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Heading to Puerto Rico and a day in Old San Juan

After two years of what felt like I was trapped in Florida due to the Covid-19 pandemic, as I was recovering from my various medical issues in the last half of 2021, I began planning trips for 2022. As ever, the focus of my trips would be to continue to visit and photograph cathedrals as I either went to new places or returned to favorites.

Trip number one for the new year would take me to the Commonwealth Territory of Puerto Rico, and then I would board a Norwegian Cruise Line ship, the Epic, for a 6-island cruise with no sea days. I had visited Puerto Rico in 2000 with my youngest brother Bill, as we visited our mother and step-father who had been snowbirds in the San Juan suburb of Carolina for a decade. During that trip, I’d taken a picture (on film) of the cathedral in Ponce, on the southern coast. Further research found seven more for me to see.

Being my first trip post-pandemic, I wanted to limit my time in airports and aboard planes, so I booked a non-stop on JetBlue from Tampa to San Juan. My former neighbor Nancy is still taking passengers to the nearby airports, so she collected me on Tuesday morning and we got to Tampa International two and a half hours ahead of my 10am flight. The prior Sunday I’d had a PCR test, with a negative result, as Puerto Rico required such for entry. Vaccination cards, test results, local address with arrival and departure information were all uploaded to their site, with an app, Sara, checking in daily for any change of symptoms. Because of this preparation, once I collected my luggage at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, I breezed through the exit process and headed to car rental.

Picking up the car rental was initially confusing: there is a pickup area for “off brand” car rentals, and tucked into a corner, a large room with national agencies. Fortunately, I’d picked National, and only had one person in front of me. After confirming the contract and giving them all sorts of ids, I was sent upstairs to select a car. Any car. I pushed/pulled the roller around until I found the smallest on the floor. At the checkout kiosk, after mentioning that the car was dirty, I was comp’d a tank of gas! Google Maps was having issues, so I switched to Waze which prompted me to my “hotel” in the suburb of Santurce. I think I only missed two turns and went down one short street the wrong way, but I found the address.

The Tropicalia is an unstaffed “hotel.” Apparently, they had sent email instructions explaining the access to a lockbox, but as the booking was through an online agency, that email never made it to me. Fortunately, a cleaning crew exited while I was getting ready to call the agency, and she called her boss, who called me back, got my email, sent me instructions. In the meantime, I had the keys from the cleaning person, and was pulling the bag over a traprock walkway with pavers. My rental car was off on the street, as there wasn’t the parking that the listing had indicated.

Poured concrete box: that was my assessment of my lodgings: Studio 1R. A full height glass French door provided most of the natural light, and the floor, ceiling and walls were barely finished concrete. A queen bed sat on the box spring on the floor at the far end, with small end tables. A clothing rack tacked onto the wall for the shower and bathroom. A twin bed was to the left of the entry under a TV screen, opposite a high counter with a toaster, non-functional coffee pot, a kettle and a microwave. The bathroom had the smallest sink area I’d seen, and the shower was pipes attached to the wall, with no curtain. Yes, I was underwhelmed.

With nowhere else to unpack, I left the suitcase open on the twin bed, and hung some clothes on the rack. A small bar refrigerator had plastic trays of mini-ice cubes, so I filled a glass with ice and water, and sat to write in the journal.

There is an hour time difference from Florida’s Eastern Standard Time, which held for the whole trip. The neighborhood I was in is rundown, and I really wasn’t feeling overly comfortable. I decided to use the daylight to explore, and walked to the end of the block to Calle Loíza, turning right to head to Walgreens, where I found nothing appealing. Google Maps indicated a wine tasting shop, but when I was there, they only hosted prearranged groups; I picked up a slightly fizzy white to drink in the room. Back to the corner, I entered a small market where I picked up a watch band for one watch I had which needed a replacement. (It was the wrong size, and I didn’t have the right tools anyway.) I picked up cheese, bread, salami, bananas.

Returning to the room, I began plowing through emails, sitting on the stool by the microwave. I opened the wine, sipping while nibbling on toasted bread with the cheese and salami. I had to adjust the room AC unit, as it was set to 63°F on arrival – I put it at 78°. Not feeling the need to have dinner, I read on my reader and eventually crashed. One thing I’d noticed: nearly everyone wore their mask, indoors and out.

