We first visited El Yunque in the 1980's and I remember most vividly the lushly verdant and humid mountains as a stark contrast to the other parts of the island of Puerto Rico. Located approximately 40 km southeast of San Juan, El Yunque is the name derived from the Taino Indian spirit named "Yuquiye" which means "Forest of Clouds." The dominant peak of the Sierra de Luquillo mountain range is known as Pico El Yunque.
This forest of roughly 28,000 acres was originally set aside by King Alfonso XII of Spain in 1876 and is said to be the oldest reserved forest in the Western Hemisphere. El Yunque is said to be the rainiest of all the National Forests with up to 240 inches of rain per year!!
It is home to over 240 species of trees ( of which over 20 are known only to exist in El Yunque) plants, and flowers and home to the exceedingly rare and endangered Puerto Rican parrot, a small Amazon parrot with green, red, and blue plummage. Sources have said only 20 Puerto Rican parrots survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989!! Breeding programs have had some success restoring the population. Now as many as 50 other species of birds also know El Yunque as home territory.
El Yunque is administered by the U. S. National Forest Service and offers several visitor centers for maps, tours, and facilities. Check out Sierra Palm and Palo Colorado Visitor Centers for guides, tours and displays as well. General admission is $5; $3 for seniors and children 12 and under.
Our 5-year old twins had fun chasing the pigeons in this small Plaza Colon, also known before as St James Square or Plaza Santiago.
If you walk along San Juan, you notice some of the other Plazas undergoing some reconstruction. Plaza Colon seems to be the most visited as it is so well-located at the main entrance to Old San Juan – and the statue here honors Columbus who has been the attack of controversy as to who really “discovered” this part of the world.
We had been walking a lot through the humidity (coming from the Capitolio!), and so it was very nice to sit down in the shady grasses under the trees in this plaza.
UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!
I made a video of our short trip to Puerto Rico!
Hope you like this:
JUMPING FAMILY IN SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO!
This is a historical building in Old San Juan – built about 1832 but still with fresh yellow paint.
It was in 1976 when restoration was made for this theater which stands so close to the Plaza de Colon. It is named Tapia because Puerto Rico does have a famous playwright named Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (1862-82).
So, maybe you can grab a show here for one of their dramas, dances, musicals and so forth….
But for us, the main advantage of the Tapia is that this is the place where you can grab a taxi easily! There is a nice line and we had a great taxi driver who brought us back to our hotel and even gave us a Puerto Rico US quarter (25 cents)!
UPDATE! UPDATE! UPDATE!
I made a video of our short trip to Puerto Rico!
Hope you like this:
JUMPING FAMILY IN SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO!
La Princesa is San Juan's old penitentiary. It was built in 1837 and at one point there were a little over 200 prisoners held within its walls. The building has now been beautifully restored and it houses the headquarters of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. Inside you'll find some small exhibits, and it's also possible to see three cells at the back of the building that were kept in their original condition when the rest of La Princesa was restored. The inmates now tend to be pigeons - we even had to liberate one that had somehow managed to trap itself into one of the cells!
La Princesa is open to visitors free of charge from Monday to Friday, 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
Over the years, San Juan has turned into the top Caribbean destination for cruiseships. As you make your way down to the port and get a first glimpse of the gigantic white ships, you can't help but think that there couldn't be a more suitable name than "Puerto Rico" for this country! Of course, the area surrounding the port is very touristic - I couldn't help but laugh when I realized that the first thing most passengers see when they get off their ship to explore the city is a huge Señor Frog's restaurant! However, I thought it was worth walking around the port area just to take a look at the very impressive cruiseships and soak in the vibrant atmosphere along the piers. It's also where you'll find "La Casita", a cute yellow building originally built in 1937 for the Department of Commerce and Agriculture. It has now been restored and converted into a tourist information center.
While walking around the old streets and neighborhoods of San Juan, you'll undoubtedly notice the blue cobblestone streets in many places. These blue or bluish-gray cobblestones are known as "aquinos" and actually were brought to Puerto Rico as ballast for ships sailing from Spain. It almost appears as if they were glazed but I could not discover what they derive their blue color from --- whether a particular stone or what. In any case, they certainly are unique and add another hue to the already very colorful streets of Old San Juan !
