Robbie and I had a nice, but hot, afternoon exploring Old San Juan. It was great walking through the colorful old buildings. And blue cobblestones, how great is that! Going up and down the hills in the heat was not so fun but Old San Juan was amazing! We went back to the ship to cool off and relax a bit. Our all aboard time wasn’t until 11:00pm. There was still plenty of time to continue exploring Old San Juan. I wore Robbie out with the hills and the heat and 1111 steps! Robbie was going to stay onboard the ship. I wanted to take advantage of the extended time in port to take some night photos of Old San Juan. I brought my travel tripod along just for tonight. I was so excited to get started that I walked off of the ship without my mask! I’m surprised that they didn’t say something when they scanned me off of the ship. Pretty much everyone in town had been wearing masks when we were in town earlier. I didn’t want to go back to the ship though, there was a Walgreens across the street from the ship. I went in to buy a mask, there were 10 or more people in line to checkout! I went down the street to a souvenir shop, I now own an Old San Juan mask.
I wanted to try and get a few photos at twilight so there would still be some color in the sky. That didn’t go quite as planned, twilight was short lived and the narrow streets hid the sky. I did get two images with twilight sky.
When I photograph a place like this, I like to wonder around and just follow my nose. I usually end up finding some interesting things. I found myself in Plaza de Armas, the original town square. The centerpiece is a fountain, the fountain was now the base for the town Christmas tree. City Hall is along one side of the plaza.
After Plaza de Armas, I ended up back at Umbrella Street. The Christmas lights were lit where the umbrellas usually hang. The Governors Mansion is at the end of the street. Earlier when we went by here the street was closed. It was open now for Navidad de Puerto Rico. There was music playing and they were projecting a light show onto the mansion. The street was narrow and there were a lot of people, so I didn’t venture down the street.
I continued walking and I saw a woman walking a dog down a narrow street. I was hoping to get a bit closer but she kept moving away from me. It was an interesting street so I kept going.
This brought me to the old city wall along the entrance to the harbor. I was just in time to see one of the other cruise ships leaving the port. I did a quick time check to make sure it wasn’t my ship! There is always a little fear of the ship leaving without you.
I knew where I was now, Robbie and I came down this hill earlier. Casa Blanca was at the top of the hill. I decided to walk up the hill. It ended up being a pretty interesting street.
I came to a wide walkway with steps, it was sort of like a courtyard/pathway. We came down these steps earlier as well. It looked pretty cool at night.
I continued walking and found some interesting places. I found the famous Puerto Rican flag door by Rosenda Alvarez that I had read about. It was originally the traditional red white and blue. In 2016 she repainted it black and white to reflect the gloomy political climate during that time. Although I had the flag door pinned on my map, I never looked at my map. I just stumbled on to it. I didn’t know anything about the Ricardo Alegria door. Ricardo was a cultural anthropologist and archeologist. He was responsible for the renovation and restoration of Old San Juan. I think they could have given him a better door, maybe a nice wall.
Then I found this beautiful cobblestone street with the Puerto Rican flag in lights! There was also a section of the blue cobblestones.
The flag in lights was like a beacon that I had to follow. I walked down the cobblestone street and found an amazing carousel. I didn’t know about any of these things. If I had been looking for some specific thing, rather than just wondering around, I probably would not halve found most of these things.
The carousel lead me to another Puerto Rican flag. I just stayed in this intersection for a while photographing the people walking around.
I ended up back at the cruise port and the Nieuw Amsterdam, it was still there, phewww! I wondered around the dock taking a few photos of the ship before boarding. I set up to take a photo of the ship with the ornamental pillars and a woman laid down and started doing some arm exercises. So I took her picture too.
I had lots of fun photographing Old San Juan at night. I was able to do two of my favorite things. Wonder around an old town with cobblestone streets and colorful buildings and night photography. Hopefully I was able to get a few good images to boot.
Next to Barrio La Perla is Cementerio Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis. An ornate cemetery from the mid 1800’s. Several prominent Puerto Ricans are buried here. The cemetery is outside of the city walls. We had to walk down a steep road to the bottom of the wall. Then through the wall to get to it. The cemetery was closed when we were there but I was able to get some photos through the fence. The other side of the cemetery is bordered by Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Built in the 16th century in honor of King Philip II of Spain to protect San Juan. Old San Juan is bookmarked by Castillo San Felipe del Morro on the west and Castillo de San Cristobal to the east.
