{ The Streets of Old San Juan }

I wouldn’t categorize myself as a traveler. I love family vacations, having fun, seeing family that is far away, having little adventures, but when it comes to saying that I am “a traveler”-well, I would probably say I a more of a homebody. As we walked through the streets of Old San Juan though, I think my whole outlook changed. It was a case of not knowing what you were missing until you found it. I felt like I had stepped into a piece of old Europe for awhile-though in a “New World” kind of way. I felt like I had found this missing piece of me that I had longed for, but had never found. As we walked from building to building my mind wondered who lived there, what their life was like, and what if I lived there? I think I caught the traveling bug in a bad way..and I absolutely loved it.Old San Juan blog-1Old San Juan blog-6

I just love these balconies. I could picture myself sitting out there in the afternoons, watching people hustle and bustle in the streets below. I would see old friends passing by, who would stop to look up and we’d have a quick conversation on the newest produce at the market or the beautiful fish they saw while swimming at the beach. If I felt like it I would take a stroll down to grab some fresh flowers from the street vendor on the corner. He would know me by name, and would pull out a special bunch from the back of his cart that he had secretly saved just for me. His old aged hands would take the money from mine and he’d wink at the boys as he handed them the flowers to carry for me.

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We’d doddle home as the boys hopped from stone to stone on the cobblestone paved streets. They would stop and try to race their cars down the gutter, and probable giggle as they swerved from side to side on the wonky set stones. I would hold them up and we would try to see all the way to the bay. We’d count the boats we could see, and try to guess what it was they were bringing today.

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We’d see our neighbors on the walk back and walk back to our houses together-commenting on the weather, and the festival that was happening this weekend. We pass our favorite restaurant and say hi to the chef as we peaked our head in the front window-his shutters would be open of course letting in the late afternoon breeze. We make promises of a late night dinner, just Aaron and I soon, and the sweet smell from inside told me I wouldn’t let too much time pass by before I made that happen.

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The boys would skip along the gutter, and count the colorful doors as we passed each one. They would each pick their favorite for the day-Scott always blue and Ryan red. Mommy the blue one too, but sometimes it changes when I see the ones down Calle San Jose-those are always the best ones-so detailed.

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We decide to take a shortcut back to the house and pass by the old El Convento-no nuns here, just hotel guests enjoying an afternoon break in the lobby.

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Our shortcut brings us by a snow cone stand, and after squeals of delight I agree to one snow cone each-freshly shaven from a huge block of ice-the best way.

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Even with snow cones to keep them busy, the boys still spot the entrance to Parque de las Palomas (pigeon park) and try to convince me that the pigeons want some of their snow cones too. I hustle them along reminding them that daddy is soon to be home. We all quicken our pace-neighbors still in tow, as we wind through our street and make our way home.

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As night time approaches, Aaron and I sit out on the balcony again-listening to the kids from inside, tucked in bed but giggling about something. We enjoy the night time breeze that the ocean brings with it-it helps to melt away those hot noontime memories. We look down the streets which still house a host of guests enjoying a late night walk through the plaza. The music from the outside café fills the air, and we both agree we are living a pretty nice life.

Yes, traveling might be my new thing..at least in my dreams. Thanks Aaron for a wonderful trip, it really was amazing.

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{ San Jose Church and San Juan Cathedral }

The San Jose church is one of the earliest examples of 16th century Gothic Architecture in the western hemisphere. It was built from 1532-1735, and at one time housed the remains of the islands first governor, Juan Ponce de Leon. His remains were moved, but his grandson is still buried there in a crypt under the floor.

The outside of this church was simple and stately, and I’m sure the inside was amazing, unfortunately it was closed for renovations, so we weren’t able to take a peek inside.

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We moved on down the street to the San Juan Cathedral-the second oldest cathedral in the New World.

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The ceiling paintings were really cool to see-still can’t imagine painting all of that back in the 1500’s. Amazing.San Jose church and San Juan Cathedral blog-4

We were short on time, and found ourselves rushing through to be able to see as much as we could. After the fact we read that Juan Ponce de Leon’s remains were actually moved to here. We vaguely remember seeing a special alter and statue of sorts, but didn’t stop to look real close at it. Turns out it was his resting place. Note to self again-travel book to read beforehand.

{ Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery }

The Castillo San Felipe del Morr, also known as El Morro was named in honor of King Philip II of Spain, and was designed to guard the San Juan bay from seaborne enemies. The construction of the Castillo San Felipe del Morro began in 1539 when King Charles V of Spain authorized its construction, including the surrounding walls. The purpose was to defend the port of San Juan. It was also constructed to control the entry to the harbor. Construction started the same year with a tiny proto-fortress that was "completed" in 1589. This small section comprises perhaps 10% of the structure people see today. In 1587, engineers Juan de Tejada and Juan Bautista Antonelli designed the actual appearance of the castle following well established Spanish military fortification design principles. Similar Spanish fortifications of the 17th-18th centuries can be seen in Cuba, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Veracruz and Acapulco, Mexico, Portobelo and Panama City, Panamá,and many other Latin American locations which were governed as part of the Spanish Empire during the Age of Exploration. Many complex additional new structures were added to El Morro over the next 400 years. The outer walls are six meters thick.

In 1680, Governor Enrique Enríquez de Sotomayor begun the construction of the walls surrounding the city of San Juan, which took 48 years. By the late 18th century, El Morro's walls had grown to be 18 feet (5.5 m) thick. The castillo was part of the Four Lines of Defense along with the San Cristobal Castle, being the San Gerónimo fortress and San Antonio bridge the first line. Today El Morro has six levels that rise from sea level to 145 feet (44 m) high. All along the walls are seen the dome-covered sentry boxes known as garitas, which have become a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico itself. The El Morro or Port San Juan Light was built atop the castillo in 1843, but in 1908, it was replaced by the US military with the current lighthouse. The original lighthouse was destroyed by US warship fire during the 1898 bombardment of the city. Including the exterior open killing grounds, known as the glacis and esplanade, dominated by cannon in the 17th and 18th centuries, El Morro can be said to take up over 70 acres (280,000 m²).

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This cemetery that lays by the sea is the Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery. It was constructed in 1863, and is the resting place for many notable Puerto Rico natives and residents.

This cemetery was so beautiful with all it’s white headstones and with the backdrop of the blue ocean behind it. The headstones and statues inside were pretty amazing to see. I don’t think there were any that were simple or too plain. It made you feel how important those individuals were to the loved ones they left behind. They had the cemetery blocked off to the public, but the views from above were just as good.Fort El Morro and Cemetery San Juan blog-2Fort El Morro and Cemetery San Juan blog-3Fort El Morro and Cemetery San Juan blog-4

The cemetery lies just outside the walls of the city, with the El Morro fort just to the west of it.

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{ Plaza Colon }

Across the street from the government Reception Center was a small plaza-The Plaza Colon (with an accent over the second “o”, which I can’t figure out how to type). It had a statue of Christopher Columbus, and was built to honor him on the 400th anniversary of him landing in Puerto Rico.

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…more to come later.

{ Government Reception Center }

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As we drove into Old San Juan I noticed this amazing building with all this great architectural design on it. It was a casino at one time, but now is the Government Reception Center and serves as a hall for government banquets and balls. It was closed to the public, but luckily we were able to take some great pictures of the grounds. You can see the fort in the background-this was just a block south into the city.

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I was in love with all the detail they had. Wouldn’t it be great if they still built buildings like this? Love the circle windows.

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This marque was out front displaying the crest of Puerto Rico.

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I am obsessed with lots and lots of windows (the photographer in me craving the natural light I suppose), so I naturally was feeling the need to move right into this place. Check out all those french doors and big windows. I would have loved a step inside-but unless I get invited to a Puerto Rican ball anytime soon, I’ll have to drool from a distance. I love the balconies they had built all around as well. What a spectacular view that would be looking out to the piers.