Wednesday I had planned two walking tours in Old San Juan, booked through Viator, and to visit both of the cathedrals there. After checking and seeing that I’d have a 7 kilometer walk to the first tour’s starting point, I got in the rental and drove to Old San Juan and found a parking garage to leave the car for the day. Our meeting point was a Starbucks and I was early, so I walked up a slight hill to Plaza Colon and found a local coffee shop, Caficultura. With an iced latte and a bagel with lox,capers and creamed cheese, I returned a bit tardy for the start of the 10-person tour with David. Couples from Ft. Lauderdale and New Jersey, and a group of 5 black women from NY and DC.

The tour was somewhat eclectic, with a focus on the old city walls that protected the western half of the island. From Starbucks we went to the Plaza Colon to view the Old Casino of Puerto Rico, the Teatro Tapia and the fort Castillo San Cristobal. Heading west down Calle de San Francisco, we stopped in the Church of St Francis of Assisi, a parish church with pale blue and white interior walls and a stunning altarpiece. We were shown the stairs to the undercroft, but not permitted to descend.

As we continued walking on the cobblestoned streets, David pointed out the former houses of ill repute, explaining that as a port, the sailors would spend their wages on booze and broads, while the wealthier would visit the casinos and bordellos.

Having just celebrated the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of San Juan, it was important that we visited the church and hacienda of Ponce de Leon, the governor who move the defenses of the port to the island. The Iglesia de San José was closed, but we were able to walk the grounds and gardens of Casa Blanca. Great views of the bay!

Walking past numerous old governmental and military buildings, now repurposed as schools and museums, we stood at the Plaza del Quinto Centerio and the brick-tiled totem pole to gaze out towards the old fort, the San Felipe del Morro Castle, now a National Park.

[My great grandfather Cyrus was part of the assault of this fort with the Rough Riders and Teddy Roosevelt during the Spanish-American War. His souvenir, a sword from a dead Spaniard, is a family treasure.]

Descending down to the lower walls of the Battery, we walked through a park with huge banyan trees, along the wall walk. David took some delight in pointing out the “cat hotel”, a hostel for the feral cats that populate the park. Volunteers feed and care for these strays, neutering those that need it.

With the Casa Blanca above us, we rounded a corner and came upon the governor’s mansion, where a Spanish ensign flew with the US and Puerto Rican flags – King Felipe VI of Spain was concluding his visit that morning. Below the ramparts, a gate on the rocky beach opened to a steep street which climbs to the cathedral. The sailors David had told us about would first, upon reaching land, climb to the cathedral to give thanks to God before going off to spend their wages.

Along Caleta de San Juan, the hill route to the church, sits a former convent, El Convento, where unwed female children where sent. It had been purchased by a hotel chain, upgraded and renovated, and is now one of the jewels of Old San Juan.

Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista

Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista sits at the top of a set of stairs facing a heavily wooded park. Our tour only walked past it, but I knew I’d return. We walked to the corner, turned left and approached the Plaza de Armas, a historic town square, spiffed up for the tourist visitors. The buildings around the square were all gleaming and bright, the park was clean with few buskers or trinket sellers, and I really like the old telephone building. The tour ended here.

Retracing my steps, I began my serious photo taking of the Catholic cathedral. Pale yellow with white trim, statues stand over the corner entrances, while above the main two levels more stand with a cross at top. After a temperature check and a squirt of disinfectant gel, I was allowed into the nave. The central aisle continues the white and light yellow palette, with added gold filigree in the arches and in the ceiling vault. Domed at the crossing and painted in trompe l’oeil, the center has a lantern allowing light to enter. The cathedra sits behind the main altar, in a recess for the choir, I suspect, made of what looks like gold burnished dark wood. With chapels under half-domes at the transept, statues of saints lined the walls in niches. [Along with trying to photograph the cathedra when I visit a cathedral, I have also taken to studying each church’s Stations of the Cross, usually photographing the thirteenth one, the Descent from the Cross. Here, there are two sets of stations, the traditional, and a 2015 set where the 13th is labeled La Vigilia, and is part of the Stations of the Resurrection. Something new for me, these devotionals celebrate the 50 days from Easter to Pentecost.]

Did you know there were two San Sebastiáns? I was familiar with the legend of the Roman soldier who was shot with arrows for refusing his Emperor. His legend has apparently been transmuted to the New World, where the representation is of the jungles and animals of the tropical Western Hemisphere. He is patron saint of archers and athletes, and protector against plagues. A painting in the cathedral of this American St Sebastian will be sold to provide funds for the upkeep and restoration of the building.

