March 9, 2020

puerto rico, part 2 : old san juan

FILED IN: Personal, Travel

We flew into Puerto Rico on Thursday and spent the day Friday in El Yunque, both hiking and then finishing out the afternoon with an engagement session. Saturday was our only day that was completely free of other obligations so we started the morning by finding a parking spot in Old San Juan (bless, we nabbed street parking and thank God for our tiny little car!) and walked to Castillo San Cristóbal, one of the Spanish fortresses on the island. (This was also the place my sister and brother-in-law got married 10 years ago!)

Construction on San Cristóbal began in 1634 (it wasn’t completed until 1790!) and, for that reason alone, it was extra fun to walk around and feel the history. I am always fascinated by standing in a historical spot like that and imagining what was happening around me in that exact location 200 years ago, 100 years old, etc. Like, if I could just ghost myself right into the past, what would be happening around me? That was slightly more “fun” to imagine in the main corridors than in the dungeon with its chicken-scratch drawings on the wall from prisoners awaiting execution. As we walked around and enjoyed seeing the sights, I told Kevin just how sad and burdened it feels to know that so much of our nation’s history (basically, all of our historical buildings, honestly) were built by slaves. So there’s always this hand-in-hand juxtaposition of being awestruck by the history of a place and also deeply saddened by it, knowing the terrible injustices that formed it.

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San Cristóbal was built over a 150 year span to protect El Morro (which is about a mile walk up the road) and the city from land attack. (It is the biggest European fortication in the Americas!) We had been able to visit this fort last time we were in Puerto Rico (the wedding was there, after all!), but we hadn’t had time to see El Morro so, when we were done at San Cristóbal, we walked the mile-ish distance to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, most commonly known as “El Morro.” The difference between the two, visually, was fascinating! Most notably, El Morro has a lot more green space, but it also has a lot more color: yellow and blue painted walls instead of the natural stucco of San Cristóbal. Both, of course, have lots of brick and stone, but they definitely did not look like sister forts. (Possibly cousins…) And while San Cristobal can boast to being the biggest, El Morro is considered the most iconic, especially given its location at the entrance to the Bay of San Juan. It has 6 levels (doubling the 3 that San Cristóbal has) that face the Atlantic Ocean, all of which were designed to create “a devastating artillery fire over enemy ships.” By the time of its completion around 1790 (it was started in 1539!), it had the reputation of being unconquerable and was the most feared of all the Spanish colonial fortifications.

On the way out of El Morro, we ended up taking the scenic route along the water on the outside of the city walls all the way over to the original “La Puerta de San Juan”, the bright red San Juan Gate, which was built in 1635. In colonial times, passenger ships would anchor away from the pier with smaller boats bringing the passengers to shore. All visitors would have to enter through the gate and they would go straight up the street into the San Juan Cathedral “to thank God for a safe voyage.” Because of our route, we were able to walk through the gate (I don’t think we would’ve noticed it otherwise from inside the city) and then continue walking around Old San Juan. We saw cruise ships coming in and grabbed lunch and I took so many pictures of the bright walls and beautiful doors. By the time we were done, it was early afternoon and we headed back to our apartment and then hit the beach.

The beach that afternoon was one of my favorite trip memories and not because of the physical beach itself, but because we played in the water, getting hit by waves, and laughing for 3 hours and it was probably the closest I’ve felt to being a newlywed since, well, being a newlywed. (Any parent knows how mind-consuming it is taking care of kids so you can understand that feeling of “being young again” when you spend years being wrapped in parent-mode and, suddenly, on a random Saturday afternoon at a beach in Puerto Rico, you don’t have to think about naps or kid-friendly dinner foods or appropriate meal times or bed times or kid safety, etc.) The beach access was a quick walk from our apartment and it was the perfect afternoon for being in the water. (We didn’t even know it at the time–that it was such a perfect beach day–but when we went to the beach again on Monday and the undertow was so dangerously bad that we couldn’t stay in the water, we realized how lucky we were to have been able to enjoy Saturday’s perfection.)

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I’ll be honest, I had to do some photoshop work on this image above because there was a guard sitting on one of the benches and I really want this shot. I asked him if he would mind moving for 3 seconds so I could take the photo, but he said that was where he was stationed and he could not move from the bench (skeptical, but who knows) so I had to make it happen with some extra work.
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The photo below right shows the lawn where my sister and brother-in-law got married!
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We took lots of pictures and videos of these huge iguanas to send back to the kids.
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The streets of Old San Juan are beautiful. I was so glad we were able to take photos of the wedding couple there on Monday!
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So bright and cheery!!!
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The natural erosion of the brick and stone was so cool to see!
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The gate to the city!
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