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{ Old San Juan Fort San Cristobal }

We spent Thursday taking a self guided tour of Old San Juan. There is so much history here, and such beautiful buildings and cobblestone streets, after leaving I felt like I needed at least another day and a half to take it all in. We took a shuttle from our resort that morning, and as we drove into San Juan we were somewhat grateful after seeing the horrendous traffic there. My feeling of avoiding the traffic were a bit diminished when we realized that we only had about 3 1/2 hours left to tour the whole city. We didn’t realize there was so much to see in this 7 block by 7 block area. We decided on the self guided tour so we could wander as we would like, and after our great tour guide to the rainforest gave us a wonderful history lesson on the bus ride that day, we felt like the rest we could see on our own. Looking back, I realize how much more I should have read up on beforehand because we still missed a lot of things. Note to self, bring good travel guide book next time.

Puerto Rico means “rich port” and was one of the stops that Christopher Columbus made on one of his seven voyages to the Americas. He stopped here in 1493 where he was met by the native Indians called the Tainos, and named the island San Juan Bautista after the Saint John the Baptist. In 1508 Juan Ponce de Leon founded the original settlement of Caparra, which is a settlement west of the current day San Juan. In 1509 the settlement was abandoned and moved to the present day San Juan area. They called the town Puerto Rico in 1521, and then later changed the name to San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico, which after much confusion they finally named the town San Juan, and the island Puerto Rico.

San Juan, as a Spanish settlement, was used by merchant and military ships traveling from Spain as the first stopover in the Americas. Because of its prominence in the Caribbean, a network of fortifications was built to protect the transport of gold and silver from the New World to Europe. Because of all the riches, San Juan became a target of the foreign powers at the time.

One of our first stops in Old San Juan was to see Castillo de San Cristobal, a Spanish fort built to protect against land based attacks against San Juan. It is the largest fort built by the Spanish in the New World and when it was finished in 1783, it covered nearly 27 acres and basically wrapped around the whole city of San Juan. After about a hundred years of peace in 1897, about a third of it was demolished to help ease the flow of traffic in the area. What was left was amazing to walk through. A view from the Plaza Colon looking out at the fort.

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The fort is now one of the San Juan National Historic sites, and was open for us to tour through. The outside fort wall, and stairs to a lookout on the top of the wall.

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The opening into a part of the fort. It was super dark in there even with the addition of a few modern lights. It was crazy to think how pitch black it would have been at some times in there, especially in some of the dungeons.

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There were original wall drawings there, that had been beautifully preserved, of the ships of Columbus during his voyages. It happened to be in one of the dungeons that were there, which was a little creepy, but also quite amazing that such drawings had lasted and were in such great shape.

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There were multiple levels and lookouts all over the fort. We wandered around, popping in and out of the many towers and hideouts. No matter where you were though, the views facing the ocean were beautiful. The fort was built up on a cliff with a great view so as to spot any ship from a far ways out. It was built in such a way that no ship would be able to dock and take over the city. Here is the roof top level looking out to the sea.

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And behind us looking into the city of San Juan. You can see in the distance the piers in the bay where ships can dock and unload goods, or stop at port like the cruise ship there.

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All on top of the fort were these thick walled walkways that led from one part of the fort to another. As we were walking along I had a hard time imaging someone building this without any modern machines like we have, everything was just so massive. You can sort of see how thick the walls were and how they got thicker as the wall went down to the ground. They would have big cutouts in the wall to fit a cannon through and still have large amount of wall before the edge. I think the wall in those areas were almost 8 feet wide.

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A tower that was located seaside. You can see the tiny long slits that were located in the wall for them to have as lookouts. These happen to be vertical slits, but some of the ones built later were long horizontal slits they could fit their guns through.

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Some views of Old San Juan out of the other lookouts. Absolutely gorgeous. I think I would have liked the job of being a lookout had I lived back then-though I am sure I would have been lost in thought as I gazed out over all of this. I can see why the Spanish wanted this land-so beautiful.

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The tower in the right side of this picture is the one we were standing in. The walls that were built down to the ocean were crazy steep.Not an edge you would want to fall off of. It made it almost impossible for anyone to attack the fort from landing on the shore and trying to climb the wall.

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Down one level from the roof was a courtyard level that had beautiful arched corridors that surrounded it, and doors that led to various rooms. The middle courtyard was used for training of the soldiers and served as a local meeting area. LOVE that old patina on the side of the walls, and all the old doors and shutters.

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