We cruised on the Royal Caribbean Grandeur of the Seas from Tampa to San Juan Puerto Rico. The trip involves two days at sea beginning with 55 degree temperatures in Tampa, gradually rising to 75 degrees as the ship rounds the tip of Florida and sails north of Cuba. The ship pulled into San Juan on the third morning.
Since this was a family cruise with four generations making up the family, Marilyn was unable to do much biking because she spent much of her time with her mother and our granddaughter. Instead, she offered my daughter Yaffa the opportunity to ride with me during the cruise. Yaffa gladly took up the gauntlet. I should let you know that she is an avid bicycle commuter in Philadelphia, making use of the bicycles Marilyn and I had brought back from Europe in 2007—both of which are folding bicycles. We adjusted the seat on Marilyn’s bike and offered Yaffa Marilyn’s helmet. And we were off!
San Juan was warm and sunny. We could see the port area from the ship as the ship was docking around 7am. I had earlier decided from my perusal of the internet maps of San Juan that we would first go west from the port through the old city to a large fort and a huge plantation structure at the West end of the San Juan peninsula. But, somehow, I had not read the maps correctly and assumed we were docking on the south side of Puerto Rico, meaning we should start out turning right out of the port area. We left the port easily and moved through a small tourist area into a more industrial/commercial area as we hugged the coast for a mile or two. I began getting uncomfortable with this path because we weren’t seeing anything like a fort, so we decided to stop at a gas station for some assistance. The station attendant was no help because we couldn’t communicate in Spanish, but she suggested we try a bar next door. After a series of strikeouts, we eventually found an English speaker who indicated he didn’t know the geography and suggested we try getting a map at the gas station. Returning to the gas station, we learned they had no maps. Nevertheless, I decided I had been wrong with my initial directions and we retraced our earlier ride, passed the ship and found the tourist area I had been expecting. This part of San Juan had narrow streets lined with shops selling t-shirts, trinkets, and other garments along with a few restaurants and bars—very colorful, but slow going on a bike. And it soon turned hilly.
We negotiated 6-8 blocks of shopping area before we encountered the old fort area.
It was worth the trip. The buildings here made up a 400 year old city with naval embattlements and great views of the port area and the large industrial area across the bay.
We took the requisite pictures of statues and cannons and appreciated riding up and down several cobblestone paved hilly streets before we reached the plateau above the harbor and the plantation and fortifications reaching to the end of the peninsula.
This area was several hundred feet above the coastline below, but contained both a very large castle-like fortified area and a 1000-foot square grassy area, commonly used by the children of San Juan to fly kites because the winds were swift and steady.
We rode up the grassy hill and spied 5-10 children and their parents flying kites, which were also being sold from carts.
Upon crossing the grassy area, we considered riding to the castle-like fortifications at the tip of the peninsula but decided, instead, to turn to the east and follow the northern coast.
The ocean was magnificent and we could see gorgeous waves breaking for miles along the coast to the east. The gulls and seabirds floated above the waves and fished in the ocean. We saw many of the birds we became familiar with from Central America—the large raven-like birds, split tail seabirds, but also gulls. We coasted down the shallow hill for several miles, passing first many other very old buildings making up the original plantation house and then moved into the newer part of the city containing government buildings and foreign consulates. I was interested by the variety of colors which clothed the buildings, very different from what one finds in other US cities. We were heading around the bay, seeking a way across the water to ride toward the airport there.
Unfortunately, there is no really good bike route to get there. The only choice is to use a bridge/causeway which is a major highway. On the way, we passed through a very pretty park containing tennis courts, a swimming complex, and a running track complex used to train Puerto Rico’s entrants in the next Olympics. This ride was pleasant and even allowed some interactions with the walkers and joggers who use the park for daily exercise.
But soon we embarked upon the perilous trip across the causeway which was Puerto Rico Route 2. At first we could ride on the shoulder of the road. Then we tried to ride on the grassy area beyond the road’s protective railing. That soon also ran out. When we got to the bridge, we had no choice but to walk the bikes on a two feet wide walking path across the bridge lasting half a mile. Eventually, we found a rideable shoulder and used that to complete the crossing. We entered a mile or two of car dealerships before reaching an area which the map indicated would allow us to travel on a road adjacent to the highway 2. We kept looking for this road and never found it. At one point, we jumped a fence and started riding onto a road surface through a port logistics area which eventually led to a dead end. This area of San Juan is very industrial and somewhat uninteresting. We never found a path to the airport. We returned to Route 2 and rode for a few more miles toward another large urban area, eventually deciding to return the way we had come and look for a late lunch in San Juan. We stopped at the Lexus dealership and found a salesman who spoke very good English. He started when he heard we has come across the Route 2 Bridge and told us we only had to keep on the frontal road on the right of the main highway to find another easy pedestrian/bike friendly bridge. We followed his instructions past a golf course and never did find such a pathway. We had to jump a fence back onto highway 2 and brave the racing cars and trucks before negotiating the 2-feet wide walkway across the bridge we had used on the way out.
Having negotiated the bridge, we found the path back an easy one if only a little bit hilly. We entered the University area and reached a park along the north coast which contained those beautiful waves we had earlier seen from the heights. Amazingly, we also met my son and his family who were part of our family cruise. They were traveling in an SUV with a college roommate who lived in San Juan.
We exchanged greetings, took many pictures of the surfers negotiating the thundering waves several hundred yards off shore, and decided to return to the ship and look for lunch/dinner.
We didn’t find a place we could agree upon for lunch before we arrived at the port area. Since Yaffa was looking for postcards and t-shirts, we spent some time shopping and decided upon lunch at the Koconut, clearly a tourist trap just outside the cruise terminal. My son and daughter in law had suggested we try the coconut wrapped meals, so we ordered one of these here along with a fish plate. If this was a tourist trap, the tourists were in for very good eats! The meals were great and unique. I downed a Puerto Rican brewed beer and relaxed here for an hour. We met an Australian couple and their two children who had dashed off another cruise ship for some souvenirs and eats. They indicated the boarding time for their ship had already passed and they were willing only to spend 15 minutes for the meal. They ordered but the meal was so late arriving that they could only take a bite and take the rest with them. Fat chance! The cruise ships do not let any food to be brought onto the ships for fear of bringing insects or their eggs which would contaminate other islands. No food and no fresh fruits or vegetables, I think.
We returned up the hill to the souvenir area on the bikes for an hour’s shopping before coasting down the hill to the ship and ending the adventure.
Overall, I had a very positive memory of San Juan. The city has many pretty areas. The architecture is distinctive, including very old and very new designs and building methods. There clearly is a mix of rich and poor, but I saw no squalor like I had seen in Central America. I was surprised to find so much trouble communicating in English, but I realize I should learn Spanish if I want to travel in an area so heavily Hispanic. I found the people to be friendly, the weather to be very comfortable, the scenery to be appealing, and the riding to be good—if only there were a way across the harbor other than highway 2!