Sketches of San Juan

LIKE MANY MIGRATORY SPECIES OF THE UPPER MIDWEST, we left home last month for a stay in the Caribbean Archipelago. After leaping snow berms in sandals and light jackets to make our plane, we soon alighted in a 10×10-block finger of land known as Old San Juan, one of the oldest colonial settlements in the hemisphere and port of call to cruise ships the size of mid-sized cities.

The view from our hotel captures the place’s ramshackle charm. The weather was a heavenly 89°, though the guys tarring roof outside our window might have disagreed.

A sketch of the opposite view, including an Art Deco-style bank tower Sarah liked. The light here is a drawer’s dream. Well-delineated forms and textures at any distance.

Streets in this section are paved with blue bricks cut from the ballasts of colonial ships.

The style of the 1940s and 50s lives on, most of it nicely preserved.

Like this restaurant, where we ate as often as we could. Pronounced “May-JOR-ka,” it’s named for a buttery pastry covered in powdered sugar, which is tasty alone or as the casing for a very rich ham sandwich.

I’m totally coffee-crazy and the brew at these old places did not disappoint, served briskly by men in antique waitering attire. They held me to two cups, which is sensible, though I wanted to keep going.

It’s perked in these medieval-looking triple-chamber set ups, seen here at Bombonera, a café across the street. It’s curious how empty of people my pictures are when, in fact, Old San Juan teems.

I’m used to being ignored or even scorned as a tourist. So the hyper-friendliness of Puerto Ricans came as a surprise (said one, “we like to get involved”). Over breakfast at Cafeteria Mallorca, an elderly couple decided to take us on a sight-seeing tour (there was no resisting, and why would we?). Nestor, a retired military torpedo expert, showed us lots of dubious landmarks, including this alley where parts of the ghastly TV show The Flying Nun were filmed.

The smallest house on the U.S. Historic Registry (according to Nestor).

Juan Ponce De León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, appointed by Spain in 1509. He now points at a sports bar called Casa De Sam.

Any direction you walk in Old San Juan, you come to a fort. This is El Morro on the western tip, its wall cradling an old cemetery. Not a bad place to spend eternity.

Descending through a giant corridor in El Morro out into the Atlantic.

Visit the toilets for a surprising view of the ocean.

Sarah amid ancient battlements.

There’s a neighborhood called La Perla, seen here wedged between the city wall and the ocean. The books and people I consulted said it’s a dangerous, drug-ridden barrio that’s best avoided. It’s smaller than a football field and picturesque from afar.

Peeking into La Perla, I saw few people, some cars on blocks, homes without doors or windows, and kids shooting hoops at the Carmelo Anthony Courts.

Looking the other way is San Cristobal, a fort built in 1500 to deflect land and sea attacks, modified in WWII with special towers for spotting German U-boats (visible atop the walls). Below, a crane is hunting for frogs in stiff winds. I sat here in a notch of wall long enough to do a drawing and get really sunburned.

The air conditioners of San Cristobal. This fort was crawling with giant iguanas.

On the third day, we made the short drive to El Yunque, a national rain forest preserve to the east. An entirely unnecessary orientation film is shown at the visitor’s center, narrated with grudging seriousness by Benecio Del Toro (“imagine an earthly paradise born of sun, rain and rock…”). After watching, it was impossible not to chant the park’s name as Benecio did: El JOONK-ay!

Hiking up El Yunque’s mountain was slow-going and felt a little dark and depressing after all the sun. But you eventually get to a tower from which half of Puerto Rico is visible.

Sarah with the town of Luquillo in the distance.

The public beaches at Luquillo were a highlight, sprawling and quiet with ladies mixing wicked pina coladas for a couple bucks. Stray cats came out to greet us. The site of our mountain trek rises in the distance.

The vacation ended on Superbowl Sunday. A fresh wave of hooting Midwesterners washed up at the hotel in their NFL best. Sarah’s feet throbbing, my books burned through, our time was abruptly up.

>> Thirstin’ Howl III – Polo Rican
>> Bill Withers – Ain’t No Sunshine

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