Continuing our walk through the beautiful cobblestone streets of Old San Juan I was noticing several homes with decorative tile house numbers.
Casa Blanca, a whitewashed home, built for Juan Ponce de Leon, the first Governor of Puerto Rico. Unfortunately he died on his expedition to Florida, in search of the fountain of youth, before it was completed in 1521. The home is currently a museum. It was closed when we were there.
Next we came to La Fortaleza, the fortified Governors Mansion. The street leading to the mansion dubbed, Umbrella street, typically has colorful umbrellas suspended above it. Umbrella street was decorated with Christmas lights instead of umbrellas during our trip. It was closed off to prepare for, what I later found out was, Navidad en Puerto Rico, a Christmas light show projected onto the mansion.
A quick look at Capilla del la Salud a small chapel at the end of the street, before heading back to the ship. We were very hot, sweaty and exhausted from walking up the hills and down the hills and back again. Robbie was done for the day but we were in port until 11pm. I wanted to take the opportunity to photograph Old San Juan at night. I freshened up a bit and went back for more of Old San Juan.
The San Juan port is right in Old San Juan. Pretty much anything in Old San Juan is within walking distance. We did not do a shore excursion here. We just walked through Old San Juan on our own.
My wife Robbie and I walked off of the ship into Old San Juan. It was a short walk to the Capitol Building of Puerto Rico.
The front of the Capitol Building faces the Atlantic Ocean. Across the street is a statue of San Juan Bautista (Saint John the Baptist) name sake for the city of San Juan. It looks like he is giving the world the finger but he is actually pointing into the air. We took the steps down to the beach. The beach is quite narrow but the blue water and the Coconut palm trees are beautiful!
We continued walking through Old San Juan. It was a very hot day for the day after Christmas! Old San Juan is by no means flat! We were walking up hills and down hills, did I mention that it was hot! At the top of a steep hill we came to Castillo de San Cristobal, an old Spanish fort. It took 150 years to build, construction started in 1634 and wasn’t completed until 1765. It’s the largest Spanish fort in the Americas.
The blue cobblestones of Old San Juan. When Spanish ships sailed to the New World they were filled with ballast for stabilization. The Spanish ships sailing to San Juan were filled with ballast bricks made from iron mill slag. Ships returning to Spain, replaced the bricks with pilfered gold as ballast. The discarded bricks were used to pave the streets of Old San Juan. With age, the slag in the bricks turned a cobalt blue.
Barrio La Perla, a colorful ramshackle neighborhood along the Atlantic coast of San Juan. During hurricane Maria in 2017, La Perla, as well as most of Puerto Rico, were heavily damaged by the storm. A music video filmed in La Perla called “Dispacito” (slow), criticized the slow response by the United States government, it went viral. The video created a surge of visitors to the barrio.
Christmas/Anniversary Cruise 2021: Day 3, Part 3, Christmas Day! Fort San Felipe, Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic
After a great tour of the Isabel de Torres National park, our minibus took the roller coaster ride down the mountain, back to Puerto Plata. As we were walking and driving through Puerto Plata, it was nice to see that most of the people all over Puerto Plata were wearing masks during this time of covid. We stopped along the Malecon de Puerto Plata, a boulevard along the coast. We got out and stretched our legs on the beach for a bit.
We took a short drive down the road to Fort San Felipe. The stone fort was built by King Felipe II of Spain, in the mid 1500s, to protect Puerto Plata from pirates and privateers. This was a quick photo stop, we needed to get back to Amber Cove.
We returned to Amber Cove to board our ship to start our next adventure. We had fun spending Christmas Day in the Dominican Republic. Our next port will be in San Juan, Puerto Rico!
