Puerto Rico gets such a bad wrap. In the last year and a half, you’ve probably heard that Puerto Rico has been “destroyed” by Hurricane Maria, and that US tax-payers are now “funding its reconstruction.” Presidential politics aside, my family arrived with very low expectations. In fact, we didn’t even mean to be here. But that’s a different story.
Last September (2018), we moved our family aboard a luxury performance catamaran. Permanently. We sold all of our belongings, cars, golf clubs and, pretty much, all our worldly possessions. We moved out of our home outside of San Francisco and into a 51-foot (approximately 300 square feet) sailboat. We have three young boys; between the five of us, and the three cabins, it was going to be a very tight fit. But worth it. Oh, so worth it.
Our plan was to “sail around the world.” Sounds cliché, and maybe we’ll make it all the way around, and maybe we won’t, because the real goal is just to spend time with our three boys before they become lost in their social standing as teenagers. But at ages 8 years, 7 years and 5 year, right now, we are their loving parents, and we want to soak up these years like the warm Puerto Rican sun and make them as unforgettable as possible. And, this is how we found ourselves in Puerto Rico.
We were trying to get to the Panama Canal, but, to get there from the Caribbean, we first had to travel West along the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and, finally, Jamaica before sailing South. None of these islands were on our “must see” itinerary but were, rather, convenient places to drop anchor along the way.
We sailed into the port of Old San Juan on Puerto Rico’s North shore and were first struck by the sheer size, and number, of historic forts. Nearly as intimidating was anchoring adjacent to the cruise ship terminal where mini-floating-skyscrapers appear and disappear with neigh a sound.
It’s an outstanding bay, and no wonder the Spanish held onto this highly valuable territory for as long as they could. Back in the age of European exploration (and pirates!), this was one of the few islands where ships could find ample fresh water; the island happened to be directly en-route to South America where the Spanish were helping themselves to boat-after-boat of gold. The Danish and the British tried several times to take this harbor, but the Spanish defenses easily held them back. It wasn’t until long after South America was depleted that the Spanish Navy’s decline allowed the U.S. to march in with a small land force and take the territory, permanently. I had always wondered how this, now, controversial territory had become part of the U.S….and now, we knew.
Walking around the forts were fun for all of us. The U.S. Park System has put their stamp of professionalism on the place. Your tour starts with an informative, 15 minute video. Afterward, we were left to explore the labyrinth of booby-trapped tunnels, moats, dungeons and cannon redoubts all to ourselves. For adults, the history and development of the fort, over time, was fascinating! For my kids, it was the ultimate storybook castle to explore and to allow their imaginations run rampant. Throw in a couple wild Iguana’s basking in the sun, perched vertically just out of arm’s reach, and you have a magical afternoon.
If history and forts aren’t quite your thing, but shopping and eating ARE, you’re in luck. Just outside the gates, and between the two sprawling forts, lies Old Town. Much like Nantucket’s cobblestoned streets, the brick roads through Old Town gives the city a feeling of being “lost in time”. The architecture is undeniably Spanish; it’s apparent that all of the buildings are on their way to complete restoration, although charmingly not quite there, yet. Where Nantucket feels almost artificial, Old San Juan still has crumbling second floors where the exposed brick is real, not proposed design to add character. This town oozes character, and it doesn’t need any help in doing so.
Another notable feature: the ridiculously friendly and happy locals! We have been to many islands in the Caribbean, and the locals are usually happy to take your money but, don’t really care much for the tourists. In Puerto Rico, we were routinely stopped by locals who spotted our family walking in the hot sun and kindly offered us a ride (it happened three times!). Our Uber drivers all spoke fluent English and shared with us their favorite parts of the city. Even the drivers are relaxed and we never heard a car horn despite several drivers that deserved (in my opinion) to get honked at! What a civilized place; I could get used to this culture.
Puerto Rican food is already famous for its twist on Spanish/Mexican flavors, so I won’t go into much detail beyond saying, “you should come here hungry”. Seafood rules the day, but like any large town, you can find pretty much anything you desire. It was odd for us to see American food chains, but it’s one of the few reminders that you are in an American territory. The heavy police presence is another one, but it’s wonderful to feel safe as you stroll this town at night. The lit water fountains and warm yellow lights of the street lamps remind you, yet again, that you’re not in Kansas!
Throw in a visit to the El Yunque National Forest and several world famous beaches, and surf breaks (like Rincon), and you suddenly need a week PLUS to explore this island. Add a professional baseball game to your itinerary if you can, and be sure to check when the local festivals are taking place. After all, we were only here because we “had to be.” But, what a pleasant surprise to find that our favorite island in the Caribbean was not one that we expected, nor one that we meant to visit. I have always thought the best travel experiences are the ones that come unexpectedly. Puerto Rico was beautiful, friendly, historic, tasty, safe and unexpectedly fantastic.
By Seth Hynes
Seth and his family are sailing around the world on their Outremer Catamaran named ‘Archer’. Currently in Panama, they have successful transited across the Canal and are headed West to the South Pacific. To learn more about their voyage, or to follow along, they post daily at www.the-sailing-family.com