Completed a night of sailing originating in Santo Domingo, we wake up with Puerto Rico on the port side.
A bustling community of dolphins attracts most passengers to the ferry's upper decks. We follow them and their stunts for some time.
Soon, curiosity about what the island had in store for us got the better of us. The view from the top of the boat, a short distance from the coast, proved more enlightening than we were counting.
Leaving behind a coastline with tall buildings projecting, we reached a point with a strong historical character, occupied by a large fortress, then by another.
The ferry bypasses the triangulated western end of the San Juan sub-island. It starts by revealing Morro and the Castillo San Felipe del Morro that defends it. When it reverses its position, it leaves us backlit. The view becomes a dark, diffused blur.
As we progress into San Juan Bay, the vessel approaches La Puntilla and realigns. The grassy top of the Morro returns to show us and, soon, the houses that spread to the north of the Puerta de San Juan and a long port area.
Finally, the ferry docks. The atmosphere we find on land has a US feel to it, though less oppressive and gaudy than is usual in the contiguous US.
We landed in the Associated Free State of Puerto Rico, which is considered an unincorporated territory of the United States. In the many days we have dedicated to it, this terminology and what emanates from it have made a substantial difference.
We detected it in the identity of Puerto Rico, somewhere between the Dominican Caribbean Latinity and the English-speaking pragmatism of the USA, both evident, to begin with, in the bilingualism (use of Spanish and English) of a good part of the Boricuan nation.
The Tropical and Stormy Weather of Puerto Rico
Geographically, in terms of meteorology, Puerto Rico is as tropical and Caribbean as its counterpart Hispaniola. It suffers from the same predicates and risks.
In September 2017, the Category 5 Maria hurricane devastated the island. It caused 90 billion damages and between 1500 to 3000 casualties, the actual number quickly sparked controversy.
We also visited it during most of September. The whims of this year's hurricanes spared us. The heat, sometimes torrid, sometimes torrid and humid, characteristic of the season of storms and rains, not really.
When we first walked through the historic and gaudy alleys of the I come from San Juan, the sauna heat overwhelms us. It makes us sweat and despair because we don't come across the narrow and elusive door of the guest-house where we had marked the initial days of our stay.
Once installed, we would often end our afternoons at the western end of the island, exploring the grassy, unobscured and somewhat magical section of the hill that preceded the castle of San Felipe.
Because, as a result of this combination of extreme temperature and humidity, late after afternoon, leaden clouds, heavy and heavy to match, emerged from the sea to the north and hovered, low and menacing, over the promontory.
They kidnapped the sun. After which they attacked old San Juan with relentless battering, thundering thunder and lightning that, at intervals, the lightning rods installed there retained.
Insignificant compared to the near-apocalyptic phenomenon of Maria, these storms caused their damage.
In the uncertainty that the lightning rods would prove 100% effective, the service rangers at the Historic Site were forced to communicate an emergency by loudspeaker.
They took great pains to get the pedestrians on Calle del Morro – which furrows the grass between the threshold of the historic houses and the castle – and the dozens of launchers to safety. Comets (read kites) spread over the grass, the top of the walls, battlements, battlements and other defense structures of El Morro and San Juan Bautista.
San Juan, One of the Most Fortified Cities in the Americas
It was Christopher Columbus who named the island this way, when he landed on it in 1493. Under that holy and biblical name, Juan Ponce de León, the island's first governor, set about urbanizing it.
We've been to countless fortified colonial places. None of them with the grandeur, density and historic eccentricity of San Juan Island.
It reinforces the fascination of Castillo de San Felipe, the complex multilevel structure that military engineers imposed on the Morro, in a centuries-old communion with the Atlantic Ocean and the San Juan Bay, with the iguanas and resident frigates and corvids, in permanent overflight.
A good few hundred meters to the east, still at the top of the island stands a complementary fortification, the Castillo de San Cristóbal is considered the largest of the Spanish forts in the New World and in everything comparable to that of San Felipe.
We walked it from end to end, from top to bottom.
Once again among iguanas, with incredible views, some of the interior of the island, including the majestic Capitol of Puerto Rico. Others, on the rough sea and the watchtowers that are built there.
In colonial times, soldiers kept to these strategic posts, alerting them to the approach of enemy ships. They communicated by shouting.
From one of the low guardhouses, isolated from the others and at the mercy of storms and waves, it was harder to get an answer. And, it is said that, on a certain night of rough seas when the waves were breaking up against the structure, the soldiers stopped listening to the screams coming from there.
At dawn, when they checked the post, they found only the clothes and weapons of the officer, who had disappeared for good. This watchman became known as the “Devil's Guard”.
Walls All Around San Juan
The opposite end of San Juan Island was also fortified.
The Fortin San Gerónimo de Boquerón proves this, located next to the mouth that separates it from the Condado peninsula and Ilha Grande, equally detached from the main island. Much of the south coast remains as or more walled and closes off the complex.
So composed that one of the emblematic walks of San Juan gives a good tour of its historic area, always at the foot or the top of the walls.
It begins at Puerta de San Juan, one of the five large porticoes that provided the nearly 5km fortified that once surrounded the city.
All this ingenuity and defensive apparatus had an obvious reason for being. As it had the name Puerto Rico, once displayed by the city, confused and, later, changed with that of the island, which was referred to by San Juan.
Puerto Rico de San Juan, a City Ever Desired
Much due to its prominent position, San Juan quickly became an unavoidable stop on the Hispanic route between Seville and the New World. And, in the opposite direction, silver, gold and other riches shipped to Europe.
In an area of the world increasingly disputed by rival colonial powers, teeming with pirates and treasure-obsessed corsairs, San Juan has become a priority target. Its fortresses, walls and cannon batteries were increased and reinforced again and again.
In the last five years of the XNUMXth century, the English sought to conquer it under the command, first of Francis Drake, shortly afterwards, of George Clifford of Cumberland. In both cases, the attackers were forced to retreat.
In 1625, in a context of successive and complex attacks and counterattacks, Dutch captain Boudewijn Hendricksz failed to take El Morro but sacked and burned the city.
Shortly thereafter, he was expelled by the last response of the Spaniards protected by the Fort.
San Juan resisted. At least until 1898.
The Dominating and Controversial Entry of the United States of America
This year, the enemies became the emerging United States of America, too powerful for a decaying Spain to avoid fate.
In the midst of the Spanish-American War, the USA sent a squadron of twelve modern warships, surrounded the Bay of San Juan, facilitated the disembarkation in other parts of the island and gave rise to successive battles, almost all inconclusive.
Finally, in August 1898, the result of the calamity that already represented for Spain the general result of the war against the Americans - also fought in Cuba, in the Philippines and in Guam – the Spaniards agreed to cede the sovereignty of Puerto Rico to the United States.
Today, the statute of Puerto Ricans is open to different criteria that result in US nationality, Puerto Rico nationality, or dual citizenship.
One thing is right. We were able to see throughout San Juan the love of the Boricuas for their homeland, displayed, for example, in dozens of paintings of the nation's flag that only confuses with the Stars and Stripes whoever is really distracted.
In Puerto Rico, instead of 50 stars, there is only one, quite large, highlighted over a blue triangle.
When the United States washes its hands of the problems and dramas of Puerto Rico, as the Puerto Ricans considered it happened with the lack of help to the tragedy generated by hurricane Maria during the presidency Trump, feel even more motivated to paint and display theirs. Of ignoring or berating that of the mighty sovereign state.
The United States only entered the history of Puerto Rico since it was four centuries old.
They are still far from winning the hearts of Puerto Ricans.