old san juan

20130323-090543.jpgShe is a charmer, Old San Juan; our favorite U.S. port of departure, by far. There is never enough time to enjoy this Caribbean beauty! ^

We usually stay at a boutique hotel, the Chateau Cervantes on Recinto Sur. It has a Continental vibe; rooms are small but nicely appointed and impeccably clean. It was a great find.*

We walk everywhere from the Cervantes, initially uphill, choosing the shady side of the street. Blue cobbles, artful architecture, colorful shutters, ornate balconies and graceful doors adorn every street. Most of the old city plays late and sleeps in. We do not. We are awakened in the wee hours by revelries on the street below. Nonetheless, shortly after sunrise we set off while temperatures are yet moderate. We’ll have the old city mostly to ourselves for awhile yet.

20130310-164038.jpgOften we begin seaside, sheltered by the shade of the old city wall, walking by and then looping back to pass through the ancient gate. We circle up to admire the expanse of El Morro, the larger of the two forts, before we find our way alongside the sea again, down Norzagaray. Sometimes we walk to San Cristóbal, the smaller fort. Eventually we cut back in, famished and looking for breakfast.

On Saturday mornings, families will play and picnic at the old fort, kiddie kites sailing alongside intricate models soaring high across achingly blue skies. It is a joy to watch. We’ll stop at the piraguas stand for passion fruit or guava ice, expertly shaved into a small paper cone. Simple pleasures.

20130310-161950.jpgThis morning we head directly to El Convento, a stately sun-washed yellow convent-turned-hotel. The breezy interior terrace, sunlight filtering through a canopy of greens, suits us perfectly. Someday we’ll stay here. For now we are content to drop by and enjoy the amenities. Friday night flamenco dancers are a rare treat!

San Juan has scrumptious local fare. Last night it was pistachio crusted salmon (me) and skewered beef tenderloin with a rich sangria-based sauce (he). This morning, he had fresh banana pancakes. I landed the perfect crêpe, filled with vanilla yogurt and loaded with crunchy fresh granola, slightly sweetened nuts, and fresh bananas. Both plates were topped off with a selection of plump, juicy berries. Yummilicious.

20130310-163919.jpgThis morning church is in session across the street at the pearly pink San Juan Cathedral. We can’t understand a word but it’s beautiful all the same. We eavesdrop for awhile, the priest calling and the parishioners answering with deep harmonic notes. A jogger climbs the hill, pausing momentarily in front of the cathedral steps, bowing his head and blessing himself as he jogs in place. Then he’s off again. We are, too.

20130317-085012.jpgThe local market is a highlight of any visit. I look for the vendor selling fresh sweets, coconut patties to share with folks back home. We haven’t found anything quite like them elsewhere. But today we are ahead of schedule and the market slow to wake, vendors filtering in. Many of the tables are filling, though. Gray-headed rivals defend domino bragging rights at every table sheltered by shade, local tunes rippling from the boom box across the piazza. If we had nothing else to do all day, we might just sit here.

But our time here is always too short, always something new to see or do. So we stroll to the pier and purchase tickets for Catano. Fifty cents in ferry fare plus three dollars in cab fare get you to the Bacardi rum factory. Our timing is off a bit, arriving behind a couple of big busloads on organized tours. Impatiently, we nix the factory tour but accept the free rum tasting before resuming our journey.

The return ferry is out of commission when we arrive at the terminal. This causes a few minutes of angst. All of a sudden this little adventure for “free” rum seems not such a good idea? Eventually a back up ferry helps to restore service. Whew. We will make our ship!

20130310-163653.jpgWe return to the market for a bag of sweets to take home, clearing the linguistic hurdles to purchase coconut patties, plain and with nuts. I pass on the pineapple-coconut option; too much sticky sweet, as I recall. Maybe next time I will try the guava or pistachio. I am loaded down with fresh coconut and my mouth waters in anticipation.

Surprisingly, the Hubs is in no big hurry to board the ship today. We’ve time enough for a bite of lunch at Raíces. Service is painfully slow but we sit comfortably in the shade, people watching; it’s hard to complain. I am eager to try some local fare of the most authentic variety. The Hubs is willing. The food is good enough, I guess. But the trés leches cake is both beautiful and delicious. Even the Hubs is impressed — once assured the nature of three milks! It makes for delightful finish to our visit.

Too soon we must bid Old San Juan adiós. Until we meet again …

~René Morley

*Beware the alluring romantic antiquity of the Galería San Juan! Admittedly, the website has been spiffed up. Reportedly, they have new beds. Maybe they’ve cleaned the rooms up, too? I doubt I could convince the Hubs to return to find out!

^Map credit National Park Service

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