During our first couple days in San Juan, everyone we met recommended two things: a trip to the El Yunque rainforest, and another to the bioluminescent bay of Fajardo, one of the six "bio bays" left in the world. We therefore booked a trip to Fajardo through our hotel's concierge with Las Tortugas Adventures. They picked us up at 4:15 pm, and it took roughly 1h30 to get to Fajardo because of the heavy traffic. Once we got there, we were greeted by our guide (I believe his name was Andres) who handed us life jackets and explained how the tour was going to work.
We got into a double kayak and followed the group (there were about 15 of us) down a mangrove river. It got so dark that you could only see the glowsticks at the front and rear ends of the other kayaks, and everybody got really quiet! The kayak ride down the mangrove river at night definitely was an experience in itself. When we got to the bioluminescent bay, our guide explained how the phenomenon works (basically, dinoflagellates are micro-organisms that glow when the water is disturbed) and got us to put our hands in the water to see it glow. The effect is really neat! We had about 20 minutes to paddle around the bay and play with the water until it was time to head back down the mangrove river. By that time it was pitch-black and we heard quite a few kayaks smash into mangrove trees! But as there is only about 3 feet of water, it's all very safe.
Our trip to the bioluminescent bay was such a unique experience, it remains my fondest memory of our trip to Puerto Rico!
If you order a drink with rum anywhere in San Juan, chances are you'll be served some Don Q Cristal or Don Q Gold. At the same time the Bacardi family was setting up its distillery in Cuba, the Seralles family started making rum at their sugar cane plantation located in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce. Even though Bacardi eventually moved its operations to Puerto Rico, it is still considered as somewhat of an outsider and a bit of a rival.
The Museo del Ron Don Q is located across the street from Pier #1, next to the tourist information center (closed on Thursdays). To be honest, I was a bit disappointed by what they had to offer. Admission is free, and visitors are invited to go on a self-guided tour to find out more about the history of Don Q rum by looking at a few interpretive pannels. Since the rum was named after Don Quijote, there is an eclectic collection of items related to the famous Spanish character, including an early edition of Cervantes's masterpiece.
At least the visit ended on a good note, with a free drink at the bar. Not that I know that much about rum, but I must say that Don Q is the best one I've ever tasted! It's got a nice flavour but no aftertaste, perfect for mixing with sodas or fruit juices, or you can even drink it on the rocks! So to sum it up, the museum was a bit of a disappointement, but not the rum :o)
As I was walking around Old San Juan, I couldn't help but think about the streets of my very own Vieux Quebec. Even though the architecture is quite different, the small, narrow streets, the walls around the city and the fort overlooking the bay, which could almost be compared to the Citadelle overlooking the St. Lawrence River, do make it seem like a Caribbean version of my hometown. So I had to smile when I came upon the only one of the original six gates of the city that still remains today. It is known as San Juan Gate, which of course translates as "Porte Saint-Jean" in French, which happens to be one of Quebec City's best known features. The other gates in San Juan disappeared when part of the fortifications were modified to make it possible for the city to expand beyond the walls, but la Puerta de San Juan still makes it possible to access the old city from the Paseo de la Princesa. The fortifications, along with El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal, are all part of the San Juan National Historic Site, one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites.
On the day we were in port and walking down one of the narrow streets in Old San Juan, we became slightly alarmed when we heard loud speakers, saw protesters marching, and saw police walking and on motorcycles coming our way. Some marchers were wearing masks! We were a little afraid we might get caught up in something and be in the wrong place at the wrong time! No need to worry....the police told us it was only Water Department workers protesting for higher wages!
