Last week I told you of our recent Caribbean cruise. Our trip gave us the opportunity to visit six different islands during our 12 day trip. Our first guide explained to us there are 700 islands in the chain. Cuba is the largest with almost 41,000 square miles. On our trip, the first island we visited was Puerto Rico. It is the fourth largest with land area of 3435 square miles.
Our visit coincided with a large island celebration. It was also the day the 12th Governor of the Islands officially was being seated. Ricardo Antonio Rossell, the new governor, has a background in science before being elected to his new position. Before being elected, he worked in research in stem cell medicine. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth linked with the United States. It is self-governing and prides itself on its culture and historical heritage. Our guide told us they are a part of America in most ways, with the exception they do not have the right to vote for our president or pay federal taxes. But, he did go on to explain they have a significant tax system in place for the country.
As we toured the old city, we passed the capital building as the new governor was officially taking office. Surrounding the building on all sides, the steps were lined with dozens of police officers in white uniforms. The streets were blocked and heavily congested with cars and people. Still, with all the confusion, our guide drove his bus in seemingly impossible conditions. He managed to explain about his city as he drove through the craziness in the streets.
The old section of town had thousands of people attending the city’s many celebrations. Old San Juan is the capital, and the island’s government is located in a large white marble building nearby. It is in, what I believe to be, the oldest part of the city. The area is surrounded by the history of the old Spanish city that is evident in the many beautifully maintained buildings. Nearby, two forts built by the Spanish empire more than 478 years ago stand watch, still guarding the city’s northern approach from the Atlantic. The first fort’s construction began in 1539. Fort San Cristbal today is overseen by the National Parks Services.
San Juan is a busy city with beach front hotels on one side of the island. Beautiful white sandy beaches and hotels face the Atlantic. On the southern side, the sea port busily unload cargo to keep the island functioning. Like all the islands in the Caribbean everything must be shipped in by cargo vessels. You can see a constant movement of ships coming and going.
I asked our guide what was the biggest business on the island. Without hesitating, he said, “Pharmaceutical companies.” He explained that more than 45 companies called the island home for their research and development businesses. He also explained they are here because they do not have to pay American Taxes. Not only do the companies benefit the island’s economy, but they also brought in highly skilled doctors and scientists who work to develop new drugs. He explained they are the highest paying jobs on the island.
As we passed a gas station, someone asked about the price. He explained they purchased gasoline by the liters. About 78 a liter. That makes it comparable to about what we pay per gallon. It was evident gas was not overly expensive because of the large numbers of cars and trucks on the congested road ways.
Later, as evening came on in the old city, Mary and I, along with Earl and Connie, set out on foot to explore the old section of the town. The streets were made of red bricks and they were narrow in size. The buildings were well kept and many painted bright colors. Yellows and blues could be seen on many of the buildings lining the brick streets.
It was not unusual to see tropical plants full of red and purple flowers climbing buildings. Street cafes, with small round tables in front, lined the narrow streets. From open restaurants, the festive sounds of Caribbean music filled the evening air. It was just loud enough to be enjoyed by those sitting in the establishments. Laughter and happy conversation could be heard as we passed by the many cafes. It was a place and time I have wondered about. I will have to say, it was everything I had imagined and more.
On the open squares, street vendors were set up selling their crafts. Homemade jewelry and brilliant colored clothing seemed to be everywhere. I watched as an old man hand rolled cigars that he sold. No one pushed or shoved, or made us feel unwelcome. It was a place such as this where I could imagine Hemingway sitting on the corner having a drink and writing notes in an old leather folder. I realize this was not Cuba, but still the atmosphere of the island and the pace of life were very much as it may have been in his day. The images of the island were as I had imagined in my thoughts of the Caribbean.
Mary very much enjoyed the colors and the street music of the old city. She marveled at the buildings and their beauty that frame the island world, as if in a painting. San Juan was a town we wished we could have spent more time exploring, and seeing the sights of the island.
As we traveled back to our ship, the harbor area was full of colorful lights from the four large cruise ships docked in the harbor. They each were brilliantly illuminated against the background of the city’s lights. Our trip to Puerto Rico was only a few hours long. But, long enough that I think one day we will return and spend more time enjoying the old city.
Later that evening, we sailed out into the ocean past the old fort that once guarded the entrance to the port city’s harbor. On the ship’s information channel, it showed we were passing over the Puerto Rico trench. Just north of the island is where the Atlantic continental plate pushes under the Puerto Rico shelf. At that point the depth of the ocean was 28,000 feet. It is amazing that long ago the island of Puerto Rico was pushed up from the bottom of the ocean, from over five miles down. And that event created such a wonderful island place. Mary and I hope to see it once again. Maybe I’ll sit at a corner table, at a cafe on a brick street, and sip a glass of rum.
And maybe even buy a hand rolled cigar, just to say that once in my life, I tasted a cigar hand rolled by an old man from Cuba. Then I’ll open my leather folder and write a story of our island
adventure in Puerto Rico, as I remember it Through the Lens.