When we planned our trip to Puerto Rico, I had visions of seeing colorful exotic tropical birds there.
Imagine my thrill when we got off the boat in Old San Juan and we were greeted by these little guys.
These birds were friendly. One wanted to share the little bag of pretzels I was eating.
I suspect most, if not all, of them were not even native to Puerto Rico. These colorful exotic tropical birds were actually trained performers. Their job was to sit on someone’s hand while their owner snapped a photograph and sold it as a souvenier for $10. And what I eventually realized, after I had already taken about 4 or 5 photos, was that he had signs all over his cart informing the public that no photography was allowed. Of course, I’m not sure that would hold up in court, as he was on a public street. I respected his written request and stopped photographing the birds, but I did not delete the photos from my memory card.
Mostly we saw less colorful birds that looked familiar like this dove. I think this may be a Zenaida dove, but don’t hold me to it. A relative of the mourning dove, the Zenaida dove is common in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Or this bird that looks something like a crow, but I think was the Greater Antillean Grackle.
I did catch a picture of this interesting bird that I think is the Magnificent Frigatebird. What I first noticed about it, but wasn’t able to capture on film, was that it’s tail separated into a “V” shape. It was a very distinctive thing to see.
I also saw a couple of these Great Egrets (I think) from a distance—always a thrill for me.
I took a lot of pictures of the pelicans.
We were on their flight path
as they headed for fishing grounds in the curve of our little bay.
We watched their dance — a dive ending in a big splash,
taking to flight from the water,
and flying back around in a circle to position themselves to dive again.
Sometimes they fished as a pair,
diving in tandem,
splashing down together,
taking off together again,
a synchronized ballet performed by two.
I sat on the beach listening to the crash, splash, and ebb of white foamy surf, a fine cool mist on my skin.
Beside me, Mark stretched the length of the chair, the sun shining off his skin where he sat near my umbrella’s oasis of shade.
Laughter rose from children down the beach
The wind played with my hat, moving my hair softly against my face, and ruffling the towel at my back.
I looked out under the brim of my hat that bordered my view
and watched the pelicans
fishing in tandem,
guarding the bay from their lookout point,
or resting against the dark green and gold rocky backdrop.
And I attempted to capture the dance of the pelicans
When we planned our trip to Puerto Rico, El Yunque National Forest was high on our list of things to do, but with Tropical Storm Isaac on the horizon, we weren’t sure we were going to be able to see it.
When we were buying our rain ponchos in the gift shop at San Cristóbal on Tuesday, we asked the park ranger about El Yunque. She told us we should call first because it might be closed due to the weather. She explained that heavy rainfalls make the hiking trails and some of the water features of the forest treacherous.
We got up early on Wednesday. Our resort concierge called El Yunque and told us the park was open, so we headed out for a roughly 2-hour drive. When we got to the park entrance at about 10:30, the forest ranger told us the park would be closing at 12:00 due to the weather. We were disappointed as we had hoped to spend several hours there. We decided to by-pass the visitor’s center and head straight into the rainforest with what little time we had.
El Yunque is the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest Service system. (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010)
There are several hiking trails of 2 to 4 hours duration inside the park, and you can plan overnight tours in the forest. (Frommers) We had been told by the young family we met on our first visit to Old San Juan, that there is a waterfalls on the 2-hour La Mina & Big Tree Trail where their children were able to go behind it, and a natural pool where you can swim.
With our time constraints all hiking was out of the question. Non-hikers can drive through the forest on Rte. 191. We saw as much as we could by driving and stopping occasionally at overlooks.
“El Yunque is home to 240 species of tropical trees, flowers, and wildlife. More than 20 kinds of orchids and 50 varieties of ferns share this diverse habitat with millions of tiny tree frogs.” (Frommers) We saw two of these little frogs at our resort.
At one of our stops in El Yunque, Mark spotted this bright little guy.
This one is similar to the ones we were startled by on a regular basis at our resort when they darted across the walk in front of us.
Like this one that was eying my lunch on our first day at the Hyatt.
According to Frommers, the Puerto Rican boa, which grows to 7 feet lives in the rainforest. I’m glad we didn’t know that in advance, or even during, our trip through El Yunque.
