Taking in the sights of San Juan, Puerto Rico

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This is one of my delayed posts describing our southern caribbean journey, and it is quite long – so pour yourself the beverage of your choice and enjoy!  I must also thank my hubby for his hours of tedious editing of this post – thank you honeybunch! 🙂

When Steve booked our southern caribbean cruise, he was happy to find one that began and ended in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  It’s a place he had heard good things about for many years, and the cruise gave us an excuse to take the short flight there while in Florida.  We spent three days exploring Old San Juan before hopping on the cruise ship — yes, a quick visit — but we managed to take in many of the sights and sounds of El Viejo San Juan!

Old San Juan is within the historic colonial section, and it’s the oldest settlement within Puerto Rico.  We stopped at many of the city’s historic landmarks, including the two forts — El Morro and Fort San Cristobal — to marvel at their distinct character.  We also walked the cobbled streets of the city, and on another day we took a tour of the tropical El Yunque Rainforest.

San Juan Puerto Rico

Aerial view of the walled city of Old San Juan (toward the left near the end of the island)

First, a quick history of San Juan.  Before the United States took over in the late 19th century, San Juan was an important Spanish gateway to the caribbean islands.  Puerto Rico – meaning “Rich Port” – was fortified by Spain because it was the first major island with fresh water, shelter and supplies that could be used by sailing ships on their way to the Americas.

Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal (the large stone structure in the background)

Behind the mighty stone wall, the old city of San Juan grew and developed.  The city wall is marked by the dark line in the image below, and it took us the better part of a day to follow and explore it along with the two forts.

El Viejo San Juan

The forts are designated as San Juan National Historic Sites and administered by the U.S. National Park Service.  To begin our walk, we had a taxi drop us at the southern end of Old Town where we first explored Castillo de San Cristobal with its sprawling outer defenses. The largest fort built in the caribbean by the Spaniards, it protected El Morro and the city from land attack and took 150 years to complete.  There are many other details, but I’ll just say it is architecturally beautiful and the coastal view from it is fantastic.

Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal

Sentry boxes (or garitas), a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico, are located all around the outer walls of the fort.

Sentry Box, Garitas

Sentry boxes are Puerto Rican icons

This fort is 150 feet tall, and a great example of the strategic skills used to create land and sea defenses.  It is actually many different units connected by tunnels, each unit being self-sufficient in case others are invaded.

Castillo San Cristobal

Taking a break and trying to find our way around this huge fort

 Castillo San Cristobal, San Juan Puerto Rico

The San Juan coast and skyline viewed from an observation area at Castillo San Cristobal

While there, we noticed these green creatures busy feeding themselves or posing for pictures as they basked in the sun:

Monk Parakeet

Monk Parakeets

It was a half hour walk to the next fortification, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and we were wilting under the blazing sun — whew, it was hot and humid that day!  We passed by the picturesque Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis (established in 1863), which sits just outside the fort walls.  This white cemetery was gorgeous, surrounded by the city wall on one side and the blue Atlantic ocean on the other.  The only problem is you have to die to get a view like this!

Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis

Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, looking south

Cementario Maria Magdalena de Pazzis

Looking at the cemetery from one of the 6 ft. embrasures in the wall.  Castillo San Felipe del Morro can be seen at top of the hill.

Located at the end of the island to protect San Juan Bay’s deep harbor from sea attack, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) consists of six massive staggered levels rising 145 feet above sea level.  We wandered around dungeons, barracks, passageways, and storerooms to learn about this amazing fort that took Spain over 200 years to build.  It is now Puerto Rico’s most picturesque military structure and was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

The city walls of San Juan with Castillo San Felipe del Morro on top of the hill, as viewed from San Juan Bay

Cannon Water Battery, Castillo San Felipe

Cannon battery overlooking the beautiful ocean inlet to San Juan

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Main plaza

Leaving Castillo San Felipe del Morro, we walked the Paseo del Morro trail which follows a three mile long wall protecting the western side of the city.  The wall stands 40 ft. tall with 20 ft. thick masonry, and was completed in 1782.  It includes gun ports from which to fire cannon and sentry boxes perched at strategic viewing locations.

