Wednesday, October 10, 2012

San Juan Fortifications

On my recent trip to San Juan the wife and I spent half a day touring the San Juan National Historic Site which is one of the "must-do's" on any trip to the island. Not only is the site of historical significance, but it also offers some of the best opportunities for picture taking.  See below:

WWII Observation deck and Old Spanish Observation deck

Signs and historical information

Spanish Obervation house

Close-up of Spanish Observation house

Courtyard View

View from inside WWII observation deck
One unique feature of the fortifications is the side-by-side existence of the old Spanish observation houses and the added on, by Americans, WWII observation decks which provides a unique compare and contrast of naval military defenses in differernt eras.

The thing that struck both my wife and I was how narrow some of the walkways were leading up to the old Spanish observation points.  In most of them I could not walk through them without turning my shoulders sideways.  We tried to imagine a fully armored Spanish soldier walking through some of those openings and decided that they would need to be of really slim build.  I admit that I'm a hefty guy, but my wife is certainly not and some of the walkways felt tight even to her.

There are two main parts to the park, the Castillo San Felipe de Morro, which guards the entrance to the bay, and the Castillo san Cristobal which guards the land-side of Old San Juan.  Included in both are mock-ups of crew quarters (spartan) and some interesting history on the city of Old San Juan, including the constant early battle between the needs of the citizens for living space and the needs of the military for defense. 

Each Castillo is located on opposite ends of Old San Juan. My suggestion is to start at San Cristobal, which has a walk through a long underground tunnel by the dungeons. Before you enter the tunnel signs will alert you to interesting wall-art you should try and find.  You can purchase a ticket for $3 per person to each individual fortification, but I recomment saving $1 and opting for the $2 add-on which allows you to see both fortifications over a period of seven days.  Just keep your receipt.

The walk between the fortifications is along the ocean and passes by the slum of La Perla.
La Perla
Normally, during the day, I would have gone down and taken a closer look at La Perla but, to be honest, there really didn't seem to be anything down there worth getting a closer look at.  While we were passing by however, there was a very attractive Puerto Rican woman and a small boy, surrounded by television cameras filming some sort of documentary.  Our guess was that she came from the area and had 'made it out' of the slum and was doing something tracing her roots back.  They seemed to spend a lot of time filming her showing the boy Carmelo Anthony Basketball court, I don't know if she was related to him or not.
Carmelo Anthony Court
After about a 15 minute walk (wear sun screen) you arrive at the lawn in front of Castillo San Felipe de Morro where, on a nice day, you'll see a lot of people flying kites.
Kite flying at the Castillo
The Castillo San Felipe de Morro is smaller, but very interesting.  It does involve a lot of walking up and down stairs to get to the bottom level so be prepared for that.  If you do make it to the bottom however look for the piece of shrapnel still lodged in the wall from Spanish Colonial days. Pretty interesting.  You also get to walk through the oldest of the fortifications here, and you get the closest to the sea.

This tour will probably take you most of the morning and will last into the early afternoon, so make sure to eat breakfast and bring along plenty of water.  If you do run out of fluids there are gift shops in both castles that sell Gatorade for $2.50 and bottles of water for $1.  We purchased water at the first castle and used the public water fountains to refill them along the way.

By the end of this you're probably going to be hungry.  As you re-enter San Juan proper look for El Patio de Sam on Calle San Sebastian.  There you can find a good deal on Medalla Light (pretty much the Puerto Rican light beer) or a Sangria and you can get a filling lunch for a fair price.  They have good sandwiches and I ordered a great Milenesa which, in Puerto Rico, is a thin breaded and fried steak with (of all things) a spicy Marinara sauce.

After lunch you're going to want to go back to your hotel, shower, and take a siesta.  Have I mentioned how hot it is in Puerto Rico?

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