Seeking new lands —Spanish explorers and SETI

Twenty miles inland from the northern coastal city of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, a 20-acre telescope dish, nestled in a sink hole, listens to the heavens. As featured in the movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster, the Observatorio de Arecibo “allows scientists to monitor natural radio emissions from distant galaxies, pulsars, and quasars. . .” It is “used by scientists as part of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI).” (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010)

Or simply put, from the small island of Puerto Rico, we are searching for other life on other lands.

In the late 1400s, Europeans were also searching for new lands. Christopher Columbus bumped into the Americas, landing in Puerto Rico on his second voyage in 1493, bringing Ponce de Leon with him.

The Amerindians, who likely migrated from Florida to Cuba and out the West Indian archipelago and whose archaeological remains date back many thousands of years, were here first.

Christopher Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista for John the Baptist. He sailed on in hopes of finding bigger and better things, but Ponce de Leon stayed and became the first governor of Puerto Rico.

Statue of Ponce de Leon in Plaza San Jose, Old San Juan, Puerto Rico.

None of this boded well for the native peoples, as you might imagine. Armed with superior weapons, the Spanish settlers were seeking gold and riches. The Amerindians were pressed into servitude and infected by deadly diseases against which they had no immunity. Violent rebellion and suppression ensued. And we all know how that always turned out.

By 1521, the island had been renamed Puerto Rico (Rich Port), and the port city became San Juan. Puerto Rico was one of the most strategic islands in the Carribean and the Spanish built forts to protect this stronghold.

Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, or “El Morro,” fort dominating the entrance to San Juan Bay

San Juan is the second-oldest city in the Americas (behind Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic). Because of its Spanish colonial architecture and two large forts, as well as restaurants and shopping, the historic district of Old San Juan  is a popular tourist spot.

Pedestrian ferry from Catano, Puerto Rico across the bay to Old San Juan harbor.

Like the Columbus crew, we arrived in Old San Juan by boat, the La Pinta ferry from Cataño. Unlike the Columbus crew, we were seeking merely history and entertainment,

A view of San Juan from the ferry.

The land we sighted from our boat was much more developed.

Cristo street climbs up the hill in Old San Juan, as we make our way to El Morrow.

The streets of Old San Juan are narrow and lined with historic buildings.

Blue bricks surface the streets

The blue bricks on some of the roadways and plazas date to the age of the Spanish galleons where they were used as ballast.

Pigeons on la plaza de San Juan

I’ve never been to Spain, but the plazas sprinkled throughout the city streets of Old San Juan reminded me of the European plazas we saw in Italy.

The back of the Catedral de San Juan

Built in 1540, “as a replacement for a thatch-roofed chapel that was blown apart by a hurricane in 1529,” the Catedral de San Juan is the “spiritual and architectural centerpiece” of Old San Juan. (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010) As we had decided rather spur of the moment to go into Old San Juan immediately after our Bacardi tour, I was not as well prepared for sight-seeing as I might have preferred to be. Ergo, we saw the back of the cathedral, but never made it to the front. You can read more about it and see a photo of the front at the New York Times San Juan travel guide.

Plaza del Quinto Centenario

At the top of the hill, and at the highest point of the city, we reached the Plaza del Quinto Centenario (Quincentennial Plaza). It was constructed in 1992 “to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World.”

Plaza del Quinto Centenario sculpture by Puerto Rico’s Jaime Suarez

Made from black granite and ceramics, the sculpture “symbolizes the earthen and clay roots of American history.”

Cemeterio de Santa Maria Magdalena at the base of El Morro.

From our vantage point at the base of the Plaza del Quinto Centenario, we could see the cemetery near the bottom of El Morro fort.

View of El Morrow from near the Plaza del Quinto Centenario

We did not have time to visit the fort on this first visit to Old San Juan, but planned to return later in the week.

We decided to head back to the harbor area for dinner. When we first arrived in Old San Juan, we had stopped in a Subway for a cold drink and el baño. We met a young family there who explained the Old San Juan trolley system to us. So we gave it a try and took a free trolley from our location near the Plaza del Quinto Centenario and let it take us where it would, hoping to arrive back at the harbor eventually.

The trolley dropped us within a few blocks of our destination. Because of Puerto Rico’s status as a territory and not a state, it always surprised me a little when I’d see something clearly American or governmental,

like the U.S. Post Office.

Dinner at the Old Harbor brewery was our last stop of the day before our ferry ride back to Cataño. It was not exactly traditional Puerto Rican food, but it came highly recommended, and we were not ready to try another mofongo just yet.

As were were riding the ferry across the dark water back to Cataño I thought about the island of Puerto Rico, once found by explorers and now  exploring  the universe. I sure hope if the scientists at the Observatorio de Arecibo do ever hear a transmitted signal from out in the sky, it will be a peaceful and beneficial encounter for all.

See more posts about Puerto Rico.

19 thoughts on “Seeking new lands —Spanish explorers and SETI”

    1. We went back and visited El Morro and another fort in Old San Juan. I’ll be posting those pictures later. Thanks. I forgot to mention that Old San Juan is a walled city. There is a walking trail around the island outside of the wall. We wanted to go down there, but we missed doing that and a few other things because the rains came and got the best of us.

    1. There’s more to come. The forts were interesting. As I explained to Julia above, we weren’t not able to see as much as we might have liked.

  1. So, you’re saying to do the touring before the Bacardi? 🙂 I love those blue bricks. How unique. Loved seeing your photos. The fort reminds me of St. Augustine, FL.

    1. Or maybe on another day altogether. . . The blue bricks were unique and beautiful. I don’t know my history that well, but I imagine St. Augustine time period was not dramatically different from Old San Juan’s.

  2. What a wonderful trip that must have been. I’ve not left the West Coast so my travels are limited, although travel shows fill in the large gap, I would love to travel more at some point. I love when I go to a site, such as yours, and find I can travel to somewhere else without going there. Your descriptions and photos are wondeful. Thanks for having me along.

  3. I would love to go to Puerto Rico, the rich port, some day. Thank you for sharing photos of your travels there. I especially liked the blue bricks–and the feet. And the Old World feel of the island. It is so sad what happened when the Spanish settlers landed in the New World.

    1. It’s an interesting place because it has the “feel” of being international, but it is a U.S. territory. I love the very early American history, although most of it was extremely tragic for the natives.

  4. Lovely photos, Christine.

    We just watched “Another Earth” . . . in which SETI featured . . . speaking to parallel lives on an identical planet . . . our mirror image.

    1. I should check it out. I really wanted to go to the observatory, but we decided not to push our luck with the weather and flooding, etc. Maybe next time.


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