Walls surrounding San Juan

Note how thick the walls are.

We encountered a lot of cats along this stretch, and I saw this one resting on a tree.  I couldn’t resist snapping a shot.

Wild Cat in Pasel el Morro

High wall, Old San Juan

After hours of exploring the two forts and strolling along the high walls, we walked through the streets of the old city looking for some good Puerto Rican food.  Strolling along narrow blue cobblestone streets, we observed boldly colored houses and shops watched over by grill-work balconies.  The city is characterized by flat-roofed brick and stone buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century and reflecting Spanish architecture.

Streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Hey, anybody home?

This city is on a hill, so we walked uphill and downhill throughout our trek.  We really worked up a sweat in the heat and humidity!

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Mofongo is a staple dish of Puerto Rico.  Our friend Brenda of Island Girl, a Puerto Rican lady herself, advised this was the local dish we should sample.  It is essentially a mashed mound of plantains into which a combination of seafood, meat, or vegetables is added.  I liked it so much that I had it in twice during our stay!

We continued exploring after that delicious meal, moving toward the waterfront of San Juan Bay.  Called Bahia Urbana, this is a new area of walkways and parks along the south side of Old San Juan.  We were refreshed by the cool breeze coming off the the bay, as we walked and then sat down to enjoy the harbor view.

On another day, we took a taxi, then a ferry ride, then another taxi to visit the largest premium rum distillery in the world – the BACARDÍ Rum Distillery.  More than 85% of all BACARDÍ rum is distilled in this facility.  After our free tour and a glitzy, informative, entertaining commercial for Bacardi, we enjoyed our 2 free drinks (Cuba Libre and Mojito).  We were a bit disappointed in the tour, since it resembled a Disney-like attraction in a separate area and did not include the working part of the distillery.  And even though the tour was free, the trip there and back to our hotel was far from it.  At least we were able to enjoy the ferry ride across the bay on a very nice day.

Some other sights in San Juan:

In addition to the Capitol building, there were a number of memorial plazas and sculptures in the Capital District of Old San Juan.  We also viewed the Walkway of the Presidents, a Holocaust Memorial, a Fallen Soldier Memorial, a monument to police killed in the line of duty and quite a few others.  We thought it was very well done.

Walkway of the Presidents, San Juan, PR

Walkway of the Presidents, San Juan, PR

Condado Beach, San Juan

One of the beaches along the high-end district of Condado


At the end of Paseo de la Princesa is a Bronze sculpture called “Raices“, symbolizing  the island’s cultural roots

Artistic Graffiti

San Juan


San Juann, Puerto Rico

 San Juan, Puerto Rico

Finally, we took a trip to the rain forest, El Yunque Rain Forest that is.  It’s the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Parks system.  Ample rainfall (over 200 inches a year in some areas) creates a jungle-like setting – with lush foliage, waterfalls and a river. We didn’t take an umbrella and were surprised to get rained on while we were there – duh!

While chilling out by the pool at the end of a long day, we heard what sounded like a singing bird but we couldn’t locate it.  The sound was so close and loud that we started searching for it.  Finally, a waiter informed us that it was actually a tiny frog native in Puerto Rico and called a Coqui.  It is abundant here and has become the country’s symbol.  Although the waiter said it is rare to see them, this guy surprised us by jumping right onto our table.  How cool is that!

We thoroughly enjoyed our short visit to San Juan, and it’s a place we would definitely go again.  The history, architecture, friendly people and the many photo opportunities make it an inviting destination.  We obviously only scratched the surface, and there are many things left to see – a great reason to go back some day!

I know that was a little too long, but I hope you enjoyed a taste of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Next up:  Hopping on a really big boat!


Oh no! not another history lesson?

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Colonial Williamsburg

wpid18679-2013-10-25-VA-1170984.jpgContinuing southward after that mind-numbing stop at the nation’s capital, we drove less than 200 miles and parked Betsy in Williamsburg, VA.  One of our rules is to try not to drive more than 200 miles to our next destination (the only exception was when we were in Alaska).  Following that rule, we will have a sloooow southward migration to Florida, making several stops before we finally vegetate for the winter (haven’t done that yet!).

