The capital of Puerto Rico, the city of San Juan Bautista, is like a big pirate trunk filled to the brim with treasures for cruise passengers. Founded by the legendary explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who arrived with 300 settlers in 1519 and who served as the first governor of Puerto Rico, San Juan is a classic walled city with centuries of history.
Old San Juan, a short walk from the cruise ship piers, is like an open-air museum and at the same time a vital urban center. It is easily explored on foot (but there is a free tourist trolley that takes visitors around the old city--as you explore, you will spot signs on sidewalks marking its stops).
The narrow cobblestone streets of Old San Juan with their colonial buildings; old-fashioned street lamps; plazas adorned with sculptures; art galleries, shops and museums, as well as the Fort of San Felipe, better known as El Morro, are must-sees during a port call in Puerto Rico.
El Morro, started in 1540 and finished 250 years later, is one of the most impressive sights in all the Caribbean. With its six levels, cannon gallery, lookout points and dungeon it is worthy of a half-day visit at least, particularly to spend time enjoying the panoramic views of San Juan Bay from its fortifications. Cruise passengers should plan to be on deck for San Juan arrival and departure as ships sails close to the fortress on their way in and out of San Juan.
History buffs may wish to note that the fort defended San Juan well. In 1797, the English fleet under the command of Ralph Abercromby arrived in San Juan with 3,000 troops. At that time the city was already protected with 200 acres of castles and walls and more than 450 cannons. After an unsuccessful 17-day attack, the British retreated and Abercromby reported to his superiors that San Juan was "impregnable" and that the city would have been able to resist a military contingent 10 times larger than what he had brought.
Other points of interest in Old San Juan include the San Cristobal Fortress, started in the 17th century and part of the fortifications and walls that completely encircled the city in the 18th century; the Cathedral on the Plaza de la Catedral, with the tomb of Ponce de Leon; the Casa Blanca, Ponce de Leon's original residence; the Plaza San José, with a statue of Ponce de Leon, the Church of San José; the Pablo Casals Museum (world-famous cellist Casals resided in Puerto Rico for almost two decades); and the Capilla del Cristo a beautiful chapel on Cristo Street with the picturesque Pigeons Park to the right. If you are traveling with children, they will love feeding the hundreds of pigeons that reside in the park and that perch on the heads and shoulders of visitors who give them food. Children and adults will enjoy a refreshing piragua (snow cone with tropical flavors) that can be bought from street vendors in Old San Juan.
A popular tour sold on board ships takes to the Bacardi Distillery in Cataño. The Bacardi visit--which can be combined with a tour of Old San Juan--allows visitors to see how rum is made and they can sample it, of course.
San Juan's Condado area with its beaches, hotels, casinos and boutiques of designers like Gucci, Cartier and Louis Vuitton is another of San Juan's must-sees. And so are Luquillo Beach and El Yunque rainforest--both can be visited in a day-trip from San Juan.
To enjoy a day at the beach, some cruise passengers opt for a day room at a nearby hotel. Among the possibilities is the Caribe Hilton, 1 San Geronimo Street, with a private beach, 17 acres of gardens, and a short distance from Old San Juan and the cruise ship piers.
Among the noteworthy museums is the Art Museum of San Juan (299 de Diego Avenue, Santurce, www.mapr.org). This museum has an excellent collection of local art that reflects the identify of Puerto Rico. The museum also has a sculpture garden, the Raúl Juliá Theater, and an interactive museum for children.
An interesting souvenir of a visit to San Juan are the santos or wood sculptures of saints and legendary figures like the Magi, which were one of the earliest artistic expressions in the island. You will find them in art galleries in Old San Juan and in gift shops in hotels and resorts.
Lines that call at San Juan include Azamara, Carnival, Celebrity, Costa, Holland America, MSC, Norwegian, Princess, Regent Seven Seas, Royal Caribbean, Seabourn, SeaDream, Silversea and Windstar.
IF YOU GO: Visit the Puerto Rico Tourism Company's website at www.GoToPuertoRico.com.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun