Have you ever been to the seaside and had the boisterous breeze play its eolian fiddle without once touching your face and blowing your hair away? It’s a conflicting feeling that takes away the spatiality that you associate travel with. It’s a feeling I’m experiencing as I fiddle around with the popular video-calling app that everyone has been using. As I look for a better network so that I may behold the glorious morning laze of the sea better, I hear my name called out. It’s my tour guide, Narayan de Jesus. And he’s about to take me on a virtual tour of San Juan in the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico.
With the pandemic unseating travel—the idea and practice that has been central to our consciousness—people are gradually warming up to virtual travel. Museum tours have become commonplace and iconic experiences like doing the Inca Trail up to Machu Picchu or witnessing the Northern Lights, can be undertaken, too. For instance, tourHQ partners with local guides all around the world and provides interactive and fairly immersive, niche travel experiences. Initially a member of the Brotherhood of Strictly No-Virtual Travel, I am finally down here in San Juan, courtesy an online experience arranged by tourHQ that will let me explore the 500-year-old city like a local.
Which will mean that as he walks along the cobblestoned alleys of colourful Viejo San Juan, Jesus will stop and explain how these bricks came from Holland. Before they became the treading ground of the Boricuas, the cobblestones were used as counterweights on vessels. Ask the knowledgeable Jesus why the bricks appear bluish, and he shares that is because of the presence of nickel and iron in them.
That’s not the only advantage of being a part of a live video tour—it’s different from watching a vlog or even a documentary on San Juan. As he goes down a street an avenue in the Old Town, very close to the former residence of conquistador Juan Ponce de León, he stops and inches closer to a cat. He is infinitely delighted, you can tell, at the sight of the indifferent felines, which can be found in abundance chilling out all over old city San Juan just like sweaty roughnecks in Sergio Leone films. Jesus shares that an initiative called Save a Gato helps conserve feral cats and regulate their population in this quarter of the city. Cat people, take note.
Viejo San Juan, or Old San Juan, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in addition to being a US National Historic Site. And Jesus, who talks about the intense military history of San Juan with a vengeance, is doing justice to it. We go past the original Casa Blanca, the house of Puerto Rico’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León, and then the imposing, sprawling fortress, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the crown of the series of fortifications built by the Spanish conquistadors between the 16th and the 18th centuries.
My favourite here is a garita, or a traditional watchtower perched off the walls of El Morro, at the edge of the promontory whose foot the sea washes. The adorable sandstone structure has a bell-style roof and a slit-like window, out of which I can almost see an enemy ship far away on the horizon. Outside, one edge of the fort premises overlooks the iconic Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, the final resting place of many illustrious Puerto Ricans.
Be warned: the visual aspect of the experience is not as seamless as you may expect. I have a stable Wi-Fi connection, and the screen does freeze a couple of times. Thankfully, my guide is talking backstory the first time—the discovery of Puerto Rico by Christopher Columbus and that of San Juan Bay by de Leon and capture attempts by Sir Francis Drake and George Clifford at the close of the 16th century. The second time the connection breaks, Jesus is zipping away in his cab to the memorial of educator Eugenio Maria de Hostos.
Nevertheless, the constant communication between us, and the fact that one is undertaking an unrecorded experience, brings in the element of vulnerability. It is exactly the kind of quality you associate with San Juan.