Just after noon, I decided that I would walk the 6km to the Episcopal cathedral. Diverting to the parking garage, I relieved myself of the tripod, umbrella and large bottle of water, and slung my backpack through both armbands and proceeded easterly. Avenida de la Constitución is a major artery once outside the Old San Juan Walls, multi-laned and sometimes separated by a blockof buildings or park.

It took me by the territorial capitol building, with the representations of the 9 presidents who had visited Puerto Rico since become a territory in 1898, Also across from the capitol is the Holocaust memorial, a moving sculpture. A bit further on was the Home of Our Lady of Providence, an orphanage and school associated with the San Agustin church and school next door.

When I reached the Luis Muñoz Rivera Park, I crossed from the shady sidewalk to walk under the trees. A pair of bridges forked in front of me: to the north would take me slightly longer, but by the Condado Beach, or sticking with the major road, through Miramar. I took the latter, and was surprised to find a black-and-white drawing (graffiti?) under an overpass.

Seventy-five minutes into the walk (which was Google Maps’ estimate), I stopped at Los Pinos Café. I figured I was about half way, and I wasn’t really hungry, but I wanted fluids and a restroom, so ordered the chicken breast meal. It turned out to be deep fried breaded chicken tenders, with steamed broccoli, carrots and cauliflower. My polo was soaked, and I enjoyed the respite of being off my feet. The meal was passable, as I only had about half the meat.

Catedral Episcopal San Juan Bautista

Among the interesting buildings I passed, usually set back and behind iron fencing, was the synagogue, and a big church-like building that was being used as a school. When I got to the Catedral Episcopal San Juan Bautista, both it and the adjoining school were closed. I entered the church offices next door to see if there was some way to gain access, and failed. Interestingly, the south-facing wall that borders the avenue had only an octagonal window. Between what appears to the nave and the school courtyard (and cathedral access) was a single belltower. Painted a very light gray with white trim, it is a handsome building from the outside.

Nearly three o’clock, I had an hour before the second walking tour began. I saw no taxis, and the office was unaware of a taxi stand, so I called for an Uber. The driver picked me up for the reverse ride to Plaza Colon, and barely said two words to me – he had a brief call from his spouse, I suspect, but dropped me quickly and efficiently. I wanted a draft beer, to while away a half hour and be off my feet, but none of the establishments with pulls had anything resembling craft beer, which would suit me.

Our group of three was met by Juan Carlos, who focused his tour on island history, particularly the original indigenous tribes. James from Philadelphia, Debbie from Nashville and I were frequently left behind, walking faster than we’d like to catch up to JC. He did have connections, as we were able to enter the St Joseph Church we’d been denied on the earlier tour.

This, despite a wedding taking place and the church reaching closing time, was special, as we were able to climb down steep steps into the crypt! Our path was similar to the earlier tour, so I was taking fewer pictures (also probably due to exhaustion.) JC explained the statue of the bishop and the folks holding torches, located on the promontory overlooking the governor’s mansion. It seems that the bishop had his flock bring lighted torches to the port, which fooled the threatening pirates into believing a large defense force awaited them.

As he moved to conclude the talk, we walked along the southern wall, and he pointed out a rather narrow residence. I don’t think it was wide enough for a twin mattress. At the Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, the twelve images of old gods representing the virtues. I had called Juan Carlos out for repeatedly referring to Puerto Rico as a country, but he brushed my correction aside and persisted.

As it was getting dark and I had to drive to the flat, I returned to the garage to collect the rental and had the Garmin direct me back. I found a spot on the street and went in to chill for a bit. Out and down the street, I walked into La Cueva Mar with the intent to have seafood. Starting with a bottle of Magna, I ordered Paella Campera: con cerdo, pollo, longaniza, chorizo, jamon. I suspected it came with a salad, and there was a side of lettuce topped with a tomato slice and carrot shavings along side the bowl of beans. The paella was filling, particularly tasty when I added the green salsa, and I wound up leaving the pork pieces, as they just didn’t appeal to me. I had a second beer, and then a patron at the next table sent me a third.

Back at my studio, I pulled out my Chromebook and camera, and the equipment I needed to download photos and back them up. Once that task of putting them on the hard drive and a flash drive was completed, I began tackling email, and checking on my plans to visit two cathedrals to the west and get the PCR test I would need for the cruise. The neighborhood was fairly quiet, and I was able to rest well.

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