The biggest animal we saw crossed the street in front of us as we drove from Bacardi to the ferry for Old San Juan on Monday. It looked like a huge lizard, or even a small dinosaur. Mark thought it was about 5-6 feet long.
It looked like this, and was probably an iguana. One blogger I read after returning from Puerto Rico reported that a rather large iguana used to rest on a limb of a tree outside of their vacation accommodations. I’m also glad I didn’t know that before we went.
The trails were tempting as they led off into the rainforest.
But we couldn’t stay. We didn’t want to get stuck in the rainforest when Isaac came to call.
We drove back down to the visitor center on our way out and used our last 15 minutes before the gate closed enjoying their landscaping.
The welcome center is an open-air structure like the one we visited at Bacardi. I guess in tropical climates as long as you have a roof over your head you don’t necessarily need walls.
The fruit that grows on this breadfruit tree is a good source of carbohydrates and vitamins and tastes much like a potato. Bananas, passion fruit, nuts, cinnamon, ginger, and all spice come from the rain forests, as do the medicines cortisone and quinine. (Park signage)
The landscaping around the visitor’s center was filled with interesting and colorful plants.
So I’m glad we took our opportunity for a quick visit.
When we were planning our trip to Puerto Rico, I had purchased A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico. I was really hoping to see colorful exotic birds on the trip and thought that our best chance was at the rain forest. Unfortunately, I could hear interesting birds, but with all the leaves I wasn’t able to get a good look.
This is a highly enlarged, cropped, and over-lightened shot I took into the foliage to try to capture the bird I was hearing and glimpsing. I believe it is a Puerto Rican Tody. I saw a few at one of our stops along the road. They are small little roundish birds that flit from limb to limb.
“Puerto Rico was the first major island with fresh water that the ships encountered as they sailed west from Europe in the 1500s. The nation that controlled the harbor could protect their merchant ships and send warships out to control shipping to and from the Carribean.” (U.S. National Park Service signage)
Once the Spanish explorers found their “rich port,” they knew they would have to defend it.
On our second trip into Old San Juan, we visited two major forts, Fort San Cristóbal and “El Morro.” (The city of Old San Juan is surrounded by a gated wall, which unfortunately we did not see or have time to explore.)
San Cristóbal is one of the largest fortresses ever built in the Americas by Spain. A huge complex system of tunnels and dry moats connects the center of the fort to its “outworks” over a 27-acre site. (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010)
San Cristóbal worked as a partner to the fort El Morro
that was within view from the windows.
El Morro, located at the entrance to the harbor, guarded the bay. San Cristóbal protected San Juan against attackers coming by land from across the island.
Initially a Spanish fort, San Cristóbal became a U.S. Army fort in 1898.
The fort includes features dating back as far as the 1760s when it was built by Spain. It includes modifications made by the U.S. Army that was here from 1898 through 1960. A grass-roofed building on one of the lower levels of the fort was built in 1942 as a WWII command post and now houses park visitor facilities and offices.
When it was built in 1769, this was a gunport for a canon aimed at the moat. In 1942 the U.S. Army converted it to a doorway leading to the longest of six hidden passages, or tunnels, in the fortress.
The tunnels, sometimes called galleries, were built to protect soldiers from enemy fire and to move large numbers of troops unseen.
The large rooms, or casements lining the walls on the interior of the fort are found in most Spanish fortifications. The arched ceiling provides strength and added protection against attacks. These rooms were bombproof vaults designed with gun ports for cannon,
and functioned as troops’ quarters, kitchens, and latrines.
All the floors and roofs were designed to catch rain and drain it into five huge cisterns below ground. Together the cisterns held a total of 870,000 gallons of fresh water.
To keep the drinking water supply clean, animals were banned from the fortresses and the cistern tanks were lined with limestone.
The fort also contained a chapel, probably added in the mid-1800s for daily mass. “Catholic faith permeated all of life in Spain’s colonies; church and state were inseparable. One of the goals of Spanish colonization was to spread Catholicism.” Park signage.
Unfortunately my photograph did not turn out well.
The dark gray sky in one of the earlier photos, resulted in a rainfall (thank you, Isaac) and we started moving a little more quickly, uncomfortable in our newly purchased clear plastic rain ponchos.
Regardless of Spain’s religious agenda, the fortifications were all built to defend San Juan
and its precious harbor.