Christmas/Anniversary Cruise 2021: Day 3, Part 2, Christmas Day! Mount Isabela de Torres, Dominican Republic
We had a great time on our walking tour of Puerto Plata. We returned to our minibus to climb the mountain! It was a long steep winding road to the top of Mount Isabel de Torres. We got a good look at the beautiful countryside along the way. The higher we climbed the better the views became. Towards the top, the road was very steep! Our minibus was having a hard time. Rambo told us that we would probably need to get out and push! Luckily the minibus made it to the top without our help. When we arrived at the top we were literally in the clouds. We were there to see the Christ statue on the peak. It was barley visible through the clouds. Puerto Plata below us was totally obscured. The Christ the Redeemer Statue is a smaller replica of the same statue in Rio de Janeiro. The clouds were moving rapidly and we were able to get nice views of the statue and Puerto Plata below. There is a cable car from Puerto Plata to the peak of Isabel de Torres. It was temporarily closed.
The Isabel de Torres National park has a beautiful botanical garden. After we took in the views of the valley below, we took a walk through the garden. The stone pathway wound its way through the beautiful lush garden. We came to a small cave. Rambo said he brought a group of 14 here and only 13 came out! He was kidding, I think….
There was a replica of an early Dominican home complete with its own herb garden. Rambo was very excited to tell us all about how the early Dominicans lived. He plucked herbs from the garden and invited everyone to smell how fresh they were. He was really having fun showing us how they used a device that looked like an old butter churn to grind coffee. He was very funny shaking his booty as he ground the coffee. He was telling us all about the house and how they lived. The roof was made from the base of palm fronds. It was a very interesting place. The path wound its way down the hill and was fairly steep! We were worried that we were going to need to go back up the hill! We were happy to see that Rambo had the driver bring the mini bus down the hill to meet us.
Oh no, it’s our last full day in Venice! Robbie and I are on our own today. Everyone in our group is doing their own thing. We took a walk to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. The basilica is the beautiful domed church that stands out as you look down the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge. Along the way we stumbled onto the Venice Photo Lab. A photography exhibit of photographers that were chosen from Instagram. There were quite a few interesting photos on display. We stopped by the Accademia Bridge and found it fascinating that there was actually a phone booth. There were also public toilets or WC (water closet). If you need to use them, and we did, you will need 1.50€ in coins. They were clean and very nice. The basilica is right along a busy Grand Canal. It’s interesting to watch all of the boats zipping up and down the canal. From the top of the basilica steps you get a nice view across the canal toward St. Marks Square. We were getting hungry and started to look for a restaurant. The problem is, Italians eat early and then late. So lots of restaurants close for the afternoon. Unfortunately, when you’re out and about seeing the sights the time you think about getting something to eat is the time most restaurants are closed for the afternoon. There are many restaurants that do not close in the afternoon. We seemed to be in an area where most of them were closed or pricey. We found the Bar dell Accademia close to the Accademia Bridge. We had a very relaxing and tasty lunch. Robbie and I had a great day exploring a new section of Venice.
Old Havana is a very beautiful and colorful city. Robbie and I had an awesome day touring it. Although most of the old town was beautiful, I only have shown the beauty of the city. There are parts of Old Havana that were in near ruin. As we were walking through the streets we also saw buildings being repaired or restored. So I would say that Old Havana is a work in progress. The walking tour was great but we were exhausted. We had a relaxing meal and had a bit of a rest. I wanted to take a look at the city at night, so we went up to the upper deck. Old Havana was just as beautiful at night. I’m pretty sure that if we had wanted to, we could have taken a short walk through town. But as I said we were exhausted. I took some photos from the deck of the ship and we called it a day.
The fourth and final plaza on our walking tour was Plaza de Armas. The plaza is the oldest plaza in Havana. It was used for a military parade grounds for the near by Castillo de La Real Fuerza. There is a large beautiful park with lots of trees. Besides the castle, there is El Templete, a roman style temple commemorating the establishment of Havana. On certain days there is a used book market that is quite popular. The plaza is very close to the famous Malecon of Havana and the cruise terminal. A short walk from the plaza and we are back at our ship. We had a really nice day exploring Old Havana. The tour guide was really good, he had lots of info about Old Havana. He took time to answer everyone’s questions. We really enjoyed our walking tour of Old Havana.
