Shore excursion to San Juan, Puerto Rico with Viking

The cat/giraffe and the little shoes

Puerto Rico has a unique status and relationship with the USA. Ceded to the USA in 1898 by the Spanish, it then became a self-governing commonwealth of the United States in 1952. This unusual status means everyone born on the island is a US citizen and the holder of an American passport, however, its residents are ineligible to participate in US presidential elections (unless registered to vote in one of the 50 states). In 2017 a non-binding referendum (oh yes not only the UK have them) resulted in a majority vote to become a US state, however, only 23% of potential voters took part. When and if their status will change is something to watch out for on the news.

Castillo San CristobalWe visited San Juan on a Viking ocean cruise shore excursion with a local guide. Our guide pointed out that Puerto Rico was declared bankrupt in 2017, but incentives to US drug companies has seen the production of ‘over the counter’ pharmaceuticals moving to Puerto Rico. As such most of the household names known by western consumers are produced here.

Tourism is also an important area of income for the island, which is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea to the south-east of the USA. There was a pride in the arts and crafts produced on the island, and we lingered over some beautifully carved tables and benches at a local cafe. Each item of furniture was a work of art and carved from a single piece of wood.

Castillo San Cristobal is probably the most impressive sight in the old town and one of the largest military complexes built by the Spanish in the Americas. In its heyday it was a labyrinth of six interconnected forts, with 150ft walls on a 27-acre plot, built to defend Spain’s colonisation effort which started in the 1500s. Fortunately Alejandro O’Rielly (with Thomas O’Daly) that built it for the Spanish wasn’t the O’Rielly out of Fawlty Towers, and it still stands proudly overlooking the town.

FortalezaWandering amongst the gaily painted houses and visiting the cathedral (built in 1540) we enjoyed the colonial architecture of the old town (which boasts over 400 historically listed buildings). Perhaps one of the most interesting is La Fortaleza and indeed the street leading up to it. Dating from 1533 it was originally a fortress but was overtaken by the aforementioned Castillo San Cristobal. Since then, it has been the home of the island governors for some 300 years and said to be the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the western hemisphere. The street that leads up to the iron gates (that guard the complex) is regularly covered with colourful umbrellas, making an eye catching (if not neck stretching) display. The current installation celebrates a charity dedicated to helping children.

England was not forgotten though as underfoot the blue hued cobblestones had been manufactured and exported from Liverpool, where inclusion of iron and aluminium in the mix produced the unusual colour.   

Cat/giraffe sculptureThere are some intriguing characters in San Juan’s history, none less than Dona Felisa Rincon De Gautier (San Juan’s first female Mayor) who is celebrated in Parque de las Palomas. Initially our eyes were attracted to the hundreds of pigeons that flapped in a feeding frenzy around a child with a handful of seed, reminiscent of the old days in Trafalgar Square. Closer inspection of the grounds revealed little bronze shoes on the floor at various spots. These are dedicated to Dona Felisa and Rafael Hernandez Colon, who provided shoes as part of their work for the poor.  Having no children of her own she adopted (figuratively) the children of San Juan as her own and even transported snow in by plane on one occasion, so the local children could experience playing with it at Christmas!

San Juan is no slouch when it comes to interesting sculptures. The impressive sculpture of Columbus that towers over the Plaza De Colon is a good example of the more traditional, whilst the animal sculptures of Jorge Zeno represent the quirkier end of the scale. In the little square across from the Cathedral you will find penguins in a boat, a rooster and a cat/giraffe. The painted cow, ever present in most cities, gets a quirky twist and some individualism by wearing a straw hat.

Raices FountainThere was time before we returned to the Viking Sun for a gentle stroll down Paseo de la Princesa. The 19th century esplanade had a gentle feel, lined by trees, benches, food vendors, statues and antique streetlamps.  Our effort to walk to the end was rewarded by the highly impressive Raices Fountain (Roots Fountain) depicting the island’s Taino, African and Spanish heritage.

We were told that there were some pretty impressive beaches at the northern end of San Juan, but sadly we didn’t have time to visit, perhaps next time. As the port area had a Wallgreens (very poplar chemist in the USA) it was time to pick up some essentials, a skull and crossbones spade for the Grandchildren and skip past the C.H.I.P.S style motorbike mounted port police back to the ship.

Silver Travel advisor recommends Viking Ocean Cruises.

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Steve Aldridge

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