As you may know, my posts can be tinged with a bit of history from time to time.  As we’ve traveled through the eastern states this year, we’ve really gotten hooked on the history spanning from before the American Revolution through the Civil War years.  I’ll try not to bore…

Williamsburg brick bridge

After getting Betsy parked and set up, our first visit was to Colonial Williamsburg.  From the visitor center, we followed the path across a footbridge back into 1774, walking under thick double brick bridges and following the trail taking us to the historic town.

Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is billed as the largest living history museum in Virginia, a restored 18th-century capital of Britain’s largest, wealthiest and most populous outpost of empire in the New World.  When you enter the historic town you are brought back into the time when life was simple, yet still under control of the monarchs in Great Britain.

Colonial Williamsburg

Which way to the eighteenth century?  Wow, do I look out of place or what?

The historic area is 301 acres of restored, reconstructed and refurnished historic buildings.  We tried not to compare this with our stop at Louisbourg in Canada, which was also a reconstruction.  But Colonial Williamsburg is older by 100 years, and Louisbourg was a fortress, not a colony.

Colonial Williamsburg

Steve told me this is how they used to “cruise for chicks” back in the 1700’s

To complete Virginia’s historic triangle, we went from Williamsburg – via the scenic Colonial Parkway – to Yorktown Battlefield, and then on to Jamestown.  Once again the documentary we saw several months ago – “America: The Story of Us,” – was coming to life in front of us.  The documentary began the story from the successful English settlement of Jamestown, beginning in 1607.  And here we were, walking through and experiencing the actual location of America’s first permanent English colony – established by a group of 104 men and boys on May 13, 1607.  They actually  landed on the shores of the James River 13 years before the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts

We found the Voorhees Archaearium very interesting, as we perused the many archaeological remains of the old James Fort.  Too bad photography was not allowed inside the museum, for there were centuries-old “skeletal remains” that told a fascinating story and have been featured on the History Channel.

At the Yorktown Battlefield, we learned about the defeat of the British by the joint American and French forces led by Gen. George Washington.  After viewing the 16-minute film, we walked behind the British defensive earthworks, then drove the self-guided seven mile battlefield tour.  We stopped at the “surrender field”, where some of the spoils of war captured by Allied forces were displayed.

Surrender Field

Display of the trophies of war

The inscription on each of the mounted trophies of British brass guns, howitzers and mortars read “SURRENDERED BY THE CAPITULATION OF YORKTOWN OCT 19, 1781”.

Surrendered BY the CAPITULATION of YORKTOWN, Oct 19,1781

Inscription found on surrendered British weapons

On that date, British troops lay down their weapons following the surrender.  Yorktown is remembered as the place where the British surrendered to General Washington, ending the last major battle of the American Revolutionary War.  It also remained in Union control during most of the Civil War.

Surrender Field, Battlefield Yorktown

It’s hard to imagine thousands of British soldiers laying down their weapons on this field, as many thousands of Allied soldiers looked on.

I haven’t even mentioned just how significant the state of Virginia is, for I’m skipping many details learned during our historical exploration.  But if you like history or are a history buff, I’d say visiting here is definitely worth your time.  Virginia is where it all began in 1607!

Colonial Williamsburg

About an hour’s drive from Williamsburg is Norfolk, where my childhood friends Kathy and Janice live.  Good food and lots of laughter ensued as we reminisced our childhood days.  As the girls were yacking away in our dialect, the boys, Edwin and Steve enjoyed their own exploration.


Janice, Kathy and I

Since Edwin had access to Norfolk Navy Base, Steve was excited to get a personal tour of the docks and other areas.

Navy Submarine

Submarine at Norfolk

Floating Hospital

Floating hospital, and there are bigger ones than this!

George W Bush Air Carrier

The George H. W. Bush aircraft carrier was in town

Finally, they made a stop at the excellent Douglas MacArthur Memorial Museum.