Our walking tour of Old Havana included a stop at Palacio de La Artesania Casa de Don Mateo Pedroso. It was the mansion of Don Mateo Pedroso who was an influential man in colonial Havana. Inside of yet another beautiful interior courtyard there are shops selling arts and crafts. From time to time they have live music. There is also a rum and cigar bar. Here is where we learned about Cuban rum, coffee, and cigars. Cubans like to have rum and coffee with their cigars. We learned the proper way to light a cigar. There is a lit candle on the table along with some thin strips of wood. You light the wooden stick with the candle, then you light the cigar with the wooden stick. The chemicals in a match would ruin the flavor of a fine Cuban cigar. You then smoke the cigar and sip the rum and coffee. You do not inhale the cigar smoke. You drawl it into your mouth and enjoy the flavor and then blow it out. As I mentioned before, we normally like to do some exploring on our own. This rum and cigar experience is something that we probably would not have done on our own. We may have had rum and cigars but probably would not have learned about the Cuban tradition. We really enjoyed the rum and cigar experience. So taking a tour does have its advantages.
The stone castle in the photos is the police headquarters for old town.
The beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal is the centerpiece of the Plaza de La Catedral. The other buildings in the plaza were mansions of the 18th century rich and famous. They are now museums of art and history. El Patio, one of Havana’s more famous restaurants is also in one of the old mansions. The buildings are a rustic stone with blue wood trim, very rustic chic.
On the way to the plaza, we passed the Mural Historico Cultural del Liceo Artistico y Literario de la Habana, phew that’s a mouthful. It’s a large mural that depicts the history of Havana in the 1800s. It’s interesting to note, the mural is not painted. The artist used different shades of sand and stone instead of paint. The scene takes place at the Palacio del Marques de Arcos, just across the street. The large wooden door in the mural is the same door that we are looking through in the photo. We passed through the palace and it’s interior courtyard on our way to the plaza.
Our next stop was Plaza Vieja. At one time this plaza was the main square of the city. It’s surrounded by beautiful buildings centuries old. In the past they were mostly residences or apartments. Today most of them are museums, restaurants, or hotels. In the past decade or so, many of the buildings have been restored after falling into a state of disrepair. They have been painted in bright colors. Their colorful stained glass windows have been restored to their original glory. Plaza Vieja was really beautiful.
On our way there we passed through a building with a beautiful open courtyard in the center. There are a lot of these open courtyards in old town. They all have lots of plants and trees, giving you the feeling of being inside and outside. I really liked these courtyards.
Plaza Vieja also has a unique statue that seems to get a lot of attention. It’s a bronze statue of a naked woman, riding a huge rooster, holding a huge fork. The artist apparently gave no explanation of his artwork; he left it up for interpretation. There have been many interpretations. The most probable one says that the woman is a prostitute, the rooster represents the men who pay her and the fork represents the food that she puts on the table for her family with the money. It’s a most interesting statue for sure.
On our way to the next plaza we passed one of many little parks. They provide a nice green space that locals seem to enjoy. We also passed an interesting fountain. The water for the fountain ran through a trough down the middle of the street.
Due to the regulations for visiting Cuba, Robbie and I needed to do a shore excursion for each day in Havana. We chose to do a walking tour of Old Havana. I really like walking tours. I think they are the best way to see a city. You can get up close and personal; it gives you more of a feel for what the city is actually like. It’s also the best way to photograph a city. Another plus to doing a walking tour is that we got to walk off a lot of the wonderful food we had been eating on the cruise. There are four main plazas in the old part of Havana, Plaza de San Fransisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza Catedral and Plaza de Armas. During our walking tour we visited each of these plazas. We got to see most of Old Havana along the way.
We started with Plaza de San Fransisco. Walking out of the cruise terminal, we crossed the street and we were in the plaza. The plaza is named for the Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asisi, that is the most prominent building in the plaza. Being near the port, this plaza was a center for commerce. Another prominent building is the old customs and stock exchange building. There is also a nice fountain, the Fuente de Los Leones. There were lots of locals enjoying the fountain and the plaza. There were also school children playing. Our guide, who was great by the way, was telling us that the color of the bandana the children were wearing indicated what grade they were in.
