After a serene day of cruising the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Silver Whisper glides into San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as the setting sun is sprinkling coppery hues onto the medieval El Morro (the Promontory) fortress.
A Photographer’s Treat
As the ship makes its graceful way toward the entrance channel to the inner harbor, we are treated to a unique panoramic view of La Perla, the colorful historical shanty town wedged between the ancient city wall and the sea. Established in the late nineteenth century, when the development of Old San Juan pushed its most disadvantaged population outside the fortifications, it stretches for almost half a mile (750 meters) like a vivid puzzle along the rocky coast, from the edge of El Morro to the massive Castillo San Cristobal.
After an exciting, slow motion photoshoot of the iconic El Morro showcased from every imaginable angle, we berth at the cruise terminal of the Old San Juan Piers, an easy walk away from all the major attractions of the historic city. We’ll be here for the next 24 hours, and I am looking forward to a day of roaming around the ancient Spanish colonial town.
The next morning, we get an unexpected wakeup call courtesy of the Brazilian Navy. One of their ships is easing toward the far side of our pier, before coming to a stop right alongside the Silver Whisper. From our private veranda, I have an eye-level view of the entire crew in their gleaming white uniforms, standing at perfect attention on the deck. Meanwhile, at the stern, the ship’s band is enthusiastically belting out a medley of the spirited tunes for which their country is famous. This is one of these serendipitous moments that reinforces my passion for far-flung travels.
A Spanish Heritage
Shoehorned onto an islet that guards the entrance to its harbor, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas*. Established by Spanish explorers in 1521, a whole century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present day Massachusetts, Old San Juan, as the colonial town is known today, remains an historical jewel steeped in Old World charm. Although Puerto Rico came under control of the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, and the modern city that radiates from the waterfront is firmly planted into the present, the centuries of Spanish rule have left their indelible imprint on Old San Juan.
Within minutes of stepping off the ship, I start my journey back in time with a stroll along the broad Paseo de la Princesa. The shaded nineteenth century, sea-level esplanade stretches just below the city wall, to end at the waterfront with the magnificent Raices (or roots) fountain. Designed by architect Miguel Carlo, the fountain was completed in 1992 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Spain’s “discovery” of the New World. It consists of a collection of statues honoring Puerto Rico’s mixed African, Spanish and Taino/Amerindian heritage.
The Oldest Cathedral in the New World
Soon, I come upon the elegant Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana Basilica de San Juan Bautista (or Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist). Completed in 1540 as the seat of the first catholic bishop in the New World, it is the first cathedral church in the Americas. It is also home to the tomb of the Spanish explorer and founder of the original settlement, Juan Ponce de León. From here, every winding lane seems to lead to El Morro.
An Impregnable Medieval Fortress
Perched atop of the 140-foot (43-meter) promontory at the northwestern tip of the islet of Old San Juan, the sprawling Castillo San Felipe del Morro, named in honor of King Philip II of Spain (1527 – 1598), was started in 1539 to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the port city from seaborne invasions. Its expansion continued in stages until 1790, growing from a bastion mounted with a cannon to a mighty six-level fortress. Vast barracks, storerooms, and dungeons are enclosed within its colossal outer walls dotted with garitas, the domed sentry boxes that have become the iconic symbol of Puerto Rico.
In its over 400 years as a military site, El Morro withstood countless attacks and was never defeated by sea. It was only taken once, in 1598, in a land assault led by the British forces of the Earl of Cumberland. It was this attack that prompted the construction of the Castillo de San Cristóbal at the opposite end of the bluff. No longer in use as a military site, the fortress is now a National Park and Museum. Its vast, open grassy lawn, once a “field-of-fire” for its redoubtable cannons is now a favorite destination for family outings and kite flying
The Castillo de San Cristóbal
Leaving El Morro behind, I take Norzagaray Street, the boulevard that now follows the top of the city wall to the Castillo de San Cristóbal. It offers a spectacular view of the colonial era Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and the colorful neighborhood of La Perla.
The Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Completed in 1785, it covers 27 acres (11 hectares) and soars to almost 150 feet (46 meters) above the water. Designed to guard agains land assault from the east, it is a tiered network of fortifications that would force invaders to face several defensive barriers before the fort could be breached. It is from here that the first shot of the Spanish-American War was fired in 1898. Access is much more peaceful today, and the ramparts offer glorious views of city, the piers and the ubiquitous El Morro.
From the Castillo, it’s a leisurely stroll back down to the pier, through the narrow back streets of the colonial town. I drift in and out of artisan shops and stumble into my most memorably experience of the day: I strike a conversation with a charming craftswoman who creates original jewelry from local beach glass. I step in, intent on picking up one of her delicate pieces to commemorate the day, and end up sitting on her stoop with the artist, Idalia Velazquez, sharing life experiences and thoughts on random subjects over a cup of coffee, as though we were long-lost friends.
It’s back to the ship after that. Tonight we set sails for the Leeward Islands.
Good to Know
- *In case you are wondering: The first permanent settlement in the New World was Isabella on the island of Hispaniola (in present-day Dominican Republic). Built in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, it was promptly decimated by disease and hunger. Columbus and his remaining men then built another town, which became Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital.
- Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
- At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.