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Port Highlight: San Juan, Puerto Rico

As highlighted in the above video, Holland America Line’s seven-day eastern Caribbean cruises feature the gorgeous port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in addition to Grand Turk, St. Maarten and Half Moon Cay. Puerto Rico is the largest island that the ships visit on this exciting itinerary. Rich in history and culture, it is always a guest favorite.

Dating back to the early 1500s, Puerto Rico is surrounded by high stone wall and dotted with examples of Spanish Architecture. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital city, provides a cultural experience that is unmatched. The island is about 100 miles long and 35 miles wide. Puerto Rico’s entire population is around 5 million, while the population of San Juan itself is 1.6 million.

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Like most of the other islands visited on the Caribbean cruises, Puerto Rico was once home to the Arawak people. Because of the size of this island, it was home to more Arawak settlements than any other island. Of course, this all changed with the arrival of Europeans, beginning with Christopher Columbus in 1493. It was on his second trip to the new world that Columbus found Puerto Rico. Though he named the island, he named it not what it is today. The name he gave to the island was San Juan Bautista, honoring St. John the Baptist.

The natural harbor where the ships dock proved to be an idyllic port and was given the name “Rich Port” or Puerto Rico in Spanish. Since these early days, the name of the island and the name of the port city were interchanged to how we know them today, with the island taking on the name of the rich port, and the city now honoring John the Baptist.

The Spanish did have early interests in Puerto Rico as they found some gold. Columbus returned to the island several more times and established early colonies in the area where they thought gold could be mined. The first governor of the island of Puerto Rico was not Christopher Columbus, but another famous Spanish explorer: Ponce de Leon. Though he governed the island from 1508-1513, Ponce de Leon was better known for his explorations after he left his administrative duties behind.

Puerto Rico was a strategic location and Spain built over a period of 100 years two large fortresses that protected the port of San Juan. These forts can be seen and visited today and are the best example on this itinerary of the early Spanish influence in Latin America.

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The Treaty of Paris in 1899 paved the way for closer relations with the United States. A formal association would follow 50 years later when Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the United States. Residents are considered American citizens, use American money and carry American passports. While they elect their own governor, senator and congressman, their elected representatives in Washington do not have a vote in either the Senate or the House. Puerto Ricans also cannot vote for the President of the United States. Their elected officials are sent to advise and lobby other senators and congressmen to pass legislation that would be favorable to Puerto Rico.

What to do in San Juan:

The fabulous five things guests might do involve exploring old forts, visiting a rain forest, riding horseback, visiting old town and taking a walking tour.

Photo by Hotel Director Marco van Belleghem.

Photo by Hotel Director Marco van Belleghem.

Holland America Line’s shore excursions take full advantage of the opportunities available right off the bow of the ship. Walking tours and bus tours visit El Morro Fort, like San Cristobal, a U.S. National Historic Site of great importance. These two forts shielded San Juan for centuries against attack. Their ancient canons, fortification and barracks tell of the stories dating back to the 1600s.

Not far from this historic district lies an ancient forest full of life. El Yunque National Park protects the only tropical Rainforest in the Unites States – a forest that is home to some exotic wildlife that occurs no where else on the planet. A short drive to El Yunque will transport you in to a different world. This was the place of the ‘Gods’ during the time of the Arawaks. In fact “Junqua,” the native name for this region, referred to the Gods in these lush hills. The home of the Arawak Gods make sense when you contrast them with the evil and wicked spirits known as ‘houricannas’ – the hurricanes. These tropical storms would be the greatest fears that the Arawak would encounter, and the greatest countermeasure for hurricanes is cool lush mountains. So for the Arawaks, the mountain Gods protected them from their worst fears.

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Today guests can experience the lush rainforest, see the world tallest tree ferns and learn about the endemic types of toads and parrots that are critically endangered and whose only remaining habitat lies within the boundary of the park. There is a myriad of overlooks, waterfalls to view and you will breathe in the aromas of life found only in rainforest habitats.

Quite another aroma can be found on another tour offered by Holland America Line. An excursion to the Bacardi distillery allows guests to get an appreciation of the process involved in making rum. The Bacardi tour celebrates their association with Puerto Rico, which became home to this distilling giant after leaving Cuba in the 1950s. Since that time it has grown into the largest maker of rum in the world, and guests can taste to see how they are doing.

What would be on your “must do” list during a visit to San Juan?

2 Comments
  • Catherine

    whilst winter is approaching Britain I am day dreaming at beautiful sunny beaches!

  • Janis

    Lived in P.R. for a little over a year as a child. I want to return to this beautiful island and re-visit some of the places I remember from that time in my life. Perfect climate, too.

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