The few uphill blocks on Calle Tanca only escalate the beating of my heart after rushing in and out of the guesthouse to deposit luggage. There's a different type of baggage that always needs unpacking first. Once reaching Calle Norzagaray, what awaits has became my defining ceremony of auto-exorcism for wiping the slate clean.
Just to the left of the small park area is a stretch of 9-foot high fortress barriers. Vault yourself up through one of the lowered rampart indentions, climb atop, and head where ever the wall may lead...
La Perla is the haphazardly assembled community just below the walls, but don't let warmth of assorted pastel colored buildings fool you. The streets are narrow and often filled with inhabitants in a crude but luring way. Enjoy views from your elevated observation deck but never accept an invitation to descend for a visit or simply getting a closer look. This intriguing area is one of the most dangerous for the entire island!
When approaching the large Neurobiological Research Center, the wall takes a right for gaining a profile view of La Perla and realizing just how stacked some of the make-shift structures are. Here you'll come across your first Garita (Sentry Box); strategically placed look-outs built into the fortress walls, which have become Puerto Rico's signature icon. There's a steep, walkable incline behind the research building leading towards El Cemeterio San Juan and the expansive Campo del Morro lawn leading up towards the featured fortress.
There's a soul-stirring affect of contrasts through these parts; modern-day life as islanders flock to the massive green sprawl for kite flying, exercising, family time, romance, and about any other excuse for indulgence. To the right is one of the oldest cemeteries on the island, which is filled with a mind-boggling assortment of tombs and shrines honoring those of years gone by whom once undoubtedly enjoyed the same types of leisure on the wall's other side.
By the time you've reached the western edge of the cemetery, winds from the nearby ocean have magnified in an embracing sort of way, all but murmuring the many silenced voices from the past mingled with conversations and laughs from those on the other side. Find a comfortable perch; stop to listen while taking in one of the best scenes from San Juan's northern shore.
The wall begins to climb the hill towards El Morro and I always begin to sense the power and security of presence trekking across their familiar tops in making what has became a pilgrimage. Beyond the northern wall towards the pounding Atlantic, shaded slopes are covered with some of the densest growth of sea grape trees; another good place to stop and reflect in coolness without the sun.
Coming to a small bunker, there's a brief spot where you'll need take to the turf and you'll discover just how steep the natural incline has been that the rampart has spared you. Once you can step back on the wall, you're at the inner courtyard of El Morro where you can explore outer areas.
Usually the fortress is closed by the time I've began my jaunt, but just to the side of the entry walkway are stairs leading into a moat-like area with plush grass; great for sitting against the shaded walls which have been standing almost 500 years. Let their cool gentle firmness massage your back and your mind. There's also an area against the bay that gives some pretty spectacular views of the six levels of citadels as they descend towards the water.
By now, I'm usually near trance-like state rejoining the wall making a beeline for my "If I could be anywhere in the world" spot atop the cliff that perilously plunges towards the bay. About halfway down this segment is a small circular extension; big enough for two people, and where you're likely to find me of an evening if I'm in town.
Others sporadically pass behind; some lingering at times but this is one of those places where it's easy to savor the extended moments all to yourself. The mouth of the harbor is hemmed from tiny Isla de Cabros lined with mesmerizing palm trees dwarfed in the distance so as not to upstage the pending evening event. More hypnotic and therapeutic than the couch in any shrink's office, the stages of sunset melt to the core of my being.
I've had some landmark occurrences here, regardless of how drab and colorless the skies might have been. Thoughts which run through any of our minds on a regular basis are one thing, but I'm always hypnotically amazed at what hidden factors tend to resurface as unknown issues seeking resolutions. Regardless of which point of dusk I've arrived, the sun slipping below the distant horizon is my time piece for knowing when it's appropriate to move on...along the wall and life in general.
Once this portion of wall has ended, you'll need to take to the steep, grassy hill descending towards Casa Rosa; the pink, colonial structure once serving as military barracks. You'll have to step over an unguarded "no entry" cable for remounting the wall. There's a small bulwark where secondary defense cannons once fired, which also has other soul-stirring views over the harbor and distant peninsula. The area seems to be a popular gathering place for evening dog walkers, but if you're like me, they won't be the only transformation encountered.
A care-free, kid-like manner has always been restored by the time I've reached these segments; walking the long, narrow stretches of straight-away as if performing a tight-rope act for those looking up from the malecón below, or finding myself advancing to greater distance-leaps in the v-shaped indentions evenly distributed along the rampart walls.
Random garitas beckon a more inquisitive, youthful approach than their earlier counterparts, and the playful environment is only heightened from the pair of tennis courts and basketball courtyard always teeming with sounds and energy of life. Should you thirst for more, there's a water spicket along the drive though you may have to wait your turn - including for leashed dogs and their masters.
By now, the historic street lamps lining the promenade and beyond walls in the old city have emblazoned an ambiance, ushering in tranquility and romance of another Caribbean night. A variety of bougainvillea, flamboyáns, and other assorted tropical trees and plants overshadow the wall and parts of this final stretch garden. And then, the sweetest music obscurely blends into the sultry, tropical air...the chirping of the coquí frogs found only on this island; the last confirmation I need to indicate I'm exactly where I should be.
The last section of traversable wall ends at a gated entry that is always open and leads to a small courtyard called Plazuela de la Rogativa; the small plaza of the religious procession. There's a rather haunted looking, larger-than-life bronze statue of the bishop of San Juan and three of his parishioners brandishing torches to commemorate the attempted British siege in 1797, and how their desperate, but successful, tactics fooled the troops into immediate retreat, thinking they'd been outnumbered.
By the time I've reached this point, the unknown, unexplainable transfixion I crave has undeniably taken place. It may be the end of my welcome back ritual, but if you're like me, you'll marvel at the new beginnings whether turning uphill on a side street or continuing towards the historical Puerta de San Juan. Then again, there's always an inviting bench to steady yourself until some of the capricious intoxications of regained liberation subside.
-- Over time, I have discovered that it is possible to begin outside Fuerte San Cristóbal and walk the city's perimeters to Puerta de San Juan from atop the fortress walls. With each return visit, this is still my favorite thing to do en Viejo San Juan; great for elevated perspectives and astounding Photo Opportunities