Some cities are stunning when viewed from the water. Sydney, Auckland and Hong Kong are three examples. So I was curious to test Luis Salva’s claim that San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, looks “magnificent” from the water.
The ancient, walled city is an island connected to the rest of the territory by a bridge so there’s a lot to see from the sea. Luis offers sunset cruises each night at 5pm. And I was booked on one. I headed off to the cruise ship terminal, passing the massive white floating cities, filled with restaurants, bars and casinos. The huge boats were gleaming in the bright Caribbean sunshine and passengers were spilling out onto the waterfront and into themed restaurants and gaudy gift shops. I assume they are designed to mop up the money that passengers are more inclined to spend after downing margaritas in the fake Mexican restaurants dotted around the front. The cruise ships were berthed alongside piers – wide concrete fingers jutting out into the deeper water, which allow passengers to get from ship-to-shore in seconds. I walked along the waterfront in search of Pier 6, Luis’ boat tour departure point.
The waterside has clearly been redeveloped but after wandering Old San Juan’s cobbled streets filled with brightly coloured, ornate-balconied homes this area was quite deflating. It could have been any waterfront – Riga or Redcar – filled with bland office blocks, wooden decking walkways and abstract concrete seating.
A seahorse sculpture was the designer’s nod to the area’s nautical nature. After five minutes of walking through this maritime Milton Keynes, I reached a narrow pontoon labelled Pier number 6, my destination. In the distance a small boat was heading in. And on board I could see a tall, smiling, silver-haired man waving it me. It was Captain Luis on board one of his two boats offering daily water tours.
I was interested in Luis’ promise that no topic raised by tourists was off-limits. You can ask him anything about Puerto Rico as you sip on sangria. “It is a floating living room,” he enthused. I thought that allowing discussion of religion or politics in an enclosed space was brave! But it was a winning combination for me. How many times have you wanted to ask a local for their view on a potentially sensitive topic, but you’ve been afraid of causing offence?
Within minutes of boarding we were floating out of the dock and facing an historic, official-looking white-domed building. “That,” said Luis “is the Capital Building containing our Senate and House of Representatives.” I’d not had a glass of ‘Spanish courage’ yet, but I ploughed in. “What is Puerto Rico’s relationship with the United States?” I asked Luis.
Then after the pause, a smile and a considered reply.
“Complicated,” Luis said.
I’d heard this a fair bit. One local described Puerto Rico as a ‘colony’ and whilst very few people want independence, some locals do want statehood. Current, the territory is just that. It is not a state and while voters can choose a governor, their elected senators don’t have a vote and Puerto Ricans are not polled in presidential elections. With the surge of interest in Donald Trump, we joke that it might not be a bad thing after all.
Puerto Rico’s politically-active residents do have some uses. “The candidates all visit when they are fundraising for their campaigns,” Luis advised. “But we don’t see them again.” And that’s a shame. The island’s economy has been in free-fall and many public services have been decimated. Some say that statehood would mean more funding for essential services. Moves to join the Union have been blocked, partly because Republicans fear that Puerto Rico would return Democrats. As usual in politics anywhere in the world, it appears that party interests come before people.
As the boat skims across the calm harbour waters I can see what a prize it must have been for the US to gain the territory in the first place. Old San Juan, sitting on the sun-drenched hill, is laid out in front of us. The town is ribboned by its thick, tall, stone city wall. And in the light cast by the setting sun, it looks like a greyish brown belt, holding in the forts and the tropically coloured historic buildings, which clamber up the slope.
The scale of the defences is impressive. And Luis can see me surveying their might. “The walls and three connected forts provided a top-notch defence system – a perfect base for expeditions around the Caribbean and a safe haven for galleons carrying gold and silver,” he offers.
As I look in the opposite direction, away from the old city towards the newer suburbs of tower blocks and freeways, I can see the mountain peaks rising on the horizon. “The old San Juan settlers were also exploring that rainforest,” says Luis. Today the less adventurous tourist can take a wildlife watching bus tour into the only rainforest on US soil. But the colonisers’ adrenaline rush when coming face-to-face with the Indian natives has been replaced by the thrill of sliding through the trees on zip lines, or a caffeine buzz after tastings at the coffee plantations.
As a base for discovery, these Old San Juan city walls were vital for the colonists’ protection. Today, they are considered crucial for historic reasons. The UN has protected them with World Heritage status.