Gen MacArthur

Inside the MacArthur Memorial

MacArthurs Tomb

The bodies of  MacArthur and his wife were interred here in Norfolk, the home town of the general’s mother.

Gen MacArthur

After this final stop in Virginia, we are finally done with our history lessons!  Since I did not learn much American history in school, our escapades have been very enlightening and I think it’s sticking in my brain much better than if I had to read about it in books.

So, beginning with our next stop, our slow trek to Florida will be along the Atlantic coast – which means lot of beautiful beaches!  If the weather holds, that is.

Next up:  The Outer banks of North Carolina


A Turbulent Past – Lava Beds National Monument part 2

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Batman and Robin caved in after a day of exploring lava caves   We then decided to explore the scenery outside the caves. There were attractions on the surface that awaited our enjoyment such as Native American rock art sites, historic battlefields and campsites, and a high desert wilderness.  Lava Beds Monument has a turbulent past.  It is not only because of its geologic turmoil caused  by Medicine Lake volcano’s spewing forth of lava, gases and cinders creating an inhospitable landscape, but also of the historical events that occurred in this area in the  late 1800s.  The monument encompasses the main battlefields of the Modoc war which was the only Indian war fought in California.

Rock Fortress

In 1864  Modoc Indians were asked to give up their homeland and to live on a reservation north of Klamath Falls.  During the  Modoc War of 1872-1873, the Modoc Indians used these tortuous lava flows to their advantage.  Under the leadership of Captain Jack, the Modocs took refuge in this  natural lava fortress now known as “Captain Jack’s Stronghold”.

English: 1873 sketch by William Simpson of Mod...

English: 1873 sketch by William Simpson of Modocs at Captain Jack’s Stronghold, in public domain, from Library of Congress (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They managed to hold off US Army forces numbering up to twenty times their strength for five months. Eventually, however, Captain Jack’s entire band was captured and he was hanged while the rest of his followers were sent to Oklahoma never again to return to their homeland.  We followed Capt Jacks Stronghold Trail which winds through the heart of the Modoc’s wartime defenses and we observed its rough terrain and the rock formations that served as their fortress.

Captain Jacks Stronghold Trailhead Mt Shasta as backdrop of the Fortress

On the US Army side, General Canby who led the peace talks between the Modocs became the only General killed in an Indian War.  A wooden cross was erected by a US soldier in 1882 . Inscribe on the cross was, “Gen Canby USA was murdered here by the  Modocs April 11, 1873.” 

Canby's Cross

Canby’s Cross

Story of Canby's Cross

Story of Canby’s Cross

The Monument also includes Petroglyph Point, one of the largest panels of Native American rock art in the United States.  Petroglyph Point was an island throughout much of its history due to the fact that Tulelake was about 10 times larger than it is currently.  However, during the early 1900’s the lake was drained to make way for homesteaders.  As a result you must drive out to it now.  Along the cliff face are over 5000 carved symbols, and we could imagine the carvers standing up in their canoes as they worked. We also  noted some stripes in the cliff face which revealed the ancient compacted volcanic layers.  The shelf-like ridge represents a place where waves have eroded a portion of the wall creating a wave cut.  Each wave cut represents a different lake level.

Petroglyph Point


What do these petroglyphs mean? It appears impossible to answer, but most researchers believe that the petroglyphs are truly rock art and do not represent a written language.  They remain a part of the ongoing culture of the Modoc people.

Along the Pacific Flyway the Monument rewarded us with migrating birds at a wildlife overlook.  Steve managed to scare them all away before I got my camera ready!

As we were exploring we observed the different volcanic features of the environment.  The rounded mounds of many cinder cones dotted the Lava Beds Landscape.  One example of it is the Schonchin Butte where we hiked to the top gaining an elevation of 500 feet.  At the top we had a 360 degree panoramic view of the Lava Beds from the fire lookout.

Schonchin Butte

At the lookout

Looking North

Gillem Bluff

This place is one rugged beauty that we enjoyed so much that we stayed for 5 nights.  The solitude and  wilderness can really grow on you.