Sojourn to San Juan
Although we have just spent a couple of weeks cruising along the south coast of Puerto Rico we didn’t stop anywhere long enough to do some land travel. It’s a compact island with an extensive road network but has almost no public transport system. It is also rumoured to have the highest percentage of cars per population in the world and infamous traffic jams!
Everyone we have spoken to that has been to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, spoke very highly about the old walled town and fort area. In those days the Spanish Conquistadores led the world in murdering, starving, raping and enslaving the native population in their driven desire for gold but they also built beautiful enduring cities. As we are fans of Spanish architecture and are always happy to experience a slice of Europe whenever possible we decided to travel back to Puerto Rico by ferry from neighbouring Culebra, and see for ourselves how bad the traffic jams could be and to check out San Juans beauty first hand.
In company with Jim and Carola off Koza we caught the 6.30am ferry to Fajardo on Puerto Rico. Rather an early start for our excursion we thought! Lenny off Aussie boat Feijao was a superstar taking us ashore at 5.45am so we wouldn’t have to leave our dinghies tied ashore for 2 nights, and also kept an eye on Balvenie and Koza in our absence, thanks Lenny and Gina.
We arrived in Fajardo, collected our prebooked car from Island of the World Rentals (after spending quite some time checking all the dents/dings and scratches duly noted on the outgoing contract!!), eventually we found our way to the highway north and in no time at all were in San Juan, not a traffic jam in sight.
We made our way into the old town without any hiccups, found a parking close to our accommodation at SJ Suites and were sitting back enjoying an excellent breakfast in a very Spanish cafe before 10am. It’s amazing what you can achieve if you get up at 5am!!
Snapshots of San Juan
We spent the day sightseeing, it’s just a small old town area and it was a delight just wandering the streets; admiring the architecture - restored grand public buildings, renovated residential homes, churches and cathedral, plazas and statues and beautiful blue cobblestone streets.
On the periphery is the town wall, several feet deep and extremely high – combined with the 6 storey high impressive El Morro Fort the defences for San Juan town and harbour were second to none and although there were several attacks by the British, Dutch and French over many years the Spanish never lost San Juan and their control over the gateway to the Caribbean.
We explored this massive fort, a warren of rooms, armouries, batteries, lookouts, quarters and dungeons hidden inside it over 6 levels. Probably the most impressive example we have seen in our travels and possibly the largest.
We spent 24 hours in San Juan, but it is very compact so we felt we did it justice. We covered nearly every street, alleyway and plaza, ate local empanadas in a tree lined plaza for lunch while watching heavily armed policemen patrol nearby government buildings at one end and tourists (yes, that includes Jim) having their photos taken with iguanas at the other end.
We had pina coladas in the bar that invented them, dinner in an “authentic” (touristy but very good) restaurant, walked the cool and shaded empty streets and harbour promenade early morning, just the 4 of us and hundreds of sleepy cats then returned to our previous mornings breakfast find for another excellent meal, bacon and egg toasted rolls and espresso coffees for 4 – US$20, excellent.
We navigated our way out of San Juan with only one wrong turn and headed east towards the Karst Country and the Arecibo Observatory. The observatory contains the worlds largest radar and radio telescope set above a 20 acre big dish (that’s the dish below us in the photo). Launched in 1992 the idea is that this technology will allow us to chat with all the aliens out there in space, but has any one told the aliens they need to build one so they can talk back?? At $10 each entrance fee we felt it was overpriced, just a shame we didn’t see the ”buy one get one free voucher” in our tourist book until after we left!!
We drove through the Karst Country, hundreds of steep knobbly hills have been formed by water sinking into the limestone creating lots of sinkholes, which in turn has created the hills as these are the bits that haven’t sunk. They were all very lush with vegetation and quite unlike anything we have seen before. Unfortunately they do not photograph well, the different contours are so close together, steep and dense you lose the 3D effect.
Transiting Puerto Ricos Spine
We travelled along the high backbone of the country, climbing up and down then up again, on a maze of roads through some rather uninspiring villages and into the Central Mountains and cloud forest. It is unfair to be too critical of the quality of the housing here, it is right in the middle of the hurricane belt and concrete block housing is the most sturdy. However rows of little square block houses detracted from the natural beauty of the surroundings in the cloud forest high on the top ridge running through this island, there was certainly scope for improvement.
Carola found us a bed for the night at the almost new El Canon Guest House in Barranquitas. It wasn’t an easy task finding somewhere to stay, most tourists to the mountains visit as day trippers from the coastal resorts or San Juan and there were few accommodation options. The air was definitely cooler at altitude and the cloud forest lived up to its name, I took this photo during a brief break in the rain, minutes later we were engulfed in mist again.
Next morning we headed east, the winding roads continued and it was slow going. We had intended to detour to El Yungue National Park, but decided we had all seen enough trees to last us for a few more weeks so headed back to Fajardo early to have plenty of time to do some shopping at West Marine and Walmart (it’s a long time since we left the USA!) before the 7.30pm ferry.
Our foray into West Marine took way longer than planned as we were redeeming reward vouchers worth $240 and they were in $10 increments, 24 separate voucher numbers of over 10 digits needed to be input into the till by a not so speedy sales assistant. This meant valuable time was ticking away so it was a speedy run around Walmart when we decided to catch the 3.30pm ferry instead of the 7.30pm as planned.
Things turned a little pear shaped when Jim opened the car to unlock the boot, turned on ignition to get the aircon going then closed the door and all the doors locked - with key in the ignition! But at least the boot was open, so we emptied the bags out, pulled down the small divider into the back seat and I just squeezed through (no photos thank goodness).
Back on the road we then missed the turnoff for the ferry terminal (a sign would have been very useful) so travelled several extra miles until the next motorway turnoff, time was getting very tight when we finally found the waterfront so we dropped Jim and Carola by the ferry terminal with their bags and the shopping to get the tickets while we took the car back.
When we emptied the car only Marks bag was there, had Jim taken my bag by mistake or was it still in the carpark at Walmart? While we were debating our next move Carola arrived with my bag, Jim had picked it up thinking it was Carolas and they knew we would be worried when they realized, so now three of us at the car hire office and Jim at the ferry terminal.
With paper work finally completed it was a mad dash back to the terminal where things slowed down momentarily, the ferry had broken down – we weren’t going anywhere! It was at this point when we were consolidating the shopping bags and packs that Carola realized that her pack was now missing. She was sure she had given it to Jim when she brought mine to the car hire office, Jim couldn’t remember but was sure he hadn’t lost it, I thought she only had my bag but wasn’t sure either and Mark just didn’t have a clue! It was a black day pack, can you imagine how many black day packs were sitting on the floor in the ferry terminal??!! or was it at the car hire office or possibly in Walmarts carpark? So off Carola went to the car hire office – again - and happily returned with her pack, all was well at last, we just needed a ferry.
We adjourned to a nearby bar for the afternoon and early evening, seemed the most sensible thing to do. We were all finally accommodated on the car ferry which docked at 10pm, but of course we had no dinghies ashore, we had never planned to be back so late. I had started chatting to a couple that looked liked fellow cruisers (its quite easy to pick us amongst the tourists) they were a lovely French couple off yacht Papaya and they offered to take us back to our boats at anchor, this was really kind of them as they weren’t even in the same anchorage as us. Finally we were home by 10.30pm.
A Perfect End to a Comical Afternoon