Christopher Columbus landed on this island on November 19, 1493 and he named it San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). The first Spanish settlement was founded at Caparra, to the west of San Juan in 1508. The excellent harbour formed by San Juan Bay and the discovery of gold in the river resulted in the island becoming known as Puerto Rico (Rich Port). The arrival of the Spanish had a devastating effect on the indigenous Taíno and Carib Indians whose populations were decimated by disease and repression. Puerto Rico became an important staging post between Spain and its South American colonies. With other European countries casting envious eyes over the wealth that Spain was extracting from its colonies, the Spanish heavily fortified the island. The fortifications had to withstand many attacks, for example England’s Sir Francis Drake attacked San Juan with 27 ships and 2,500 troops in 1595 but was unable to take the city. In the 19th century Spain’s empire began to break up and pressure for independence built up in Puerto Rico. In 1897 Spain approved autonomy for the island but kept it as an overseas province. However, in 1898 the USA declared war on Spain in order to end their colonial rule. They invaded Puerto Rico and the war soon ended with Spain ceding Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines and Guam to the US. The autonomy that Puerto Rico had won from Spain was replaced by a US colonial system. Puerto Ricans became US citizens in 1917 but even now the island is a US Territory so it residents do not have votes in US federal elections.
Schooner Amistad & Carnival Valor, San Juan
The old city of San Juan was built on an island that guarded the mouth of the bay. The island has long since been tethered to the mainland by road bridges and the Spanish galleons have been replaced by cruise ships that are able to moor right by the old city. On the left of the picture, dwarfed by the cruise ship, is the two masted Schooner Anistad, a replica of a schooner called La Amistad. In 1839 La Amistad was based in Cuba and she set off from Havana for Guanaja with a cargo of 53 Mende slaves from Sierra Leone. La Amistad was not designed to carry slaves, so she did not have the security found on slave ships. The slaves escaped and took control of the ship. The captain and some crew were killed but the two slave owners survived. The Mende slaves demanded to be taken back to Sierra Leone, but the navigator deceived them and took a course up the east coast of the USA. They ended up in New Haven, Connecticut where the slaves were interned until their status could be settled. The international slave trade had been made illegal in the early 19th century, so the owners pretended that the slaves had been born in Cuba. The case went to the US Supreme Court which ruled that the Mende slaves had been illegally held as slaves and they were freed. The Schooner Amiistad replica was built at Mystic Seaport, Connecticut between 1998 and 2000. It travels around US ports to educate the public about slavery and its abolition.
El Capitolio de Puerto Rico from Plaza San Juan Bautista, San Juan
While the US originally made Puerto Rico a colony it soon became a self-governing Territory with a government elected by the people of Puerto Rico. It is structured on US lines with a Governor, House of Representatives and Senate. The idea of building a a Territorial Capitol (El Capitolio de Puerto Rico in the Spanish spoken on island) dates back to 1907. Architects were invited to submit designs for a building to house the Legislature and Supreme Court. A design by Frank Perkins of New York was chosen from 139 proposals and in 1909 bids were invited for its construction. The lowest bid far exceeded the budget available. In 1919 the legislature approved a bigger budget, but again it was not enough. By then the design was considered outdated so Adrian C Finlayson, the architect of the Department of the Interior, came up with a new design. Construction work began in 1921 but political unrest brought work to a halt when the first level had been built. In 1923 a new governor restored calm, but by then it was clear that there the design had faults. Finlayson was ill and was replaced by Rafael Carmoega Morales, who working with other architects brought back aspects of the Perkins design. The capitol was inaugurated in 1929 but the dome was not completed until 1961.
Puerto Rican mountains from Castillo de Serralles, Ponce
Puerto Rico comprises a main island and a number smaller islands only two of which are inhabited year-round. It has a tropical rainforest climate and the interior is mountainous, rising to a height of 1,338 metres (4,390 feet). The island is vulnerable to hurricanes, something that was not visible when we visited in 2014. In September 2017 Puerto Rico was hit by a double whammy. First Hurricane Irma passed just north of the island as a Category 5 hurricane, causing substantial damage. Later in the month Category 4 Hurricane Maria scored a direct hit causing utter devastation. The hurricane destroyed 80% of the island’s ageing electricity network and with no power there was no water supply and no cellphone service. Puerto Rico had been in financial difficulties for some time and this, coupled with a lacklustre response from the US Federal Government, has meant that it will take a long time to repair the damage.
View towards mountains from top of Yokahu Tower, El Yunque
A tract of forest in the east of Puerto Rico was set aside by King Alfonso XII of Spain in 1876. After the USA took over the tract was named Luquillo National Forest then from 1935 it was known as Caribbean National Forest. In 2007 President George W Bush changed the name again to El Yunque National Forest. This is an area that receives up to 5 metres (200 inches) of rain each year and supports very wide biodiversity. It is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System. We found the journey to and from El Yunque National Forest very uncomfortable as the road to and through the forest is full of potholes. In the forest you are surrounded most of the time by thick and lush vegetation so El Yunque is not a place for sweeping views of the mountains. An exception to this is the Yokahu Tower, built in 1963, from the top of which you get a good view across the forest canopy to the mountains. Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused substantial damage and at the time of writing many areas were still closed. Click Tab 2 to see the Yokahu Tower.
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Iglesia San Jose, Aibonito
Aibonito is a typical Puerto Rican mountain town at an elevation of 731 metres (2,401 feet). It is known as the ‘Switzerland of Puerto Rico’ and here the weather is noticeably cooler than on the coast. Aibonito can be traced back to a a ranch established the 1630s. A town grew up which was formally recognised in 1824. The first catholic church was built in the town the following year. During the 1898 Spanish American War, the local terrain helped Spoanish and Puerto Rican troops to defeat the invading American troops but this did not stop the Madrid government from giving in to US demands. In the centre of Aibonito is Plaza de Recreo de Aibonito on which stands Iglesia San Jose which was built between 1887 and 1897. Click Tab 2 to see a view of Plaza de Recreo de Aibonito.
Iguana on Level 6 Defences, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, San Juan
You expect to see iguanas in the Puerto Rican countryside, often sunning themselves on the branches of trees. What was a surprise was to see them equally at home in the fortifications of San Juan.
Ice cream Seller, San Juan
It is impossible to over emphasise just how different it is here from the US mainland. In addition to Spanish being the predominant language, the look and feel of Puerto Rico is very different. We have never seen an ice cream cart like this in mainland USA.