El Caballero de Paris
(The Gentleman from Paris)
One of the most prominent features of the Plaza de San Fransisco is the bronze statue of El Caballero de Paris. El Caballero de Paris was a well known street person who lived in Havana in the 1950s. He walked the streets of the city making friends with everyone. Most people were a bit leery of him at first, but they grew to really like him. When people would give him some money, he was known to give them back some change. He would also draw pictures on postcards to give out in exchange for money. He was born in Spain and moved to Cuba when he was 12 years old. So where did the Paris part come from? Nobody really seems to know. Some say it was from a french novel. He was also known to hang out at a place called the sidewalk of the Louvre. He also may have worked for a while at the Paris restaurant. He is also dressed like a Frenchman. What ever the reason, the people of Havana saw fit to honor him with a statue.
Our guide was telling everyone about the tradition of touching the statue. If you put your hand on his beard, grab his finger with your other hand and put your foot on his foot. Then you must look across the plaza, at the statue of the God Mercury on the dome of the old stock exchange building. This is said to bring you wealth and a return trip to Havana. I’m still waiting on both! I think there is a fair chance I may return to Havana. I’m not sure about the wealth.
Robbie and I had a great day in Key West seeing the sights. Departing before sunset we had some time to enjoy the ship. We had a nice dinner and took in the evening show. When you are cruising there is no shortage of food or entertainment options. We were scheduled to arrive in Havana early the next morning.
After breakfast, we were up on deck early, along with most of the other passengers, to get a first glimpse of Havana as we approached the port. Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro is a beautiful stone Spanish fort that has guarded the port for many centuries. Castillo Del Morro is an impressive sight as you enter the harbor. The massive statue of Jesus, El Cristo de La Habanna, overlooks the the port keeping watch over everyone coming and going. From the other side of the ship we get a good view of Old Havana. The dome of the old capital is visible in the distance. Sailing into Havana is quite an experience.
We like to explore a port on our own as much as possible. Sometimes though the places you want to see are too far from the port. Maybe a guided tour is a better option. There may be some other reasons why purchasing a shore excursion may be the better option. Havana is a great port to explore on your own. The port of Havana is right in old town Havana. All of old town is within walking distance. Unfortunately, due to US/Cuba relations, there are regulations about visiting Cuba. When we first started to plan our trip to Cuba you needed to do what was called a person to person tour. Meaning you needed to do a guided tour that had some sort of cultural exchange. After that you were able to do some exploring on your own. As our cruise approached, we elected a new president that changed the rules. The new rules went into effect just before our cruise. Now we were required to be part of a tour the whole time. We were no longer able to do any exploring on our own. I wanted to do a tour of Havana in one of the old classic cars. The old classic car tour from the cruise line was rather expensive. We could have hired an old classic car tour on our own for half the price. The regulations being shiny and new; the cruise line was unsure about how to handle them. I wasn’t sure if we would be allowed off of the ship unless we were part of a shore excursion. So we booked shore excursions for both days.
Update on Cuba. This is a multiple part post that I have been working on for a few weeks. As I finished writing about our first day in Havana, we learned of a US ban on travel to Cuba. This is very sad, we really enjoyed our trip to Havana. We were looking forward to going back and seeing more of Cuba. I not only wanted to share our experiences, I also wanted to inspire readers to visit Cuba. Sadly, posts like these may be the only way that any of us will be able to visit Cuba in the future.
No matter the port, the shore excursion procedure is about the same. We all gather in the big show room at a scheduled time in groups according to your particular excursion. Each group is dismissed in turn, so everyone is not trying to exit the ship at the same time. There is usually still quite the queue, since excursions were required, this was a longer one. Cuba being a mystery, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when we went through customs. As it turned out it was no different than any other country. The cruise terminal is on the dock and is pretty big and long. After going through customs there are some shops selling cigars, rum, and all sorts of things. You can’t get Cuban currency in the states, and that’s something we needed. At the end of the building there is a money exchange. Its just like going to a bank, you go to the next available teller, give the teller US and they give you Cuban, easy! The whole process is rather easy and stress free. Cuban money in hand we went down to the ground level to rejoin our excursion group.
Walking out of the cruise terminal into the street, seeing Havana for the first time, is hard to describe. The buildings are old, the cars are old, it’s like no other place I have been before. Havana has a pulse or a vibe that you feel right away. We were looking forward to seeing the rest of the city.