Cats And Ghosts. Battles Of San Juan

San Juan View from Fort San Felipe

San Juan View from Fort San Critobal

Old San Juan is full of cats. You have to be very careful not to step on a cat when walking around looking up at old historical buildings, for the cats, like shadows, blend with the cobblestones paving the narrow streets of the old city.

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Founded by the Spanish colonist Juan Ponce de Leon in 1521 on the north-eastern coast of the island, San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico is the capital of Puerto Rico and the second oldest European capital city in the New World after Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

San Juan Port entrance and stone wall

Enclosed by massive stone walls at the mouth of San Juan Bay, Old San Juan is today a major cultural tourist destination attracting visitors with its ancient two-storied houses, a network of narrow streets covered by adoquine, a blue stone cast from furnace slag brought over as ballast on Spanish ships, historical buildings housing museums and cultural organizations, public squares, and cathedrals.

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But the most important buildings declared National Historic Sites here are the city’s former defense forts: Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristobal, a part of humanity’s cultural patrimony.

El Morro

El Morro

Built by the Spanish government in the 16th and 17th century the two forts defended this important seaport used by merchant and military ships traveling between Spain and the Americas against foreign powers.

Battles of San Juan

Many battles took place outside the stone walls of these ancient forts, battles of epic proportions. In 1595 Sir Francis Drake attacked the city but the El Morro’s canons repelled the English battleships.

In 1625 the city was assaulted by the Dutch but El Morro withstood once more and was not taken. Instead, a counterattack left many Dutch soldiers dead after Puerto Rican soldiers and civilian volunteers of the city militia boarded and defeated the Dutch ships.

In 1797, during the French Revolutionary Wars, the British attacked San Juan once again but the siege of the city was unsuccessful and the British army was forced to withdraw in defeat for a second time.

Finally, in May of 1898 United States Navy ships arrived at San Juan Bay. The American bombardment caused a lot of destruction on the city, but the Spanish forces commanded by Captain Mendez heroically withstood the attack for many days. Yet, with just one signature, Spain ceded the island to the United States after the Treaty of Paris agreement. Puerto Rico became and remains to this day an unincorporated territory of the United States.

During the next century, many uprisings against the United States occurred in different places in Puerto Rico all by the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, and failed. One of the most notable ones is the uprising in San Juan on October 30, 1950. A group of nationalists attacked the residence of the Puerto Rican governor and the United States Federal Court House. The battle between the nationalists and the police lasted 15 minutes and four of the five attackers were killed.

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

El Morro and the Atlantic Ocean

Walking next to the stone walls all around the small island looking at the bay, and through the narrow streets of Old San Juan stepping on the blue cobblestones from the Spanish colonial era, roaming inside the dark humid corridors of El Morro and Fort San Felipe is an unforgettable journey back in history and our best experience in Puerto Rico.

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Maya

Maya

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Felipe

Iguana on the stone wall, Fort San Cristobal

 

San Juan Cathedral

San Juan Cathedral

View of San Juan

View of San Juan

 

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Santo Domingo. History, Culture And Nature

After „conquering“ Pico Duarte, we keep driving south to Santo Domingo de Guzmán, the capital and largest city in the  Dominican Republic and the most populated metropolis in the entire Caribbean region.

Alcazar de Colon, the oldest Viceregal residence in America. The building houses the Museo Alcázar de Diego Colón, whose collection exhibits the Caribbean's most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art

Alcazar de Colon, the oldest Viceregal residence in America. The building houses the Museo Alcázar de Diego Colón, whose collection exhibits the Caribbean’s most important ensemble of European late medieval and Renaissance works of art

Founded by Christopher Columbus’s younger brother Bartholomew Columbus in 1496, the city is the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in the Americas and the headquarters of Spanish colonial rule in the New World.

Street outside the the French Embassy, in a building said to have been the house of Hernán Cortés.

Street outside the the French Embassy, in a building said to have been the house of Hernán Cortés.

Santo Domingo is the site of the first university, cathedral, castle, monastery, and fortress in the New World and the city’s Colonial Zone is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites.

Ruins of the Franciscan Monastery (Monasterio de San Francisco)

Ruins of the Franciscan Monastery (Monasterio de San Francisco)

We wish we had at least one week to spend here, even a month, as there are innumerable sites, museums, tourist attractions, and cultural events worth seeing in Santo Domingo. But we only have one day. We decide the best thing to do in a day is visit the Colonial Zone and the National Botanical Garden.

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A church in the Colonial Zone

The Ciudad Colonial is located on the west bank of the Ozama River. It covers less than 5 square kilometers where the concentration of colonial landmarks is overwhelming.

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Panteon de la Patria in a former Jesuit Church

We walk on the oldest paved street in the New World dating from 1502, Calle las Damas to Parque Colon, a square that borders a 16th-century Cathedral. We see fortresses, cathedrals, ruins and building dating from 1500’s and 1600’s.

Parque Colon and the Cathedral.

Parque Colon and Cathedral.

After visiting the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo we spend a few hours in the National Botanical Garden.

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Named after Dr. Rafael María Moscoso, the first Dominican botanist who wrote a catalog of the plants of the Spanish island in 1943, the Botanical Garden occupies a large territory of a few square mile and was founded in 1976 to study and preserve the varied plant life of the Dominican Republic.

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We take a small train tour inside this plant sanctuary among bromeliads, ferns, palms, orchids, and aquatic plants. A favorite spot is the Japanese garden with its small island in the middle of a green pond.

