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Published: November 17th 2013
Posada San Francisco
View from the guesthouse, looking west past Fuerte San Cristobal towards Condado.
Prior to December 2012, I was self-employed which meant that I had more time on my hands and usually more money as well, so I qualified easily for status with American Airlines. Earlier this year, I realized that I was not on course to requalify for status. Around that same time, American sent me a 15%!o(MISSING)ff coupon so I decided to make a mileage run. The next decision was – where should I go? I knew I wanted to explore a new place. I was tempted to go to New Orleans, but I found a cheaper fare to San Juan. A quick scan through the Lonely Planet led me to Posada San Francisco, a hostel offering private rooms for $30 in the heart of Old San Juan. With that, the deal was sealed.
Saturday, November 9th, 2013
The long journey from Honolulu to San Juan was routed via Dallas/Fort Worth and Miami. Departing on Friday at 6pm local time, I arrived in San Juan15.5 hours later at 3.30pm local time Saturday. Upon landing, I took the fixed price taxi from the airport to Old San Juan and was quickly and efficiently checked-in by 4.30pm. After a
En Route to Condado
Old defensive structure.
much needed shower, I walked out for a gander.
I figured that I would spend all of Sunday in Old San Juan, so I decided to spend the remainder of the day going the opposite direction towards Condado, the touristy beach area about 2 miles away. Heading eastwards, I first walked past Fuerte San Cristobal and then along the seafront. Along the way, I took in the views of the coastline and explored Parques Munoz Rivera before reaching the bridge over the lagoon and hitting Condado proper. My first impressions of Condado weren't favorable. It seemed like a tourist trap much like Waikiki, and I was glad I did not book a room here. I walked along the main drag, taking in the chain restaurants and loud tourists, and then I went past Condado into Ocean Park. Ocean Park is a quiet upscale residential area, and I walked some distance into it. By this time, it was already dark, and the coqui frogs were out in force. I turned right and walked south with the intention of finding another major artery to walk along back to Condado. Rather abruptly, the upmarket high rise condos gave way to low rise
En Route to Condado
Parques Munoz Rivera.
houses, and I found myself in the barrio within two blocks. While I did not feel threatened, I realized how out of place I looked. Nevertheless, I explored the area a little before hopping into a taxi to get back to Old San Juan. Arriving back in Old San Juan, I had dinner of seafood mofongo at Café Berlin which is next door to Posada San Francisco. Mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish of mashed fried plantains served with meat or seafood in a tomato based sauce. While I liked the dish, it was a little bit heavy. My belly full, I turned in early and slept like a log.
Sunday, November 10th, 2013
My one full day in Puerto Rico was spent exploring Old San Juan. Old San Juan is a walled city occupying a narrow spit of land about a mile long. Two structures dominate it - Fuerte del Morro at the western end, which is also the entrance to the harbor, and Fuerto San Cristobal on the eastern end.
At this juncture, a brief history lesson may be in order. Why did Spain fight so hard to hold on to Puerto Rico for 400
Paseo de la Princesa
My first close up view of the city wall.
years? Puerto Rico is the first large island with water and food on the tradewind route from Europe to the Americas, and San Juan boasts a sheltered harbor that is a natural stopping point for exhausted sailors. So, whoever controlled San Juan could dominate over the Caribbean and Central America. Spain was the first colonial power to establish a foothold in San Juan, and they built Fuerte del Morro and a smaller fort on the other side of the harbor entrance to prevent other Europeans from occupying the harbor. They later built Fuerte San Cristobal to protect del Morro from land attacks.
The English and the Dutch both tried unsuccessfully to capture del Morro. The Dutch did manage to capture San Cristobal at one time, but they were undone by disease because they brought animals into the fort. It wasn't until 1898 that the US succeeded in capturing Puerto Rico, and that was only because they had cannons with a 20 mile range while the Spaniards only had cannons with a six mile range at del Morro.
Anyway, back to my day of exploring Old San Juan. I started my day with breakfast in Cafe Mallorca where I
had an excellent mallorca (sweet bread with ham, egg and cheese) and strong Puerto Rican coffee. I then made my way to the seafront and walked along the Paseo de la Princesa, an esplanade where the city wall begins. I walked all the way to the western end of the town where del Morro is located before having to backtrack as the trail was closed for maintenance. Along the way I caught glimpses of several feral cats hanging out among the rocks on the shoreline. Puerto Rican feral kitties seem to be more friendly than Hawaii ones; I even made friends with an orange kitty. There were also signs put up by an organization called Save the Gatos explaining their efforts in feeding, neutering and caring for the gatos of San Juan.
