Moments after casting off from San Juan Marina, in a vast harbour embracing Puerto Rico’s biggest city, I throttle up our rubber dinghy’s outboard and the lively craft surges forward. Two other vessels complete our fleet. A Puerto Riqueño, with his wife for crew, pilots one. Our tour guide, Elvis Monge, handles the other. Our manifest includes my wife and our friend, Rebecca Keddie, who’s lived on-island for roughly a year. I’m on the helm. No big-box excursion this, but an amphibious city tour, thanks to San Juan Mini Boats.
Welcome to San Juan Harbour.
Up Close and Personal.
Company staffer June Otway briefs us before we depart. Pelicans lounging on the next dock eavesdrop. Nearby sleek sportfishing boats strain at their docklines.
Otway stops momentarily, studying the water.
“Thought I saw something,” she says. “Had manatees here yesterday.”
Manatee sightings are just one potential perk of this unique tour. “You also get a view of old San Juan most visitors will never see.”
Boater that I am, I’m impatient to get out on the water – particularly since I get to skipper my own boat, diminutive though it may be.
Our vessels for the ninety-minute U-drive tour are thirteen-foot rigid inflatable Caribe dinghies. Each boat carries up to four people. Thirty-horsepower outboards provide locomotion.
After our briefing, we head out, turning to port once past the procession of docked cruise ships, flying up the roughly five-kilometre length of the bay.
First waypoint lies at the end of a narrow channel called Martín Peña. This waterway, leading into the bay proper, is bordered by dense mangrove, dominated by a derelict boardwalk. Way off our port beam we see the skyscrapers of Condado, an area reminiscent of Miami Beach. At the end of this passage Elvis points out highlights of modern San Juan.
History buff that I am, I can’t wait to retrace our route for now we’re pointed at Old San Juan, the second oldest colonial city in the Americas.
First thing I notice in the distance is the cathedral’s steeple reaching heavenward over the cityscape. I check out the walls of a fortress – Castillo San Cristóbal – standing guard over the city, itself protected by walls that climb twelve metres high, round turrets called garitas clinging to their heights. The fortress itself is a UNESCO Heritage Site.
Now we slow down, spinning lazy as maple keys in a puddle. Elvis kills his engine, shares some history.
“San Juan is named for Saint John the Baptist,” he says. “Ponce de Leon established settlement here around 1520. The colonial city is a UNESCO heritage site.”
Now we clear another headland. The mouth of the bay opens up before us, ground swells rocking us up and down.
Maybe two hundred metres off our starboard beam those roughhewn brown walls squat implacably. Visible above their heights is a sort of storybook white castle replete with twin circular turrets. Called Il Fortaleza, its construction was completed in 1533. It serves today as the governor’s mansion.
Now we venture further seaward, passing under the shadow of a massive fortress locals call simply “El Morro.” It is both trip through time and a lesson in humility. As we gaze skyward, my wife and Rebecca snapping photos, I reflect on how daunting that first view of this fortress must have been for potential invaders.
No shortage of those. From here we can see a vast green field between the walls of the fort and the colonial city itself. Hundreds of Dutch soldiers died here in one futile assault. The British attacked twice. Even the Americans got in on the act during the Spanish-American War.
Now we make for more sheltered waters. Elvis drops anchor and we raft up before jumping overboard for a quick swim.
As I tread water, I consider San Juan’s history, I inhale the sights laid out before me, I savour my unique perspective.
Of course, there were countless invaders, I think to myself. San Juan is irresistible.
All too soon Elvis leans over the gunnels of his boat. “Time to go,” he says.
Now I clamour aboard, I engage the engine. Now we chase the wake of Elvis’ dinghy as the sun and the breezes dry me off, bouncing like a skier on a mogul run.
We approach the marina, passing once again in the shadow of those towering cruise ships. Off our starboard bow a pair of Optimist sailboats – white triangle sails and bathtub hulls – explores the winds. We zip past a sailboat at anchor, Canadian flag fluttering on its stern.
In the distance hazy blue mountains sprout skyward above emerald rainforests. They beckon like a Caribbean Bali-Hai.
Tomorrow we will go afield, exploring this lush countryside, leaving San Juan off our stern. Today we’re spending time with San Juan Harbour.
Up. Close. Personal.
LEAD PHOTO: Il Fortaleza – now the governor’s mansion – is a dominant feature of the Old San Juan skyline. PHOTO CREDIT: Sharon Matthews-Stevens