After our white-knuckled TSA experience in Orlando, we had an uneventful flight and landed in the daylight in San Juan. Once on land, we headed to El Colonial Hotel. El Colonial is probably one of my all-time favorite hotels. It has a great location in the heart of Old San Juan and a rooftop patio to hang out and enjoy the beautiful Puerto Rican weather! And of course, you can’t go wrong with their 24-hour open bar.
Once we were checked in, we headed out to see the sights. We saw everything that we saw on our first visit to Old San Juan, both Castillo San Felipe del Morro and Castillo San Cristobal. For lunch, we visited Cafeteria Mallorca, a historic eatery not far from our hotel. I had seen Cafeteria Mallorca on an old episode of Samantha Brown and it had not changed at all since that episode aired. They are known for their mallorcas, traditional Puerto Rican sandwiches dusted with powdered sugar. We enjoyed our meal so much, we came back in the morning for breakfast.
After lunch, we went back to the hotel and caught up on sleep and soaked up the air conditioning. When it had cooled down a bit, we headed back out to explore the city some more. We revisited our favorite popsicle stand from our last trip, Zip Pops. Nearby, Señor Paleta is more well known, but Zip Pops never had a line!
By this point the sun was setting and we noticed Christmas lights in Paseo de la Princesa (above). It was beautiful to walk through and enjoy the breeze without the hot Caribbean sun beating down.
This is about the time that we realized that we should have made reservations in advance for dinner. Every place we stopped had at least a two hour wait. We ended up getting seated at a restaurant and being one of the last tables served for the night. We are from a small town where most restaurants don’t take reservations, but we learned quick that that is not the case these days in cities. While there are some restaurants that book up a month or more in advance, you should probably start making plans a week in advance if you would like to eat before 9 pm.
One thing that made a big difference in this visit from the last was that there were three large cruise ships docked in Old San Juan on this day (left). I consider myself a bit of a cruise nerd and I was impressed that I recognized the Odyssey of the Seas from the air, but these large ships left off thousands of people into this historic city. At times, it was hard to get around on the old, narrow sidewalks there were so many people. Heaven help you if you needed to drive on the roads. This experience really made me consider the impact that these large ships have on the places that they visit. Yes, the ships pay to dock at these ports and the people get off the ship and spend money, but with free food and beds on the ship they do not spend as much as a land-based traveler. I’m not saying I am done with cruising, but it makes me want to figure out how to do it in a responsible way. Maybe we need to get away from the enormous mega-ships with all the bells and whistles and back to smaller boats that have less potential to overwhelm the ports they visit.
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After a whirlwind seven days on the Explorer of the Seas, we disembarked in San Juan. When planning this trip, I had a hard time figuring out where we wanted to stay on this day, especially once American moved our flight the next day from 1 pm to 5 am. Since Old San Juan is only a 20-minute drive from the airport, we decided to stay at the El Colonial, a boutique, adults-only hotel located in the heart of Old San Juan.
We disembarked the ship early and got a taxi to drop our bags off at the hotel, but the taxi driver couldn’t find it, even though he had Google Maps pulled up on his phone. I am not making it up when I tell you that he literally got out of the van and asked someone for directions. Eventually, we made it to the hotel where they offered us a cocktail (before 8 am, I might add) and held our bags so we could explore the city.
We first headed to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, part of the San Juan National Historic Site. With the construction of the Castillo having begun in 1589, it is the oldest building in the United States. I’ll never forget, back when I was recapping our St. Augustine trip on this blog, someone commented that they were glad I noted that the Castillo de San Marcos is the oldest building in the continental U.S. because Castillo San Felipe is older.
While under Spanish control, the fort was attacked by the Portuguese, the Dutch, the English, and the Americans. The fort and the territory of Puerto Rico were transferred to the United States in 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American war. In 1915, a shot from the Castillo is thought to be the first American shot fired in World War I. During World War II, the military added a Harbor Defense Fire Control Station to the Castillo to keep watch for German submarines in the Caribbean. At 180 feet above sea level, the lighthouse (above) is the tallest point of the Castillo.
From the Castillo, we explored the city a bit. The colorful buildings are very inviting and make the city fun to explore! We enjoyed delicious, homemade popsicles, before setting on a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant for lunch. This was the first time in my life that I had to tell a server I was allergic to bananas and ask what they had that did not contain bananas. If you do not like bananas, you should probably avoid Puerto Rican food. The food was good, but bananas and plantains are a staple of island cuisine and not being able to eat them really diminished my experience. Everyone else loved their mofongo, though!
After lunch, we headed to the other section of the historic site, Castillo San Cristóbal (above). Completed in 1783, Castillo San Cristóbal took up 27 acres and featured the gates to the walled city of San Juan. The fortress was built to protect Castillo San Felippe del Moro from a land attack. The walls of the Castillo remained until 1897 until some of them were destroyed to allow the harbor to expand. In 1898 Puerto Rico joined the Spanish-American war when a cannon from the Castillo fired on the USS Yale. During World War II, the Spanish colonial water cisterns were used as fallout shelters. In 1949, together, both Castillos became the San Juan National Historic Site. In 1983, the Castillos and the walled city were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With a 5 am flight, we didn’t stay out too late, although people were still at the hotel bar having a good time when our taxi arrived at 3 to take us to the airport. One day was not enough time for this beautiful city! You can bet that I have Detroit to San Juan flight alerts set up on my phone! You know the song, I left my Heart in San Fransisco? I left mine in San Juan.
Thanks for stopping by! To read more about this trip check out my Island a Day Trip Report. To read about some of our previous trips, visit my Trips Page. If you like my photos be sure to “like” my Facebook Page and follow me on Instagram! You can purchase prints on Fine Art America. To see inside my camera bag, check out my updated Gear Page.