Walking in Old San Juan
San Juan, Puerto Rico is one of my favorite ports in the Caribbean. From the first time we explored its rich culture, we fell in love with it. I love history, and Old San Juan is a very historic town, with its cobblestone streets, colorful houses, beautiful churches, and old forts. On both of our stops in Old San Juan, we decided to explore on foot since there was so much to see. Be warned that Old San Juan is very hilly, and the streets are cobblestone. Wear very comfortable and safe shoes. No heels here! There are free trolleys that will take you around the town, but we never managed to find one. There are also public busses and taxis. The streets of Old San Juan are very narrow, and I would not suggest trying to drive in them. Parking looked very difficult unless you find a parking garage. If you are able to walk distances, that’s the best way to see the town. Old San Juan is not very big, so it’s very easy to tour by foot, although it can be very hot. I would suggest finding a good map before you go and taking it with you. It was hard to find a place to get a good map, although we finally found a visitor’s center in a small building in a square that was able to provide us with a map. Old San Juan seemed very safe.
When you get off the ship in port you are already in town. On the street at the end of the pier you will find shops and restaurants, and also many tour operators selling excursions. Cross that street (carefully! No one seems to want to stop. We were told that you just have to walk out and they will stop. I’m not all that courageous.) Turn left and walk about a block, and there will be a Walgreens on the right. That was a nice surprise and our first stop to buy some Gatorade for our long hot walk. It’s great because it has self-service registers and you can use your American credit cards. The prices were fair. Be prepared for the heat with a hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and something to drink. After that we kept to the left, walked around the colorful historic neighborhoods, and saw the cobblestone cats. You will see cats everywhere as you walk. I believe that the cats were brought in to solve a rat problem in Old San Juan, and then ended up a problem themselves. There is now an organization in Old San Juan called “Save a Gato”. Volunteers trap, neuter, and then release the cats in order to save them. Most of the cats are feral and won’t let you near them, but they are still cute. Read my blog about the cats of Old San Juan here.
After that we ended up at Fort El Morro. It’s quite a hike up a hill to get to it but the views are beautiful from the top of the fort, and well worth the hike. You can tour both of the Old San Juan forts for only $5 a person. Just save your receipt. They are both really good forts, and very interesting. I would highly recommend seeing them. There are restrooms in both forts. I had a hard time finding restrooms in Old San Juan, so keep that in mind. There is an old cemetary right outside the fort to your left. Quite interesting. We then found Casa Blanca Museum after some directions from a policeman. Casa Blanca was the home of Ponce De Leon’s family, (yes, that Ponce De Leon!). Ponce was Puerto Rico’s first governor, and died before the house was finished. It’s not easy to find and wasn’t open the day we were there, which was a big disappointment. That was first on my list to see. After that we explored the streets of Old San Juan. There are many beautiful old churches and historic buildings along the narrow streets. There is also a lot of shopping and eating to be done. One of the things that I enjoyed was Pigeon Park, Parque de las Palomas. It’s a nice shady park overlooking the ocean, with a ton of pigeons. So, if you don’t like birds, it’s not a good place to visit. But I thought it was kind of fun. There is a small marketplace in the Colon Plaza, one of the town squares, with a very tall Christopher Columbus statue. It seemed to be very good quality merchandise. In another town square we saw a troop of dancers doing a local dance. After that, we went back to the ship to cool down a bit and grab some lunch. We always say that we’re going to buy lunch at one of the many small restaurants in town, but then we never do. That’s my goal next time. And one of the famous Pina Coladas! There seemed to be plenty of decent restaurants around as we walked.
After lunch we decided to go to the other fort, San Cristobal. We had our receipt from El Morro, so we showed them that at the entrance, and went in. This is another really good historical fort to see, and once again, beautiful views. You can easily take a couple of hours exploring it. After the fort, we were ready to go back to the ship, get away from the heat, and relax a while. That was a lot of walking. One of our friends clocked 7 miles on his Fitbit. On the way back to the ship we decided to stop at the Walgreens again and pick up a 12 pack of Diet Coke and some chocolate to take back to our cabin. (Like we needed more sweets!) The cans were smaller than we were used to, but it was still a lot cheaper than buying soda on the ship. We were on Freedom of the Seas, and had no problem getting the Diet Coke back on the ship. This Walgreens would be a great place to buy the extra sunscreen or anything else you ran out of or forgot. Cheaper than the ship. Also, right at the end of the pier as you head back you will find quite a few tables set up by the locals selling souvenirs. We ended up buying two very pretty wind chimes made out of wine bottles. There seemed to be some good values here.
I think that the highlights of Old San Juan for me were the history, the forts, the old churches, the cobblestone streets, the colorful buildings, and the cats. I can’t wait to go back and see more. There is also a rainforest in Puerto Rico that you can take an excursion to. It’s called El Yunque. We’ve never been there, but I hear that it’s beautiful. We’ll probably do that excursion at some point.