22 April - exploring Old San Juan
The Friday morning drive to San Juan, on the north coast of Puerto Rico, was uneventful and uninspiring. Much of the sixty or so miles are partially built up, with endless secondhand car lots, half empty shopping malls, light industrial units and derelict ‘brownfield’ sites. The road surface was definitely ‘third world’ although the driving was no worse than anywhere in Europe. We found a big marine chandlery where we bought a new gas cylinder – our Camping Gaz butane that we use for cooking is not available in North America so we have to replace it with a propane system. Not difficult, just irritating. We reached San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico, around lunchtime and went straight to the Cummins/Onan dealership, where the parts were waiting for us. Again, the people could not have ben more friendly. An hour later, we entered the old town of San Juan and found our hotel: El Convento.
Hotel El Convento, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Old San Juan is one of the oldest cities in the New World, with fortifications dating from just a few years after Christopher Columbus first discovered the place. A heady mix of Seville, Oporto and St Malo on steroids, it’s a beautiful city: the buildings are mostly painted in a rainbow hue of pastel shades and the architecture is definitely Castilian Spanish. It sits on a hill overlooking a fine natural harbour – actually the only decent safe haven on the whole of the north coast of Puerto Rico. It seemed very clean and well presented; clearly tourism plays an important part in the city’s economy, but we were not killed in the rush, despite the presence of three large cruise ships in the harbour below. We thoroughly enjoyed wandering the well-kept, mainly cobbled streets, charmed by the architecture and the colours. We even saw the ‘First Lady’ – not Melania, but Beatriz Rossello, wife of the Governor of Puerto Rico. More accurately, we saw a couple of police outriders on motorbikes stopping the traffic, followed by a convoy of blacked-out, armoured Suburbans reportedly carrying the First Lady. I’m glad we don’t have the same tradition at home – we like to see our Gracious Queen – and even the Prime Minister!
The Rossello’s house, La Fortaleza, is the oldest Residence of a head of state in the New World
I read an amusing article about Ms Rossello. Apparently, some five months after of the hurricane, when only about 10% of the population had electricity, she sent candles to a number of local leaders as a ‘symbol of unity and hope’. Some people saw the funny side and the newspaper headline ‘let them eat wax’ suggests that the gesture backfired!
The smart end of San Juan
The hotel is splendid. Recommended by my well-travelled cousin John, it did not disappoint in any way. Not as eclectic as the Jews House we stayed in in Seville, nor as unique as the Blue Palace in Essaouira, but it had enough of both, combined with the regal pretensions of the Alfonso XIII in Seville. It stopped being a convent about 100 years ago and has had various makeovers since, but the sense of tradition and history combines well with modern convenience to give the guest a splendidly relaxing time. I particularly liked the free wine and cheese at 6pm… Unfortunately, we ate rather too much of it, so that by the time we were looking at our risotto and pasta main courses in a nearby Italian restaurant, we were always going to be defeated by the size of the plate. We weren’t alone though: the waiters explained that the chef did not understand portion control and most people left half of their dinner. Did we want a box? No, thank you – but if you had given me a third of this portion I would have been happy to spend money on a pudding… as it is I need to go and lie down to recover. I wondered if a reduction in portion size might also lead to an increase in profit?
Typical square, Old San Juan
The following morning, after a good rest, we set off to find a hairdresser. The hotel had booked one for Julie and we had a fine walk through town to a square near the Castillo de san Cristobal, the centrepiece of the fine fortifications built to keep those pesky English and Dutch out. Unfortunately, history records that they had already sacked the place four times before the Spanish got around to building these fine structures, but once in place nobody invaded again for a while. Instead, Spain gradually lost interest in her Caribbean possessions (no doubt distracted by wars nearer home) and by the time the USA fought for possession of these islands in 1898, San Cristobal’s defensive technologies were obsolete…
The fortifications of San Cristobal
The hairdresser turned out to be a narrow escape. The owner (named Jesus) wasn’t there and when the assigned young lady started taking photos of Julie’s head and the various devices and chemicals available, in order to send them to Jesus to get inspiration on implementation, Julie ‘did a runner’.
Looking west along the city walls, even the new parts of San Juan celebrate the pastel colour schemes
So did we. We decided to divert via the Yunque National Park on the way back to the boat in the hope of seeing something of the beauty of Puerto Rico. We were not disappointed: the rainforest covers some fine mountains easily accessible from the coast and we drove through the north western quarter of the Park, stopping briefly at the Coco Falls. Sadly, almost all the walking trails and many of the roads remain shut, but it was clear that the Rangers were trying to open things up.
We returned to Escapade late afternoon. Within 20 minutes, the generator was running at normal temperature and output, so for now at least that’s our only major OPDEF cleared!
Next, we will move on to the south coast of Puerto Rico, before visiting the Dominican Republic and then Cuba.