In 1586 the English were raiding Spain’s treasure fleets from, and cities of, the New World. King Philip decided to fortify the Carribean at 10 key sites. One of those was the harbor of Old San Juan.
Perched on a rock promotory at the entrance to San Juan Bay, El Morro was begun in 1540 as a round tower that is still visible deep inside the lower levels of the castle. Yet another thing we missed.
Walking up and down the steps of the many levels, along the walls, and through the tunnels of these forts was not a task for the faint of heart or weak of knees. We did not go “deep” inside this castle. Maybe next time.
The complex fortification seen today was finished by 1787 and was attacked repeatedly by the English and the Dutch.
Connected to San Cristobal by ancient tunnels,
El Morro is “an intriguing labyrinth of dungeons, barracks, vaults,
lookouts, and ramps.” (Frommers)
A lighthouse was added to the fortress in 1846 to guide ships into and out of San Juan harbor. This is the fourth one, built in 1908 by the U.S. and replacing the one built in 1899 by the U.S. The first two built in 1846 and 1876 were built by Spain.
Santa Barbara Battery is the main gun deck. The deck that is visible today was completed about 1780.
“This main firing battery looks pretty much as it did when Spain built it in the mid-1700s, but it also features artillery emplacements from the Spanish-American War (1898) and World War II (1941-45).” (Park signage)
From here the fort could fire cannons at enemy ships in the harbor entrance or ocean. Shots were fired against the British in 1797 and against the Americans during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
An earlier version of the main gun deck fired cannon at English ships in 1595 and 1598, and Dutch ships in 1625.
If you look closely at the left top corner of the higher wall, you will see a small black structure with horizontal slits. That is a coastal artillery observation post that the U.S. Army built here during WWII. The U.S. soldiers looked for German submarines or other warships.
The Spanish were looking for English, French, or Dutch sails on wooden ships. (Park signage)
Part of Spain’s defensive strategy to guard the port was to build a tiny sister fort San Juan de la Cruz, known as “El Cañuelo” across the bay from El Morro to keep ships from slipping in along the far side, and setting up a deadly cross-fire for enemies. If you click to enlarge the picture you might be able to see the stone structure at the end of the line of palm trees.
The Spanish knew that “to control the harbor was to control the entrance to the Carribean and access to the riches of the New World. Spain defended San Juan and its harbor for almost 400 years.” (Park signage)
“The fortifications of Old San Juan, together have been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.” Frommers
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.
As it happened, our Puerto Rican vacation accomodations were only about a 20 minute drive to the island’s Bacardi Distillery near Catano. How could we refuse?
The Bacardi folks were gracious hosts and greeted us at their open-air pavilion where we registered for a free tour and were each given two tickets for sample beverages made from the 100,000 gallons of rum they produce daily.
If you’re wondering about the shape of the pavilion, it is made to look like a bat. And if you look closely you will see two other bats in this photo:
one on the building to the right,
and another on the ground. At this point in the tour, we were still in the dark about the bats, but never-the-less, were enjoying our first beverage, sitting at a table under the pavilion while a nice breeze blew in from the shoreline just beyond.
When our time arrived, we boarded a trolley for the tour and passed yet another sculpture of a bat.
We arrived at a museum where the tour guide finally shed a light on the bats. Apparently when the first Bacardi started making rum in Havanna, his wife was looking for an icon for the brand. The old warehouse they used for their operation was evidently occupied by several bats who came flying out. Thus was born the bat on the label.
Quite honestly, I was a little disappointed with the tour. They basically just took us through a small museum they had built for this purpose with a few displays and a movie or two. We were not privy to the actual operation. The winery tours we had been on out in California and in Tuscany, as well as the more recent Woodford Reserve tour on Kentucky’s bourbon trail were all more interesting, especially for two have-been chemical engineers who just can’t get enough of batch processes and distillation columns.
But the rum was good.
And at the gift store following the tour, we got what we came for, which went a long way in comforting us while we were hunkered down in our room later in the week as Isaac began his course through the Carribean and past Puerto Rico.
When I got home I took a close look at the label on the white rum I had been trying out mojito recipes with in preparation for our Carribean trip, and also on the bottle of Bacardi 151 rum—I have no clue where that came from. And sure enough, a bat graced each label, right there, center front.