After playing with orange gato, I walked back into Old San Juan through a city gate that was once used to receive dignitaries. I then wandered around a little before heading to Fuerte del Morro. I first glimpsed del Morro when I came around a corner, and the scene was breathtakingly impressive. Del Morro occupies the extreme western end of the spit, and to get to it,
one had to walk a path through a large open field. Getting to del Morro proper, the friendly park ranger at the entrance informed me that entrance this weekend was free thanks to Veteran's Day. I saved $3. Yay!
Del Morro has six levels. The original fort is at Level 2 and the rest of it was built on and around it. Soon after I arrived, I joined a guided tour of the upper levels of the fort, including the top level of the lighthouse to which access is limited. After the tour, I wandered around all the accessible areas. I've posted quite a few photos and labeled them as well; they should provide a fairly good idea of the layout of the fort.
I spent over two hours at del Morro before heading out and wandering around the old town people watching and taking in the sights. Old San Juan is pretty with tree lined cobblestone streets and brightly painted facades. As I was hungry from all the walking, I looked for a place to eat. Some places were closed at lunchtime, and after some looking around I saw a sign in English at a Spanish restaurant
Fuerte San Cristobal
Clear line of sight from San Cristobal to del Morro.
called El Siglo proclaiming that it had the best paella in San Juan. Now, I usually avoid such places, but something told me to go inside. The restaurant itself wasn't busy and I was sure this would be a mistake. I dearly wanted a paella, but the minimum serving size was for two. The waiter, who seemed to speak only minimal English, recommended the Spanish seafood stew. The stew came to me served with rice and fried plantains, and it was really good. The fish, in particular, was very fresh. This turned to be my best meal of this trip.
After lunch, i headed to San Cristobal, where entrance was also free for the weekend. San Cristobal was interesting but less impressive than del Morro. Sadly, I did not get there in time for a guided tour through the fort's tunnels. I have, again, posted and labeled quite a few photos which should give one a good sense of the layout and scale of the fort.
The rest of my day was spent wandering the pretty and atmospheric streets of San Juan. I eventually ended up back at the field in front of del Morro where lots of
Las Calles de San Juan
Pretty treelined cobblestone streets and colorful painted houses everywhere.
locals were enjoying kite flying. I stayed for sunset but, unfortunately, there were quite a few clouds in the west, so there wasn't much of a sunset.
After sundown, I headed back to the hostel for a shower and a quick rest before heading out to dinner. One of the Lonely Planet's recommended restaurants was Tantra, a restaurant with a South Indian chef featuring Indian-Latin fusion. This sounded intriguing. I did not go there expecting authentic food, but I wasn't too pleased with my meal of Malabar prawns and dosai because the curry was way too salty and the dosai wasn't crispy. I made up for this disappointment by having a great dessert and coffee at Cafe Berlin.
After dinner, I wandered around some more before turning in. The next morning, I departed for the airport for my journey home via Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles.
Travel Tips Accommodation:
Posada San Francisco is centrally located at Plaza Colon and it occupies the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of a narrow building. My room cost $30, and it was air conditioned, clean, and comfortable. There was a small fridge and a chair in the room. Bathrooms are shared.
Posada San Francisco
The guesthouse occupies the fourth, fifth and sixth floors of this building. If you look carefully, you'll see a guy brushing his teeth on the fourth floor.
Towels are provided, but not soap or shampoo. Overall, Posada San Francisco is great value for money. Rooms can be booked via hostelworld.com. The only negative I have to say about Posada San Francisco was a slightly off-putting email I received prior to my stay listing the house rules which included a requirement that I produce evidence of my return flight out of San Juan. Huh? Why would they care when or how I was leaving? The hostel staff never asked for it anyway. Transport:
Taxis are not metered. The taxis from the airport are fixed price and it is $19 to get to Old San Juan, plus an additional dollar per bag. Posada San Francisco offers van rides to the airport for $8. There is a tourist trolley but I did not use it. Old San Juan is compact and easy to navigate, so I did not feel a need to utilize public transport. Food:
Cafe Berlin, Cafe Mallorca and Cafe El Siglo are all highly recommended. Cafe Mallorca is a local-oriented cafe serving breads and pastries and it is great for people watching. Minimal English is spoken there.
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