75ish degrees in December? Check. Quaint, narrow streets and pastel-splashed colonial buildings? Check. Awe-inspiring glimpses into colonial Caribbean history? Check. Mountainside neighborhoods plunging into spectacular oceanfront promenades and beaches? Check. The sounds of an exotic language and scents and tastes of an exotic cuisine, right here at home? Check. A magnificent harbor dotted with the grandest of cruise ships to the smallest of sailboats, basking in the luxurious warmth of the December sun and floating on glistening pastel blue waters? Check. San Juan, Puerto Rico is a beautiful winter escape from the continental U.S. No passport required… and no parka required. Enjoy a piping hot chicken empanada as you stroll down a cobbled street gazing at the pastel hues of architecture from another era and you may as well be a million miles away.
We stopped here before catching the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship’s Southern Caribbean itinerary, sailing out of San Juan. This city is well worth exploring before or after a cruise out of the port. San Juan is busy rebuilding after hurricane season, and tourist dollars are a big help – so do not let the damage reports deter you. Outside of the tourist areas there are neighborhoods where power has not yet been restored, and some buildings show damage. But for the most part the city is vibrant and restored, and glorious to behold. Taking a cruise out of San Juan? Do not overlook this port during your travel adventures. Sick of snow, bulky layers, and scraping ice off your windshield? Ditto. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is an easy visit for U.S. citizens – so you can focus on all of the things you’d like to see and do here instead of the red tape you need to overcome to get here!
The above photo shows the view from the top of the fort in Old San Juan, meticulously maintained by the National Park Service. This is an absolute must-see stop for any visitor to San Juan. You’ll feel like a kid again, curiously advancing through dark tunnels and running up stairs to the top of this imposing structure eager to see how high it goes, and imagining bearing down against pirates and imperial powers alike in a real-life, super-cool fort! A short film will introduce you to the history of the fort and the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico, and then wander the grounds where you will find the barracks, a dungeon complete with colonial-era graffiti (!), pop-marked outer walls given their character from repeated attacks in colonial days, and utterly magnificent views over the entire city.
The National Park Service has clearly gone to tremendous care to restore and maintain this breathtaking landmark. Surrounded by history, and unencumbered by droves of tourists during the off-season, you are transported back in time. The fort is also surprisingly accessible for older visitors and those who may have mobility issues. An elevator transports you up to the level of the main square, and benches are available throughout to take a breather and reflect. For the disabled, admission is also free. (It’s $7 for everyone else – money well spent to help with preservation.)
I hope that you too have had or will have the chance to visit this delightful city – preferably in the winter when, if you are like me, you’d really rather not be getting buried in snow – and heavy layers of clothing – at home! Should you visit, you are sure to say “Hasta luego!” (until later) rather than goodbye when you regrettably have to leave. (Don’t forget you pack your shorts and t-shirts!) More on our cruise through the Southern Caribbean coming soon!