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We left a small part of out hearts in Santo Domingo, a site of so much history, culture and beauty. One day we will surely return.

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La Habana

La Habana, Cuba

 

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La Habana of our nostalgic imagination was a coastal vibrant city of music and love, with ancient colonial architecture, great cathedrals and plazas, museums and galleries, colorful facades with balconies looking over narrow streets where old Soviet cars and even older American ones roar like lions in the perpetual heat of the summer. Where grey-haired men sit in the coolness of parks under dark ever-green trees in small groups improving the art of chess or dominoes, children run around barefoot, and beautiful Cubanas in dresses of all colors like muñeca, illuminate the entire town.

Church in Habana Vieja

Church in Habana Vieja

 

For a few days we roam the streets, somnambulists enveloped by sounds and smells we could not have predicted, comparing our imaginary Havana with the one before us, trying to look all around us and remember.

La Habana is schizophrenical, a city of multiple personalities; getting to know her can be heartbreaking.

An old car parked in Havana

An old car parked in Havana

La Catedral de San Cristobal,  radiant in the heat of the summer, la Plaza de Armas,  occupied by book vendors under shady trees, el Capitolio, a huge poster of Fidel Castro hugging Hugo Chavez in the front, el Museo de la Revolucion,  rooms filled with black and white photographs and pages of the history of the Cuban Revolution, el Malecón, couples sitting with their backs to the city, kissing, el Museo de Bellas Artes, an interminable maze of rooms and corridors filled with Cuban paintings of all periods, la Galeria de Arte Contemporaneo, a surprisingly good exhibit of contemporary art, la Casa del Che, an empty ghostly mausoleum opposite the statue of Cristo, el Morro, heavy on the other side of the Havana harbor, indifferent to the rest of the city, forever facing the unpredictable seas. All points of interest are exactly as we expected: impressive in size and reputation. We visit them one by one like the tour guide suggests, blending in the steady flow of pink tourists with photo cameras, backpacks, sunglasses, and hats.

 

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

The Cathedral of San Cristobal

 

 But the atmosphere of this city, like a storm cloud, is heavy and charged with anxiety. What impresses us most are not the many points of interest turned touristic attractions but the aftermath-like ruins of the residential buildings. Everywhere, behind colorful facades hide dark humid interiors; the old apartment buildings are in a sad state of neglect and decay.

An apartment building entrance in Havana

An apartment building entrance in Havana

The care-free Habaneros of our imagination have been forever left to linger in the 1970s and the 1980s, succeeded by hungry sad people who have lost everything: hope, faith, and dignity.

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

A Cuban kid standing on a doorway

We keep going. We only stop for beers, some ice cream, a small pizza and mango juice, and we are ready for the next place, dodging the inevitable taxi drivers offering rides and guided tours. We also start noticing strange things, some don’t make sense at all.

A goat in downtown Havana

A goat in downtown Havana

A beautiful woman with a bright dress comes out of a dark  suspicious apartment entrance where electrical cables form a dense tangled maize on the wall. Used baby diapers have been washed and are now hanging to dry on a balcony. A 15-year-old boy is sitting on the sidewalk flattening beer cans with a hummer, his friends pass by holding wooden planks and invite him to play baseball; he can’t, has to work. The little bakery is almost empty, so is the fruit and vegetables bodegas. The big news they announce on TV is that eggs will be distributed in the entire country tomorrow. An old woman explains that the upper floor of the building she lives in crumbled and fell over her up-stairs neighbors last year killing the father. A teenage girl is kissing a very old foreigner in the park. All refrigerators you see through open doors of dark apartments are the same made-in-China model. Things don’t make sense to us but we hope that at least they make sense to the locals. But the locals tell us they don’t really. „Hay que inventar.“, we hear them sigh often. It means, they have to resort to their imagination, they have to „invent“ ways to survive. On the positive side of it, this makes them very resourceful and versatile people.

 

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

A fifteen-year-old boy flattening beer cans

Thus, we discover La Habana full of past glory and sad misery, getting to know her bit by bit. She reminds us of the Cubana posing all day on the corner of the Plaza de la Catedral in her traditional cotton dress  and a huge unlit cigar in the mouth, like Mickey Mouse or Spider Man in Disney World, waiting for tourists to take her picture for a peso. La Habana charms us, invites us, surprises us, shocks us. We are left with a wrong feeling inside. Having a relaxed authentic experience here today is almost impossible. We wish we could have visited La Habana in the 1980s.

La Cubana

La Cubana

 

More Pictures from Havana

 

Cuban girls

Cuban girls

 

A dog in the window

A dog in the window

 

Load of bananas

Load of bananas

 

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

A dead decapitated bird on a tree

 

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

A crumbling yellow facade. Woman with child

 

A Cuban girl

A Cuban girl

 

A yellow facade

A yellow facade

 

El perro chino. Walking

El perro chino. Walking

 

Fish

Fish

 

 

Pregnant woman on a balcony

Pregnant woman on a balcony

 

Plaza

Plaza

 

Contemporary Art Gallery

Contemporary Art Gallery

 

Blue facade

Blue facade

 

Blue girls

Blue girls

 

Old cars

Old cars

 

Dog

Dog

 

Window

Window

 

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

Looking out from El Morro over Havana Harbor

 

Two boys

Two boys

 

Plaza Vieja

Plaza Vieja

 

Stairs and electrical box

Stairs and electrical box

 

El Morro from the ocean

El Morro from the ocean

 

 

Man behind peacock

Man behind peacock

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