed us to a long rectangular table in the middle of the dining room. Oscar had picked this particular restaurant, the Waffle Era Tea Room because it is famous for its waffles (both sweet and savoury). The menu is quite extensive with waffles of every description so it took us a bit of time to decide what we were going to have. Once we made our decision we began to plot out our itinerary that would allow us to see as much as we could in just a few hours.
With our plan in place we left the Waffle Era and walked in the general direction of the famous Castillo San Felipe del Morro, more commonly known as El Morro, a World Heritage Site fort that has been guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay at the town’s most northwestern point for 500 years. We picked this attraction as our first stop for two main reasons. First, it marked the furthest distance, and highest elevation from where our cruise ship was docked. This meant that our longest and steepest walk would take place at the beginning of our trek, while we were relatively fresh and before the hottest part of the day. The rest of our tour would be downhill and towards the ship after this stop. Second, El Morro is one of the most visited sites in Puerto Rico and we wanted to avoid the crowds that would surely come once the other cruise ships began to unload their passengers.
It took roughly 20 minutes to walk from the restaurant near the cruise port to the fort, stopping to take photos of the Governor’s House and Cuartel de Ballajá.
Just before we walked down the hill to the main entrance of El Morro, Oscar spotted a vendor selling Piragua from a colourful pushcart. Piragua is a popular frozen desert made from shaved ice and fruit flavoured syrup and has become a Puerto Rican favourite. It is similar to snow cones sold in the U.S. and Canada, but gets its name from the its shape, which is more like a pyramid than a cone. The ice is shaved by hand from a large rectangular block and the syrups are made from real fruit with flavours like mango, passion fruit, banana and strawberry being the most popular. This was a welcome and refreshing treat as it was only but 11:00am but the temperature was now above 35 degrees.
Our visit to El Morro lasted just over 45 minutes. We walked around the outer wall of the massive structure, taking in the unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean to the north, San Juan Bay to the west and south, and the old town of San Juan to the east. After walking the perimeter of the fort, we went down several flights of stone stairs, into the interior admiring the impenetrable walls that have kept intruders, navies and pirates at bay for centuries. Our tour finished with a quick stop at the gift shop where Enid, knowing my love for good coffee, purchased a pound of Puerto Rican coffee beans, grown in the mountains that form the spine of the island of Puerto Rico from the east to the west.
We continued back towards the centre of town, stopping at the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista, the second oldest church in the Americas, dating back to 1521. The cathedral houses the remains of Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer famous for his quest for the Fountain of Youth. It is also the shrine for the Blessed Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodríguez Santiago the only layperson in the history of the United States to be beatified.
Leaving the cathedral, we opted to stop in briefly at the Church of San Francisco, only a short distance away. While not as old or as large as the cathedral, it exudes simplicity and piety in its architecture and style and is worth a quick visit.
As we approached the centre of the old town, we were passing by the building that Oscar and I had worked in so many years before, the Office of Management of Government for Puerto Rico. We paused for a quick photo-op before continuing our trek to the centre of town and the main square.
Before arriving at the square, Enid insisted it was time for another Puerto Rican treat so we made our way to a now-famous shop that sells fancy Puerto Rican popsicles in a variety of shapes and flavours. These are not ordinary popsicles, but instead, are very upscale, unique and delicious.
It was approaching 12:30pm and I could feel the time that we had left before returning to the ship beginning to slip away. We still had a couple of stops to make before our all aboard so we made our way to the main plaza in the middle of town. This was one of my favourite spots when I worked here so long ago. I would walk around the plaza at lunch time and stop in to one of the many restaurants or cafes for my midday meal. The plaza is not just a favourite spot for tourists, but is also home to hundreds of pigeons. I had noticed that Oscar was no longer in our small group, but instead was talking to one of the vendors at the edge of the square. He returned to where we were chatting and stood beside Kim. He raised his hand and in a gesture as if he were patting her shoulder, he deposited a small handful of crushed cornmeal down her arm. Almost immediately, a flock of 4 pigeons were perched on her arm! Within a few seconds, he had doused the rest of us with cornmeal, and we were all covered in frolicking, flapping birds!
As our time was nearly done, we wanted to end our stay with a Puerto Rican mallorca, a buttery bun sprinkled with powdered sugar that is a “must have” on any trip to San Juan. The best place to get one is at La Bombonera, a restaurant that has been around for over 100 years. Aside from the mallorcas, this is also one of the best places to get a robust and aromatic café con leche (coffee with milk) made in the original espresso machine that was brought in from Cuba nearly a century ago. The espresso machine, made by Cafeteras Nacionale sits proudly on a counter across from the patron seating area. This was the perfect ending to our all too short visit the old city of San Juan.
It was finally time to say our goodbyes to Oscar and Enid. They had been wonderful hosts and it was a very emotional farewell for me. Oscar and I vowed not to let another 15 years pass before we see each other again. We crossed the street towards to the cruise ship and were swallowed up by the enormous crowd that had queued up for the all aboard. Unfortunately, both our ship and the MSC ship docked beside us were loading at the same time and each passenger had to pass through the U.S Customs/Security before boarding the ship.
After changing from our street clothes and donning our swimwear, we went directly to the Solarium where we cooled off in the pool and then relaxed over lunch from the Bistro. It had been a jam packed and exhausting morning but now it was time to relax. We spent the rest of the afternoon in and around the Solarium going from the pool to the lounge chairs and back to the pool, with the occasional snack in between.
On every cruise we have been on, one of the feature dinners in the main dining room is Lobster Tail. It is also one of the dinners that I look forward to the most and since I was particularly hungry from all of the walking around San Juan, I ordered two. I have to say that I was feeling a little guilty about this, but the guilt dissipated quickly once the lobsters arrived. Just to reinforce that I had made the right choice, Ian decided to order a lobster tail after he finished his original selection of pasta, and then Kim joined in reluctantly (sort of) by also ordering a 2nd tail.
After a very filling dinner we waddled over to Studio B, for our nightly onboard entertainment. Tonight’s feature presentation was titled “Frozen in Time”, an ice skating extravaganza based on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The performance lasted just under an hour and was energetic and fun. The talent was quite good with several solo and duet performances from skaters who had won national and international competitions. Pretty incredible considering they were skating while we were on a moving ship! The finale was an amazing sand artist who drew a variety of Hans Christian Andersen’s characters in quick succession from a pile of sand on a lightboard projected onto a screen.
Still feeling a little stuffed from our dinner, we decided to follow up the skating performance with a walk around the ship. We ended up at On Air to catch the last few songs in a Kid’s Karaoke competition. As Karaoke was finishing we could hear the music ramping up in the Promenade just outside of On Air. We followed the crowd towards the middle of the Promenade and into the heart of the 1970’s. On the catwalk above the Promenade, the Village People had arrived to welcome us to the Disco Inferno Street Party with their rendition of ‘YMCA’. This was obviously a popular event as people emerged from everywhere to fill the expanse of Promenade. We stayed for several more unforgettable hits and then dragged Kim away, hips still swinging while her and Ian continued to sing disco tunes. It was finally time for bed.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.