Yet another lesson in observation skills, or lack there of.
When we left Bacardi we drove just a few minutes to the ferry where we took our observation skills and a 7-minute ride over to Old San Juan. More later.
Last week, Mark and I heeded the call of the Carribean, and spent a week in Puerto Rico enjoying the beach, the history, the tropical plant and wildlife, and the culture.
We stayed at the Hyatt Vacation Club (a time-share that rents out rooms in the off-seasons), just outside of Dorado and slightly west of San Juan. It was perhaps the most beautiful beach it has ever been my privilege to enjoy.
The beach with its rocky shoreline, turquoise water, and generous palm trees clearly rivaled the beach we stayed on in Kauaii, Hawaii. And the travel time was significantly less with a 3-1/2 hours flight from our layover in Charlotte, NC (a little over an hour flight from home). To get to Hawaii, it took us 4 hours to get to L.A. and then another 8 hours over the ocean to reach Kauai. We loved Hawaii, but I’m not likely to make that long trip again. Puerto Rico’s tropical beaches were beautiful.
For some vague reason, and perhaps it was little things I had read or heard here or there, I was a little worried about the crime levels in Puerto Rico. We bought Frommer’s travel book and he wrote, “Tourists are generally safe, and a crime in a tourist district is rare. But homeless drug addicts and mentally ill beggars are a common sight in San Juan. There are also problems with littering and treatment of animals—but great strides in these areas are being made,” (Frommers, Puerto Rico, 2010).
We found no cause for concern about crime the entire time we were there, but we stayed largely in the rural area and never went further into the large city of San Juan than Old San Juan. We did see a lot of stray dogs.
The temperature in Puerto Rico is moderate and fairly consistent ranging from an average of 74 degrees Farenheit in the winter to an average 81 degrees in the summer. I think it was in the mid to upper 80s the week we were there.
The island of Puerto Rico is about the size of the state of Connecticut. The interior is a mountainous region. It is surrounded by a wide coastal plain. Four million people live here, one-third living in the San Juan metropolitan area.
Although Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the United States, it has the feel of a foreign country. Many people were bilingual and spoke fluent English, but Spanish is the native language and is spoken in most places. The people were accommodating and happy to speak English to foreigners like myself whose two years of Spanish classes in high school forty years ago did not justify even make a pretense of being fluent. The people we encountered were the nicest I’ve met anywhere.
On Sunday we went to dinner at Costa Criolla, a local restaurant in Dorado.
We asked for Sangria and our server told us he couldn’t serve it to us because it was election day. Then he proceeded to explain to us how elections worked, telling us that the people get to vote for certain issues if they agree with them or not. The issues on the ballet were whether or not to increase bale for criminals and whether to reduce the size of their congress by about 30% as a cost-savings measure. (We found out in the morning that both issues were voted down.)
At Costa Criolla Mark and I both ordered mofongos, the signature dish of Puerto Rico, made from plantains, the fruit of a herbaceous plant that resembles a banana in appearance. The plantains are fried, mashed and combined with seafood, meat or vegetables. My mofongo was shaped like a dome covering shrimp beneath. (I didn’t think to take this photo until I had eaten about half of the mofongo. I couldn’t finish it all.) The mashed plantain is very dense and filling. It was good, but did not taste at all like a banana.
Our server also told us Puerta Ricans will be voting in November about whether to keep their status as a commonwealth of the United States, to become a state, or to become a sovereign nation.
On Friday night we had the opportunity to talk to another server at a different restaurant. He had been born in Puerto Rico, but raised in Chicago. “The people here have been voting on statehood for 20 years,” he said. “Many of the people here don’t understand what it means to be a state.” When I asked him what the advantages would be for Puerto Rico to become a state, he said he didn’t think there were many, or even any.
People who are born in a U.S. territory are citizens of the United States, but do not have the same political voting rights. The territories send representatives to Congress, but they can not vote. Guam, the United States Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands are also territories, or overseas dependencies of the United States. You can read more about it at macmeekin.com.
We spent lazy days under the umbrellas on the beach,
watching the pelicans soar overhead to their fishing ground off to our left,
the waves crashing against the boulders, splashing up a fountain.
I will miss the beat of the salsa music pumping from speakers at the bar on the beach of Puerto Rico.