Shore excursion to San Juan, Puerto Rico with Viking
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The cat/giraffe and the little shoes
Puerto Rico has a
somewhat unique status and relationship with the USA. Ceded to the USA in 1898
by the Spanish, it then became a self-governing commonwealth of the United
States in 1952. This unusual status means everyone born on the island is a US
citizen and the holder of an American passport, however, its residents are
ineligible to participate in US presidential elections (unless registered to
vote in one of the 50 states). In 2017 a non-binding referendum (oh yes not
only the UK have them) resulted in a majority vote to become a US state,
however, only 23% of potential voters took part. When and if their status will
change is something to watch out for on the news.
We visited San Juan on a Viking ocean cruise shore excursion with a local
guide. Our guide pointed out that Puerto Rico was declared bankrupt in 2017 but
incentives to US drug companies has seen the production of ‘over the counter’ pharmaceuticals
moving to Puerto Rico. As such most of the household names known by western
consumers are produced here.
Tourism is also an important area of income for the island, which is sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea to the south east of the USA. There was a pride in the arts and crafts produced on the island and we lingered over some beautifully carved tables and benches at a local cafe. Each item of furniture was a work of art and carved from a single piece of wood.
Castillo San Cristobal
is probably the most impressive sight in the old town and one of the largest
military complexes built by the Spanish in the Americas. In its heyday it was a
labyrinth of six interconnected forts, with 150ft walls on a 27-acre plot,
built to defend Spain’s colonisation effort which started in the 1500s. Fortunately
Alejandro O’Rielly (with Thomas O’Daly) that built it for the Spanish wasn’t
the O’Rielly out of Fawlty Towers and it still stands proudly overlooking the
Wandering amongst the
gaily painted houses and visiting the cathedral (built in 1540) we enjoyed the
colonial architecture of the old town (which boasts over 400 historically
listed buildings). Perhaps one of the most interesting is La Fortaleza and
indeed the street leading up to it. Dating from 1533 it was originally a
fortress but was overtaken by the aforementioned Castillo San Cristobal. Since then it has been
the home of the island governors for some 300 years and said to be the oldest
executive mansion in continuous use in the western hemisphere. The street that
leads up to the iron gates (that guard the complex) is regularly covered with
colourful umbrellas, making an eye catching (if not neck stretching) display. The
current installation celebrates a charity dedicated to helping children.
England was not
forgotten though as underfoot the blue hued cobblestones had been manufactured
and exported from Liverpool, where inclusion of iron and aluminium in the mix
produced the unusual colour.
There are some
intriguing characters in San Juan’s history, none less than Dona Felisa Rincon
De Gautier (San Juan’s first female Mayor) who is celebrated in Parque de las
Palomas. Initially our eyes were attracted to the hundreds of pigeons that
flapped in a feeding frenzy around a child with a handful of seed, reminiscent
of the old days in Trafalgar Square. Closer inspection of the grounds revealed
little bronze shoes on the floor at various spots. These are dedicated to Dona
Felisa and and Rafael Hernandez Colon, who provided shoes as part of their work
for the poor. Having no children of her
own she adopted (figuratively) the children of San Juan as her own and even
transported snow in by plane on one occasion so the local children could
experience playing with it at Christmas!
San Juan is no slouch
when it comes to interesting sculptures. The impressive sculpture of Columbus
that towers over the Plaza De Colon is a good example of the more traditional,
whilst the animal sculptures of Jorge Zeno represent the quirkier end of the
scale. In the little square across from the Cathedral you will find penguins in
a boat, a rooster and a cat/giraffe. The painted cow, ever present in most
cities, gets a quirky twist and some individualism by wearing a straw hat.
There was time before we returned to the Viking Sun for a gentle stroll down Paseo de la Princesa. The 19th century esplanade had a gentle feel, lined by trees, benches, food vendors, statues and antique streetlamps. Our effort to walk to the end was rewarded by the highly impressive Raices Fountain (Roots Fountain) depicting the island’s Taino, African and Spanish heritage.
We were told that there
were some pretty impressive beaches at the northern end of San Juan but sadly
we didn’t have time to visit, perhaps next time. As the port area had a
Wallgreens (very poplar chemist in the USA) it was time to pick up some
essentials, a skull and crossbones spade for the Grandchildren and skip past
the C.H.I.P.S style motorbike mounted port police back to the ship.
Silver Travel advisor
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