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.
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.
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.
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,
The land we sighted from our boat was much more developed.
The streets of Old San Juan are narrow and lined with historic buildings.
The blue bricks on some of the roadways and plazas date to the age of the Spanish galleons where they were used as ballast.
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.
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.
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.”
Made from black granite and ceramics, the sculpture “symbolizes the earthen and clay roots of American history.”
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.
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.