Sunday, August 10: We get an early start this morning because I have big ambitions. We’re taking the Lonely Planet‘s self-guided walking tour through Old San Juan. The tour starts at Pier 2, next to where the cruise ships are parked, and ends at Paseo del Morro. It is supposed to be 3 miles long and 3-4 hours in duration. Little do we know the tour will take us most of the day, including lunch and stops in various places, and our bodies will be aching from head to toe!
Our taxi drops us off near the pier, where we go in search of coffee and breakfast. Our hotel doesn’t have a complimentary breakfast, so every day this will be a dilemma. As soon as we turn inland from the pier, we see again the huge U.S. Post Office, which dominates the center of Old San Juan. It’s a reminder that we’re in a U.S. Territory. I can’t get over seeing U.S. Postal Service vehicles and post boxes when I’m visiting a Spanish-speaking country.
We find a cute coffee shop, Cafe Cuatro Sombras, which means Four Shadows. Their breakfast menu is scant, but we can order sandwiches for breakfast. We order two black coffees (also an anomaly in Puerto Rico as most often coffee is served automatically with cream) and I get a toast with guava butter and Mike a breakfast panini with ham, provolone cheese and sweet mustard.
The coffee shop has an interesting history. In 1846, Domingo Mariani arrived from Corsica and settled in the mountains of Yauco, where he established The Hacienda Santa Clara. Shade grown coffee was a common practice in those times. Although many varieties of trees were used to provide shade to the orchard at Santa Clara the most commonly used were the guaba, guamá, palo de pollo and the guaraguao; these were the four shadows (cuatro sombras) of Santa Clara.
By mid-century, Santa Clara had to close its doors like so many Puerto Rican coffee haciendas. Now a young descendant of Don Domingo brings us the coffee Cuatro Sombras from Yauco, Puerto Rico.
The coffee beans are 100% arabica. They are handpicked in their ripe state and processed the same day in the wet mill. They are then sun-dried and stored in a climate controlled bodega until they ready to be classified by size and density. Only the best quality beans are used for the Cuatro Sombras coffee.
Cuatro Sombras is a single origin coffee from Yauco, Puerto Rico. In the cup it reveals a medium bodied coffee with a vibrant acidity with notes of semi-sweet chocolate, caramel and spices that contribute to a classic and clean cup.
We head back to the plaza where we dropped in on Ana Ruiz’s birthday last night and begin our walk along Paseo de la Princesa, a shaded 19th century esplanade that runs alongside the old city walls to the shore of Bahia de San Juan.
We see some interesting statues and metal spiked sculptures along the way, and some huge Ficus trees, their tendrils and vines encroaching on every adjacent surface.
The romantic walkway is lined with antique street lamps, shade trees, benches, statues, and fruit vendors’ stalls and carts. Little geckos flit around on the trees and vines.
At the end of the beautiful avenue is the bronze sculpture and fountain, Raices, that depicts the island’s Taino, Spanish and African heritage. The figures rise amid a shower of cascading water.
We turn right at Racies Fountain and continue along the walkway beside the bay, seeing various fishing boats and cages, as well as the view across the bay to the Bacardi Rum Factory.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, Spanish ships anchored in this bay and unloaded colonists and supplies, all of which entered the city through the tall red portal known as Puerta de San Juan, dating from the 1630s. The walking tour instructs us to enter through this gate and walk through the city, but we decide to continue along the mile-long Paseo del Morro, which hugs the city walls to the far tip of El Morro Fort.
We see turreted guard towers called garitas carved into the thick city walls. They are distinctive conical structures that have become symbolic of Puerto Rico and its rich colonial history.
We see a lot of cats running around and sunning themselves on the rocks along the bay here. According to Puerto Rico Day Trips: Help Out the Cats in Old San Juan, most of the cats around the Paseo del Morro are feral cats, which means that they are not socialized to humans. They were either born outside and never had human care/contact, or they have become accustomed to living without human companionship.
In cooperation with the National Park Service, Save a Gato provides food, water and medical assistance for these cats. They also control the number of cats in the colony. They do this by the practice of TNR — Trap, Neuter and Release.
They humanly trap the cats, neuter them (and clip the ear for easy recognition), give them their necessary vaccinations (rabies, etc), deworm them, attend to any other medical needs, and then return them to the colony. This practice provides a win/win situation for everyone — the cat population is controlled and so is the rodent population.
This little fellow isn’t too happy when I invade his space to take his picture.
After walking the two miles back and forth along Paseo del Morro, we finally enter the old city through the Puerta de San Juan, where we stroll through the colorful streets.
We come to a pretty little shaded park, Plazuela Las Monjas (Nun’s Square). On one side of the park is Gran Hotel El Convento, Puerto Rico’s grandest hotel.
We poke into the hotel to check out the courtyard restaurant where we’ve heard we can have a lovely brunch, and we plan to do just that one day this week.
On the east side of the park is Catedral de San Juan which dates from 1540. The remains of Juan Ponce de Leon rest inside a marble tomb here. Also, the body of religious martyr St. Pio is displayed under glass. Sadly, church services are in session this Sunday morning, so we can’t do the tourist thing and explore the church thoroughly.
In the park outside, we find some strange little statues and people lingering on benches under gnarly trees.
We get a peek at the Children’s Museum through the leafy trees.
We follow the cobbled streets to the bay, where we pass more colorful houses.
At the Plazuela de la Rogativa, we admire the bronze sculpture of a religious procession, representing the Bishop of San Juan and three women bearing torches. According to legend, the candles held by the women who walked through this plaza one night in 1797 tricked British lieutenant Abercromby, who was getting ready to seize San Juan with 8,000 troops and a flotilla of more than 50 vessels, into believing that reinforcements were flooding the city from the rest of the island. Fearful of being outnumbered, Abercromby and his fleet withdrew. (Lonely Planet Puerto Rico)
Here we have grand vistas of the Paseo del Morro and the Bahia de San Juan below, where we just finished our two-mile walk.
We walk up to the guarded iron gates of La Fortaleza, a one-time fort that is more like a classical palace. Built in 1533, it’s the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the western hemisphere (Lonely Planet Puerto Rico). As it’s Sunday, no tours are offered, but we plan to return here one day this week.
We see a beautiful African tulip tree on a side street. These trees are like exclamation points of color all over Puerto Rico.
We then walk through the streets of San Juan until we come to the Plaza de Armas, the city’s central square laid out in the 16th century with the classic look of plazas from Madrid and Mexico.
We see a colorful kiosk in Plaza de Armas and we decide since it’s too early for lunch, we’ll stop here for a drink.
The plaza has served as a military parade ground, vegetable market and social gathering spot.
Mike sits down for a chat with the life-sized statue honoring Curet Alonso, Puerto Rican composer of over 2,000 salsa songs. He (literally) sits at San Juan’s Plaza de Armas, in Alonso’s favorite bench spot.
I have a lemonade with orange slices and Mike a grape juice. It’s very hot and humid today, so this is a refreshing break from all our walking.
We leave the Plaza de Armas after Mike stops at the SuperMax at the end of the square to buy some granola bars and bananas. We decide it’s too early for lunch yet, so we’ll go up the hill to explore Fuerte San Cristobal before stopping at the Parrot Cafe for lunch.