Luis’ skipper gets close to the first part of the walls, La Fortaleza. It is plastered and painted white with two visible turrets on the seaward side. It looks like it has been moulded from a kid’s sandcastle bucket. Luis explains that poor siting of the structure made it useless for defence. “It should have been at the top of the entrance to the channel. It was too far inside the waterway and too low. It couldn’t protect the town,” he explains.
The solution was to make it the official residence of the governor. Clearly locals didn’t want him or her to feel too safe. The fort is the longest serving Governor’s residence in the world and it has been used since Ponce de Leon took on the role as one of Colombus’ contingent.
A few hundreds yards further along, we pass one of only four remaining city gates, a narrow terracotta and white plastered opening in the sturdy stone round-island ribbon. The others were removed for easier access along with the bottom third of the wall. Apparently the gate slammed shut at 6pm each night. I wonder how many locals who turned up late tried pleading with the guards to let them in, and I guess fewer people would have followed the relaxed Caribbean ‘island time’ if it meant a night sleeping in the mosquito-ridden mangroves.
I had walked around the walls earlier in the day but the view from the water gave a new perspective to the city and the best was yet to come. Luis’ skipper manoeuvred the small craft to within touching distance of the magnificent Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort, high on a hill overlooking the harbour with mighty, thick walls built into the rocks at the shoreline. As the setting sun’s rays picked out the stonework in a hundred different shades of yellow I could see how the huge defences had been built on different levels and in stages over two centuries. This was an experience only to be had from the vantage point of Luis’ boat.
So soon it was time to return back towards the pier. I was watching the pelicans plunge vertically into the water in pursuit of fish when Luis shouted. “Look!” Two parrots had shot across the sky. There was no missing them with their brilliant yellow and green plumage – it was as if they’d been coloured in with a highlighter pen. Luis told me that there’s been a programme to breed and save the rare, native Puerto Rican parrot. Numbers were down to fifty pairs and the bird faced extinction after hurricanes hit the rain forest 15 years ago. This was not a joking matter so I refrained from mentioning a certain Monty Python sketch. But there’s now hope for the species as fifteen pairs have been returned to the wild.
Sadly, I couldn’t get the camera lens cap off in time, but faster-fingered photographers can often see manatees, green turtles, tarpon and dolphins from Luis’ boat tour. “The Atlantic Ocean is under a mile away,” he reminded me. If you’re lucky you might see a male stingray leap out of the water. They do it to attract the female rays. The higher the leap, the more love action they’ll be likely to get, says Luis. He added that his favourite sighting so far has been an octopus, four feet from the surface.
With so much history and wildlife, I wanted to know what Luis was most proud of in his native Puerto Rico.
“Our people,” he replied.
Luis explained that Puerto Rico was a strategic crossroads and had developed its own culture. And locals cherished it. Earlier, a waitress had voiced her disappointment at cruise ship passengers who assumed she was Mexican – “just because we’ve got darker eyes and speak Spanish”, she told me with some level of disgust. The woman worked at a Puerto Rican restaurant and was dismayed that the owners added salsa and tortilla chips to the menu, “because they were tired of saying ‘no’ when asked for them by visitors.”
Luis explained that Puerto Rican food best represented what each different ethnic group had literally brought to the table. Mofongo, the national dish, is a culinary collaboration between African slaves, native Indians and Spanish settlers. This delicious ‘side-dish’ is fried or boiled plantain mixed with butter and garlic and served as a starchy alternative to potato or rice. You mix it with meats or seafood. It is moist, a bit crunchy and “quite peculiar but nice,” says Luis.
As we returned back past the governor’s mansion, Luis pointed out the Raices or ‘roots’ fountain. It’s sculptured figures represent the racial make up of Puerto Rico. Luis proudly explained that DNA testing has revealed Arawakan Indian heritage in one-third of the locals who were sampled. And the territory’s position as the entry point to the Americas for religious groups has also added to its rich cultural fabric.
“We have black Puerto Ricans, blue-eyed and blond-haired Puerto Ricans and we’re a happy people,” says Luis. “The world will be collapsing around us but we’ll find an excuse to throw a party and have fun”
And as I shook his hand and stepped ashore, I surveyed the old city where the gas-style lamps were flickering into life and that party was beginning in dozens of bars and restaurants. “See the city from the water, you’ll understand why Puerto Rico was chosen,” was Luis’ parting shot. I agree. And I’m going to drink to that.
Boat trips around San Juan with Luis Salva can be booked through sanjuanwatertours.com.