The Port of San Juan and San Antonio Canal – A Gateway to the Caribbean
‘Discovered’ by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493, the dazzling archipelago consisting of a large ‘main’ island now known as Puerto Rico and surrounded by smaller islands stands at the head of a curving chain of Caribbean islands that sweeps south-eastwards down to Trinidad and Tobago off the coast of Venezuela. This idyllic location undoubtedly affords Puerto Rico – and particularly its chief port and capital city San Juan – the right to be regarded as the gateway to the Caribbean.
San Juan – the Caribbean’s most important port
San Juan’s port, situated along a narrow sea inlet known as the San Antonio Canal in San Juan Bay, has been a key part of the island’s history and economy for centuries. Today it is the second largest port in the Americas after New York, its sixteen piers divided between container-ship and passenger ship use. Puerto Rican produce including coffee, rum, tobacco fruit and sugar are all exported by ship from the port, whilst for a third of Puerto Rico’s five million-plus annual tourists, the bustling port is their first experience of the island as they step from their cruise ship. In fact, with twenty-eight cruise liners counting it as their ‘home port’, San Juan is the largest home-based cruise port in the world. Four of the eight piers dedicated to passenger-carrying vessels are for use by cruise liners, and for the operators such as Royal Caribbean Cruises and other major cruise lines, San Juan is a popular stopping-off destination.
The historic city beyond the port
Although Puerto Rico is officially an American territory its European heritage remains evident, and nowhere more so than in the colourful and historic architecture of Old San Juan’s lovingly restored buildings. Ancient cobbled streets wind through more than four hundred sixteenth and seventeenth century colonial houses and government buildings – many of which are now fascinating museums, and if it was not for Puerto Rico’s constantly tropical eighty-degree sunshine, you could easily believe that you were strolling through an older neighbourhood of Paris or Madrid. Originally, however, Old San Juan’s purpose was as a military fortification; a fact testified to by the fifteen-foot thick stone walls that surround this part of the city. These walls are only part of San Juan’s defences though; the threat of invasion by land and sea was taken care of by the city’s magnificent forts: Fort San Cristóbal and Fort El Morro.
San Juan’s forts – an unmissable insight into the city’s history
Standing proudly at the north-eastern corner of Old San Juan, Castillo San Cristóbal (aka Fort San Cristóbal) was begun in 1634 and completed more than a century later and is the largest fortress built by Spanish settlers in this area of the world. A masterpiece of strategic design, Fort San Cristóbal is actually five independent fortifications linked by a system of tunnels and moats and designed in such a way that should one or more of the five strongholds be breached the others would remain intact. Rising 150 feet above the crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the views alone make a visit to the fortress well worth the low price of admission, but with a guided tour (in English) of everything from the battlements to the dungeons Fort San Cristóbal is the most entertaining and vivid lesson in the history of San Juan and Puerto Rico you could wish for.
Fort San Cristóbal’s sister fortification – Fort El Morro is no less impressive. Built on six levels this imposing sixteenth-century citadel boasts walls up to eighteen-feet thick featuring sentry-posts and is located on the headland that overlooks the entrance to San Juan Bay. Designed to protect the city from sea invaders, Fort El Morro’s defences failed it only once, resulting in the city’s brief occupation by the English Duke of Cumberland’s forces in 1598. Spectacular sea views and history brought to life are once again the order of the day here.
Modern San Juan
Whilst the beautiful buildings and historic plazas of Old San Juan from the central core of the city, the development of newer neighbourhoods beyond its ancient fortified walls has continued in later centuries. The Ocean Park district, between Condado and Isla Verde is where you’ll find one of San Juan’s best beaches – a typically Caribbean affair of pristine white sand fringed with palm trees where the waters are family-friendly and perfect for paddling, swimming and water sports such as kite-surfing. Ocean Park itself eschews the museums, casinos and other entertainments found elsewhere in the city, the emphasis instead on boutique hotels guest houses, chic beachwear and accessories shops and laid-back bars and restaurants. If nightclubs and casinos are your preference, however, you should head further along San Juan’s coast to Isla Verde.
Shopaholics should head for Fortaleza Street which, although in Old San Juan, offers some very modern shopping opportunities alongside traditional craft and jewellery stores. Forever bustling, Fortaleza Street is also where you’ll find some of San Juan’s best and most popular bars and restaurants. For a relaxing alternative to San Juan’s vibrant beaches, streets and shopping areas the Botanical Garden of the University of Puerto Rico is an exotic oasis of tropical and subtropical plants divided into themed gardens and liberally dotted with fine modern sculptures by Puerto Rican artists.
After dark, San Juan offers the culture of the elegant Teatro Tapia, an Italian-styled classical theatre which has seen many loving restorations since its completion in 1832 and on whose stage some of the world’s greatest names in ballet, theatre and opera have performed. Visitors seeking the traditional Latin American sounds of the rumba, salsa and samba will find plenty of vibrant clubs in which to practice their dance moves or to simply appreciate the music, whilst those who prefer to gyrate the night away to the latest dance music won’t be disappointed either.
Throw in an eclectic mix of excellent and atmospheric restaurants and bars presenting a host of delicious local and international cuisines, where you can dine alfresco or sit back and relax with an excellent coffee or a Puerto Rican rum in the warm evening air and it won’t be long before you appreciate exactly why the Port of San Juan is a perfect gateway to the Caribbean.