While I was visiting San Juan, I got to go snorkeling for the very first time. I had a blast and picked it up very quickly. I was amazed at all the beautifully colored fish and plants that were coasting along the ocean bottom. I think my favorites were the yellow ones. There were some really pretty blue ones as well. Once I got the hang of how to breath and blow the water out of the tube, I began to dive to the bottom to collect shells and pieces of broken off coral. While I was snorkeling it began to rain, but that didn't stop me from exploring. One thing about snorkeling is being aware of where you are. Before I knew it, I was 50+ yards away from shore. You can either pay for one of those snorkeling adventures or go off on your own. We went on our own due to the expense of the trip, most were $50 or more for an excursion.
I guess the Centro de Estudios Avanzados de Puerto Rico y El Caribe isn't really a tourist attraction, but if you happen to walk by this post-graduate college as you are exploring the streets of Old San Juan, I'd recommend taking a quick look inside. The Centro de Estudios Avanzados offers some Master's and Doctoral programs specialized in Puerto Rican and Caribbean arts, literature and philosophy. When we walked into the beautiful main courtyard, a lady informed us that we were in fact in a university and she invited us to tour around the building on our own. We visited its library, chapel and some of its classroom, and it definitely made me wish I could have studied in such an amazing setting! The college itself dates back to 1832, and many prominent citizens have been educated there throughout the years, including the poet and playwright Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, also known as the father of Puerto Rican literature.
While we were walking to and from El Morro, Jason and I took note of the dozen of people, old and young alike, that were scattered across the lawn flying kites. I have to admit that I was halfway tempted to grab some little kids kite string and sprint down the hill myself. The sky was filled with all the beautiful colors and shapes of kites of all various sizes.
We saw a number of memorial statues on our tour. The first picture is the statue of Eugenio María de Hostos (The Citizen of the Americas), by José Buscaglia, commerates this famous Puerto Rican educator, philosopher, intellectual, lawyer, sociologist and independence advocate. I guess all the kids dancing on him is because he was a teacher. It is located in the plaza near Casa Blanca
The next two are of a man and woman in the San Juan suburbs, but I don't know anything else about them.
The statue of Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) is located in Plaza Colon, right by the Fort San Cristobal. Erected in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the his arrival in Puerto Rico (1493), the base depicts Columbus’ life
The last one is of Jesús T. Piñeron who was the first native Puerto Rican who served as governor. He was appointed by Harry S. Truman. He served as governor until 1949 when Puerto Rico celebrated its first election and Luis Muñoz Marín was elected governor. His hometown, Carolina had this monument sculpted by Jose Buscaglia Guillermety, in his likeness which is located in the entrance of the town
There are three forts in old San Juan, which have guarded for centuries access to the Bay and defended the City from the attacks of pirates, buccaneers and every other kind of enemies.
Of the three, "El Morro" and "El Cañuelo" protected against attacks from the sea, while "San Cristóbal" protected from land-based attacks. El Cañuelo, today just a bunch of ruins, is out of the beaten path and it is not worth reaching on purpose; still you can see the fort across the Bay from El Morro. The other two forts, El Morro and San Cristóbal are probably the best-preserved Spanish forts in the Caribbean and a must-see for visitors to San Juan.
Of the two, in my view San Cristóbal is more interesting as a military construction while El Morro, at the tip of the peninsula, affords more scenic views of the ocean and the Bay. Both forts were built in the heydays of the Spanish empire in the Caribbean, El Morro being the first to be built in the early 16th Century and San Cristóbal coming later in the early 17th Century. Both forts were continuously enlarged and fortified in the following centuries and used until WWII. The two forts are at a walking distance from each other and I recommend visiting both. In San Cristóbal you can visit the tunnel systems and a reconstruction of the troop barracks, while at El Morro just head straight away to the terrace and enjoy the view of the ocean and the entrance to the Bay. Both forts affords great views of the coastline, the Old Cemetery and the "prettiest slum in the world" La Perla.
You don't need to be an expert in military architecture to enjoy the forts in Old San Juan. Don't make the mistake of using the forts just like panoramic terraces and spend some time in understanding the techniques used to defend the city from the attacks of every kind of enemies. There are free guided tours at certain hours but even the leaflet they hand you at the entrance provide good guidance and information to the curious tourists.
In Nov 2008 one could purchase a ticket at either one fort for entrance to both for USD5.