Usually, my blog posts especially when writing about holidays abroad are fairly lengthy, capturing several days at a time at a specific destination. This trip is very different as the Friend-Bartlett family embarked on a 22-day cruise over Christmas and New Year on board the Viking Sea taking in the Caribbean islands and the Amazon river through Brazil.
This is our first voyage, but as many veteran cruisers will know, your time in port is more often than not, brief, sometimes even just a few hours. With that in mind, these posts are going to be about how we got the flavour of each destination.
We flew from Heathrow to San Juan via Miami and met the boat on Tuesday evening. This gave us all of Wednesday. The Viking team has a number of organised excursions to help you quickly find your feet. We went port side at 12.15pm and had to be back on the boat by 5pm. So here’s what we did in 240 minutes…
Walking tour of Old San Juan
Our walking tour of Old San Juan took us through the main square where the Christmas tree was up. Puerto Ricans also celebrate King’s Day which marks the arrival of the three kings to baby Jesus. Our guide, Jose, explained that children are given gifts on both Christmas day and King’s Day, but often, they’ll be given in component parts – so you’ll get the PlayStation at Crimbo, but will need to wait a few days before the games arrive.
The main part of our walking tour was to take in Fort Cristobel. Christopher Columbus apparently discovered Puerto Rico on the day dedicated to St John the Baptist, November 19th, in 1493, and the island was originally known as ‘San Juan’ with the port known as ‘Puerto Rico’ or the golden port. At some point in history, the two reversed. When Columbus arrived, he was greeted by the indigenous people, known as Taíno. In 2010, the US census showed over nine thousand people identified as Taíno, descendants of those who survived colonisation, European diseases and intermarried.
The Spanish started building a fort complex, known as El Morro, across the peninsula following attacks by other tribal chiefdoms. Fort Cristobel was begun in 1552 and also withstood several attacks from other seafaring nemeses including Francis Drake in 1595, Earl of Cumberland in 1598 who came over land and finally the Dutch in 1625. Not a single one took the fort – with its 20ft thick walls and 150ft above sea level. In fact, 2017’s terrible hurricane season barely scratched it.
We walked from Saint Cristobel toward the Catedral Metropolitana Basílica de San Juan Bautista, or in English, Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist, which houses the tomb of Ponce de Leon, the Spanish settler and first governor of Puerto Rico. It also has a shrine to the first person born in the Caribbean to be beautified (or the first step to sainthood) Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago.
Our last walking tour stop was the Governor’s Mansion all decked out for Christmas. The street leading up to the mansion currently features an art installation with multi-coloured umbrellas creating a street canopy, recognising 2017’s challenges following the extreme hurricane season.
Mojitos and mofongo
At the end of the road, we stopped for a mojito, effectively the official drink of Puerto Rico. Bacardi moved its operations from Cuba once the revolution started to Puerto Rico in the 1960s. By now we had about 90 minutes left in San Juan and I was quite desperate to try Mofongo, the island’s signature dish of mashed plantain with chicken, shrimp or skirt steak. We got a couple of plates between us and a took a bottle of hot sauce home for good measure.
So there we have it – 240 minutes in Puerto Rico!