Castillo San Felipe Del Morro, Humidity and Pina Coladas
On our second full day in Puerto Rico, we woke up a little earlier in order to have a full day to explore as much of Old San Juan as we could. My inner history geek was excited to see the old forts that guarded the port, the colorful walls that the old part of the city is known for and to get my hands on an authentic pina colada, which were invented in Puerto Rico!
Uber just started operating in Puerto Rico about a year ago, and it's quickly become one of the best ways to get around the island. It's a lot cheaper than taking a taxi, and there are plenty of drivers available within the San Juan area. We picked up a ride from our apartment and got dropped off right at the entrance to our first stop - Castillo San Felipe del Morro (or 'El Morro' for short).
Castillo San Felipe del Morro is the 16th century fortress and citadel that overlooks the city of San Juan. It was named after King Phillip II of Spain and built to protect the then-Spanish colony of Puerto Rico from any seaborne attacks.
Construction on El Morro began in 1539, with additions being added for the next 400 years. It was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 and is now one of the island's top tourist attractions. With all the history surround this citadel, there was no way I was going to pass up exploring it and learning a little bit more about the stories and lives of the people who built it and lived in it.
Castillo del Morro is operated and run by the U.S. National Parks service, and the entrance fee is only $5. That fee gets you into both El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal, which is connected by about a 20 minute walk. Your ticket is also good for a week, which should tell you a little bit about just how much there is to explore. We spent a day at each El Morro and San Cristobal and didn't see every single thing.
Castille San Felipe del Morro is immediately impressive, and it's not surprising to learn that this fortress withstood attacks from invaders for centuries against the British and Dutch, among others. The only attack to ever succeed came from none other than the United States in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Even then, it took the third try before the U.S. could bombard the fortress enough to take over the city. When the war ended, Spain ceded ownership of Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba and the Philippines over to the United States.
The walls are monumentally thick, tall and definitely look like they could take an impressive beating. These fortresses were made to last, and it's clear that they've done their job.
We just happened to watch the original Pirates of the Caribbean film while staying in Puerto Rico (thanks, Netflix!), and it made the experience of exploring these forts a little more entertaining since it's citadels and cities like this that appear in the background of a good portion of the film.
As well as A LOT of room to explore, there are also plenty of awesome exhibit rooms that show what life was like through the centuries for the guards that occupied the fortress. It's hard to imagine wearing all that armor and having to stand guard out in the heat and humidity day after day without any air conditioning - not to mention being thousands of miles away from your home in Spain.
You quickly realize that it is, indeed, the perfect spot for a giant fort. The views go on endlessly and there aren't any obstacles or blind spots to worry about. But there are a lot of stairs. Lots of stairs.
It will easily take you a few hours to really explore and enjoy everything that this enormous structure has to offer. Since there isn't any air conditioning at this fort (there is at San Cristobal), make sure to bring a hat and plenty of water. I went through a large bottle of water and two Gatorade bottles from the gift shop just while here, so that's not including the Coke I had when we went to lunch.
You can buy water or Gatorade from the small gift shop, but they go pretty fast and have to be refilled often, which can mean that you might not be getting a very cold drink. Come prepared with some cold water. Something like a Hydro Flask or insulated water bottle is a wise investment.
After about an hour or so of walking around, I was low on blood sugar and starting to feel the need for some food. I also kind of wanted to sit down for a little while to let my back breathe a bit since carrying around 15 lbs of camera equipment can get a little tiring. We wandered over to Old San Juan and found a little place that turned out to be fantastic.
Puerto Rico is the birthplace of Pina Coladas, so we took advantage of that and ordered a few uniquely flavored empandas to go with the drink. I went for sweet plantain and chicken with a guava sauce, and it turned out to be one of my favorite things on the whole trip. Since it had been a long day, I also treated myself to a Nutella and marshmallow empanada that hit the spot.
After eating and a bathroom break, we were feeling decently rejuvenated. We spent a few minutes checking out the old Ballaja military barracks across from El Morro. This place was built in the mid 1800s to house Spanish soldiers and their families. Today, it's an art museum with several exhibits from local artists.
Before going to finish El Morro, we explored more of the gorgeous buildings of Old San Juan. There are some great shops around, but just seeing the colorful walls and even seeing the old church (the second oldest in the Caribbean!) makes it totally worth it. I was too and not dressed well enough for any cute Instagram pictures, but I saw a lot of people getting some great photos!
The last major thing we did that day was walk along the wilderness trail along El Morro. There, you can find iguanas, enjoy the beauty of the lush greenery and the breeze of the ocean and take in some of the best views of Old San Juan.
Before catching an Uber back to our apartment, I got to try the parcha (passion fruit) ice cream that I kept hearing so much about. I had two scoops of parcha and one of coconut, and let me tell you, it was definitely one of the highlights of the day.
For dinner we went to a local store and got some fresh fruit to enjoy. Avocados, papaya and a lot of local pastries that were the perfect end to a great day full of exploration.
A final note:
Puerto Rico is currently in the path for one of the largest recorded hurricanes, Hurricane Irma. I considered not talking about my adventures there since I don't know what the possibility is of anyone being able to experience it themselves in the near future. I decided, however, to continue with talking about Puerto Rico because I think it's important for people to understand why they should help.
Not just because it's human decency to do what you can for those in need all over the world, but because Puerto Rico is a beautiful place with some of the kindest people I have ever met. I made friends there; friends whose numbers and contact info are in my phone, friends who we had hour long conversations with about family, life and politics. I got to know them, and through them I got to know more of Puerto Rico. It breaks my heart that they are in a state of emergency.
I want to share my experiences because I wish for others to understand why we need to help and perhaps to feel more of an inclination to do so. Rest assured, all my prayers and thoughts are with the citizens of that beautiful island, as well as with everyone else in the Caribbean and Florida that may be affected by this disaster.