Puerto Rico by Ship
Puerto Rico is one of the Caribbean’s most popular destinations. Cruise ships travelling the Caribbean circuit nearly always spend time in the port of San Juan, and often start their journeys from it. Other ships tend to begin a Caribbean cruise in Florida, but include San Juan in their itineraries. As it’s such a popular route, there are many lots of cruise offers available for trips using it. San Juan and the rest of Puerto Rico makes for a very attractive cruise destination, as it offers a combination of both the old and the new world. It holds much of interest for visitors from both Europe and North America. For Europeans, it is a window into how European culture was first exported to the New World back in the sixteenth century, and how that culture then merged with native and African cultures. For Americans, it is a glimpse into a unique part of the US which few US citizens ever get to see.
San Juan is one of the busiest ports in Latin America, with both cruise and cargo ships arriving and departing from it. Most of the cruise ships dock within an easy walk of Old San Juan, a few will dock across the bay at Isla Grande, a short taxi ride away. You may just have a day or two in San Juan, during your cruise, or you may have the opportunity to explore for longer, especially if your trip begins or ends there.
Old San Juan’s big draw for visitors is its history. European settlement dates from 1521, making it the oldest settlement in the US. It is full of atmosphere, with Old San Juan having a distinctly Spanish feel. Its narrow, cobblestoned streets are lined with colourful old colonial houses, which give way to attractive squares. Old San Juan is on an island and bounded by thick city walls, built to keep enemies out and secure the life of the colony. It is a UNESCO world heritage site. It is a wonderful place just to wander around, soaking up the atmosphere. Pavement cafes are great places just to stop for a while and watch the world go by. To get an idea of San Juan life over the years, visit some of the city’s ’boutique’ museums. These are small, backstreet museums which often have exhibits about a particular period or aspect of San Juan or Puerto Rican history, and can be fascinating.
There are some must-see historic buildings in Old San Juan. Most well known is La Fortaleza (‘the fortress’) which was the first fortification to be built in the city. Today it is the residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, but much of it is open to the public. Other fortresses include Morro Castle and Fort San Cristobal. There are also many attractive churches in Old San Juan, such as the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista, one of the city’s oldest buildings. It houses the tomb of the founder of the settlement, Juan Ponce de Leon.
Old San Juan is not just about historic sights. Take some time to get to know the place as the locals do. Start with the food: there are many excellent restaurants in the old city, serving up lots of local favourites. Food in Puerto Rico combines Spanish, American, African and native Taino flavours. Popular dishes include asopao (a chunky, spicy soup), spicy meat stews and chillis, fried fish and Spanish style omlettes. Find a backstreet restaurant and take advice on the best dishes to try: every restaurant will have its own specialities.
After you’ve eaten, try out the local bars: Old San Juan really comes to life after dark. There are numerous bars in the city playing various types of traditional Latin music and really popular with locals: they’re not just tourist haunts. Another popular after-dinner passtime is to wander along the Paseo de la Princesa – the seafront promenade. It is lined with trees and food vendors, and is always packed with both locals and tourists out enjoying an evening stroll.
If you begin or end your cruise in San Juan, then take some time to explore the rest of Puerto Rico, with its beautiful scenery and unique culture. If you just have a quick stop-off in the city, then make the most of it: San Juan is a rewarding slice of Puerto Rican culture that you’ll remember forever.