To North Americans Puerto Rico is their backyard. It has been a US territory since 1898, prior to which it was a Spanish colony for 400 years. It has the busiest cruise port in the Caribbean in San Juan, the capital. Puerto Rico (PR) receives over 2 million visitors a year. But to Australians it is the other side of the world, it is somewhere we hear little about and so it is high on our “exotic places to visit” list.
Knowing that it is such a popular tourist destination meant that we approached our visit with some concern that it might be 'too popular' to the point of tackiness, but we needn’t have worried. We spent a week in PR splitting our time between the two biggest cities, San Juan and Ponce and both were well worth taking the time to visit. Here's what we found.
El Morro and San Cristobal Forts
San Juan is a big city. Greater San Juan is around 1.3 million people. The star of the show is Old San Juan the historical centre of the city. It sits on a peninsular facing the Atlantic Ocean with the Bahia de San Juan on the other side.
San Juan played a critical role in the Spanish colonial period from 1493 until the US took control of PR after the 1898 Spanish-American War. Consequently Old San Juan is full of historical significance.
It has two massive forts – El Morro and San Cristobal. They are national parks and for one charge of $US5 you can visit both. They are a 15-20 minute walk apart.
Both forts have had extensive restoration and are in very good shape. There are interpretation signs all over in both Spanish and English. If you visit San Cristobal first you can watch a free video that explains the history of both which is useful before you start exploring.
Located on the coast means that they have many spectacular ocean viewing points as well as good views of Old San Juan city.
El Morro has a huge parkland in front that catches the trade winds and is a very popular kite flying spot with the locals.
Wandering Old San Juan
The city of Old San Juan is interesting to wander around with plenty of points of interest. Plazas such as Plaza de Armas and Plaza de Colon near San Cristobal are pleasant places to sit and watch the world go by.
The city has strict architectural regulations to ensure that it retains it's character and the brightly coloured colonial buildings are a draw to any photographer.
There are also numerous museums such as Museo de las Americas and Museo de San Juan if you want to escape the heat and have a bit of air condy.
Old San Juan is a walled city and a walk beside the walls is a worthwhile exercise.
A Visit to the Bacardi Factory
The enormous Bacardi Rum factory produces 80% of Bacardi's rum and is a long standing institution in San Juan. Originally a Cuban company the Puerto Rican operations became all important after the Cuban Revolution, when it's Cuban assets were ceased by the new government.
To get there by public transport we caught the ferry from Old San Juan across the bay to the suburb of Catano (US50c p.p each way). Once out of the ferry terminal signage is sadly lacking, but if you head right for 200m there is a yellow multi-story building that is a car park and the colectivos (taxis) are at the bottom. The ride to the factory is $US12 for 1 – 4 persons (ie so it's only $3 each if there are four of you).
The basic tour is $US15 p.p and involves a film and displays with commentary from a guide as to the history of the company, the making of the rum, and the different types of rum. It includes a free tasting and a free rum cocktail (and you get to keep the plastic Bacardi logoed glass it's served in as a souvenir).
El Yunque Day Trip
El Yunque National Forest is a 28,000 acre area of tropical rainforest in the East of Puerto Rico an hour or so from San Juan. It has numerous walking trails and some spectacular views. We decided to visit as a day trip as you really need your own transport to get there and back otherwise.
A couple of enormous cruise ships visited each day we were in San Juan which meant that there were plenty of day trips going to El Yunque for cruise passengers. We've never been on a cruise (not really our thing) but decided to be cruise ship punters for a day – on land.
We went with a group called Happy Tours, who we spoke to at the cruise ship port the previous day. The cost was $US47 p.p and lasted around 4 – 5 hours.
It was all a bit whirlwind but we still managed to get a reasonable taste of El Yunque - some nice views and a short walk.
Be warned, it is VERY popular, and when we went it was bursting with tourists – so don't go on a cruise ship style day trip if you're expecting tranquillity.
Ponce is Puerto Rico's second city and sits on it's southern or Caribbean coast. It is named after Juan Ponce de Leon, the founding father of colonial Puerto Rico. It is a 1.5 – 2 hour drive from San Juan.
It can be a little tricky to make the trip between the two cities by public transport, especially if you're staying in Old San Juan as we were. Luckily our San Juan hotel suggested a door to door service that did the run several times daily. It was only $US 25 p.p each way and it saved us a lot of messing about. It's not well promoted or known (ie the local tourist office had no knowledge of how to do the trip other than by the tortuous public system involving a combination of taxi, bus, train and colectivo each way or, of course, by hiring a car). The company's name is La Linea and their contact details are a phone number 787-725-4702 . We got our hotel to ring and make the booking for us.
Ponce also has a Centro Historico, though no where near as extensive or impressive as Old San Juan. The main plaza is Plaza Las Delicias. The plaza contains the cathedral, Catedral Nuestro Senora de Guadelupe. It also has an interesting fountain Fuente de los Leones (if the water is turned on). And a unusual black and red striped building which is a tribute to Ponce's firefighters, Parque de Bombas.
There are numerous museums and we particularly enjoyed the world class Museo de Arte de Ponce.
The well designed building uses a lot of natural light to show off the exhibits which makes it a bright and pleasant place to spend a couple of hours.
We also visited the Museum of the Massacre (which is a tragic event that took place in Ponce in 1937) and the Museo de la Historia de Ponce which describes the history of the region and the city.
We also want to give a plug to our hotel, Hotel Belgica. The staff were extremely welcoming and helpful with tips on what to do, where to eat and where to go in Ponce. And our room was comfortable and reasonably priced, and just off Plaza de Delicas, so very well positioned.
Isla Caja de Muerto (Coffin Island)
To get that Caribbean sea and salt feeling in our hair again we headed for Isla Caja de Muerto (Coffin Island). This is a small island which is a 1.5 hour ferry ride from La Gauncha marina (Ponce's marina). It is called Coffin Island because of it's shape, not for more sinister reasons.
The island is a national park and only one ferry makes the trip each Saturday and Sunday. We were told that we needed to book beforehand but we took a punt that we'd be ok and caught a taxi to La Gauncha on a Sunday morning, in readiness for an 8.30am departure.
It turned out that the small ferry, holding around 100 people, was fully booked. Local families and groups of people, all dragging enormous eskies full of food and drink, as well as a huge range of water toys, umbrellas and beach chairs were already assembling on the dock when we arrived.
We'd resigned ourselves to having to return to Ponce for the day when a local couple approached us to say that they had two spare tickets because their friends couldn't make it. This was more good luck than good management, so if you do plan to go book beforehand. The cost is $US28 p.p round trip. The website is www.islandventurepr.net
The island has a protected beach – Pelican Beach, which is where most people went. The windward side is Playa Larga and it was windy and rough so few people ventured there.
There is an old disused lighthouse which we walked to.
This built up a good sweat before a refreshing dip at Pelican Beach.
There are no shops on the island which explains why our companions all brought their own provisions. But the ferry doubles as a restaurant and bar selling cold drinks, beer, hot dogs and barbecued chicken kebabs.
The ferry returned to Ponce at 3.30pm. All in all a good day out.
There is a lot more to Puerto Rico than what we experienced. In San Juan alone we did not have time to visit the beaches of Playa Condado and Playa Isla Verde which are meant to be very nice, nor the restaurant and cultural district of Santurce. But we enjoyed what we did do and, even though Old San Juan was very busy with lots of tourists, it felt safe and welcoming and is certainly an interesting place to visit if you like colonial history, architecture, massive forts and rum. We like all these things.