Photo by Neil Rabinowitz
“Have you ever sailed into San Juan?”
“No, but we’ve chartered in the Virgin Islands” is the response I often receive. Whether you own your own boat or charter, you’ll find Puerto Rico’s capital city is easy to get to and worth a visit.
From St. Thomas, San Juan is a long daysail; from the British Virgin Islands, it’s three quick hops, with stopovers at St. Thomas, Culebra, and Fajardo, Puerto Rico. There are also charter boats available from Fajardo (visit sailcaribe.com), located on the island’s eastern end.
Approaching from the Virgins, you’ll skirt north of La Cordillera, an underwater mountain range, and run parallel to the famous San Juan Trench. At 5.2 miles deep, it’s the deepest point in the Atlantic and offers amazing marlin fishing in-season.
Once you reach Puerto Rico, continue westward until you see heaven-bound jets from San Juan International Airport emerge from behind Isla Verde’s beachfront resorts. Eventually, the beaches of luxurious Condado yield to a rocky coastline, topped with stone walls that form the fortified perimeter of Old San Juan. Colonial Spaniards built major forts in Havana, Cartegena, Veracruz and Portobello as well, but I’d argue that the forts of San Juan are the most dramatic and best preserved. Don’t miss exploring them on foot.
Before your approach, watch the forecasts for swell height and signs of adverse weather. We entered San Juan Harbor in February and again in November, and both times found the entrance to be well marked and safe. Upon arrival, follow the buoys until the harbor finger dead-ends at two marinas: Club Nautico de San Juan (CNSJ) and San Juan Marina. You can also anchor or pick up a mooring on the 20ft shelf located on the south side.
Slipping into CNSJ, the bilingual staff is pleasant and professional. Fuel, WiFi, a chandlery, a beautiful clubhouse and the convenient location make this an ideal home base during your San Juan exploration.
Once you’re settled in CNSJ, head ashore and explore San Juan in every direction. A five-minute walk southeast leads to a grocery store, restaurants and movie theater, all situated alongside the lush gardens of the modern Puerto Rico Convention Center.
To the northwest, a sidewalk extends along a commercial waterfront road all the way to Old San Juan—10 minutes by bicycle or 25 minutes by foot. Alternatively, a shady promenade through Muñoz Municipal Park parallels the road and offers splendid landscapes and sculptures set to the sound of crashing waves. A block north of Muñoz Park, take your pick of two tranquil beaches.
In Old San Juan, you’ll find 16th and 17th-century buildings muscled up against modern hotels and sparkling new waterfront construction, including the Bahia Urbana City Park and restaurant.
To the east, take your kayak or stand-up paddleboard to Condado Lagoon, where Playito Condado offers an excellent beach and snorkeling destination. On your journey there, watch for manatees and migratory birds.
Last but not least, walk east across Highway 26 into the peppy community of Condado, where Las Vegas gambling meets So-Cal cool. Just beyond Condado, the wave action of Ocean Park creates a fantastic beach life all year round.
Slipping into San Juan is a convenient way to explore Puerto Rico’s diverse and heritage-rich capital city, with its combination of ocean breeze, waving pines, colorful buildings and friendly faces.
Sailing west from San Juan, you won’t find good shelter until you are all the way around to the southwestern area of Boquerón with the Marina Pescaderia, new in 2011. Traveling north, depths plummet across the San Juan Trench, and it’s a significant sail to the next good anchorage. Sailing east, it’s a full-day schlep against wind, swells and current, with a lee shore to boot. But after a solid six-hour motorsail, you’ll turn to starboard and reach into Fajardo or continue east to Culebra, a lovely stop in the Spanish Virgin Islands.
Ellen Birrell lives and writes aboard the 40ft sloop
Boldly Go in the Caribbean. She recently e-published
Sailing Down Grenada Way, the first in a series titled Bold Shorts