You mean I can travel to the Caribbean without even leaving the states? Yep, it's true; here in Puerto Rico, travelers can enjoy the white sandy beaches, rich culture and thumping nightlife of the Caribbean without giving up any of the comforts of the states. Since the "P.R." is a US territory, there is no need for a passport or a grueling flight. Being just an hour from Miami, Puerto Rico is the ideal weekend getaway, though most who arrive wish they could spend much more time on this lovely spirited island.
There are tons of worthy attractions here on Puerto Rico, but most come to enjoy the beaches, shopping and nightlife. Due to the American presence, which dates back to 1898, Puerto Rico is a fascinating blend of Americana and a raw Latino vibe. This dynamic is apparent in nearly every facet of everyday life. American fast food spots and local restaurants with delicious criollo cuisine coexist side-by-side. Locals, or boriquas, as they are called, speak Spanish intermingled with English. Listening to them is a bilingual experience in itself, as one never knows when an English expression will pop into a Spanish sentence or local slang will be interjected into an English conversation. Thankfully, the roads are up to state-side standards, as are the high-comfort hotels, which have been geared towards the American travelers that make up the bulk of tourists on the island.
But it is the island's natural beauty that draws so many travelers to Puerto Rico. Though small in size—roughly 35 miles by 110 miles wide—Puerto Rico encompasses several ecological zones. The interior of the island—much of which is still undeveloped—is dominated by a mountain chain, the Cordillera Central, as well as a bona fide rain forest called El Yunque. Staying in one of the mountainside inns here in Naguabo is a great way to witness the intense greenness and flowing waterfalls of this forest, which is home to hundreds of bird species. But more than anything else, the beaches that line the sugary coast are what draw most visitors. With over three hundred miles of coastline, Puerto Rico has a beach for every taste. City-goers will love the energy at Ocean Park or Isla Verde, both in San Juan, and surfers will flock to Rincón. Boaters will be drawn to Fajardo, scuba divers will be drawn to Cabo Rojo, while those seeking more desolate spots will head to Isabela and Boquerón. The coast is peppered with luxury hotels, megaresorts and quaint bed&breakfast inns, as well as a wide variety of restaurants, many of which specialize in tasty criollo cuisine, which combines fresh seafood and Caribbean spices with staples such as rice and beans. Any visitor will undoubtedly be exposed to the essential Caribbean snack tostones, which are fried green plantain bananas or the national dish mofongo, which consists of mashed green plantains stuffed with garlic, onions and spices.
Puerto Rico's major city San Juan also happens to be its top tourist destination. With hotels lining its shores and restaurants boasting nearly every type of cuisine imaginable, visitors will notice a Miami Beach vibe. But within the old colonial part of the city, known as Viejo San Juan, the old and new have dynamically merged. Strolling through the cobblestone streets, past churches, forts and mansions dating back nearly five hundred years and happening upon a chic restaurant, a trendy shop or a fashionable nightclub is an exciting experience—a true mix of old and new in an energetic Caribbean setting. Anyone in search of Puerto Rico's culture will not search for long, as the infectious sound of salsa music drifts out of homes and businesses alike. The boriquas always find a reason to celebrate and dancing is one of their favorite forms of self-expression. The newest craze though is reggaeton, a high-powered blend of hip-hop, dancehall and Latin rhythms that is sweeping the nation and beyond. Whether it's live music or the late-night club scene, San Juan has something for everyone. Being so close to the surrounding beaches of the island, it makes the perfect hub or jumping-off point for any island visit.
For those looking for an exciting island to explore, Puerto Rico offers fantastic beaches, natural beauty and a cosmopolitan city with a glimpse into history. For a delicious taste of the Caribbean, this "Enchanted Island" is the ideal destination.
El Yunque Rainforest
Few realize there is a rain forest within the US National Park system, but El Yunque is the real deal. This sea of green is crossed by crisp rivers, dotted with majestic waterfalls and inhabited by thousands of rare birds. There are well-marked trails leading through, as well as mountain inns close by. The rare parrots here are quite a sight to behold, as is the moss-covered "dwarf forest" within.
Old San Juan
History comes alive here in Old San Juan, which is an invigorating mix of old and new. Though the centuries-old forts and cathedrals are reminiscent of colonial times, the presence of stylish boutiques and trendy restaurants bring the visitor back to present day. An ideal place to stroll and sightsee during the day and dine and drink in the evening.
What was once Puerto Rico's surfing outpost has been developed with hotels and beachside inns, but it hasn't lost its flair as a chill beach spot drawing visitors from all over the world. With its waves, beaches and pulsing nightlife, it's quite common to hear locals explain, "Well, I came here for a week—that was four years ago."
On the remote northwest corner of the island lies this easy-going beach town, blessed with undiscovered beaches and great surf. For those looking to get off the beaten track, jump in a rental car and seek out a desolate beach along the dune-studded shore.
For those seeking a taste of Latino nightlife, Puerto Rico will not disappoint. San Juan is home to live music venues, salsa bars, reggaeton clubs and chic discos. Wherever the spot, the Boriquas dance with a frenetic energy. Many call this the hottest city in the Caribbean—and they're not talking about the weather!
Guánica Dry Forest
Located in the south of the island, this national forest is so special because of its aridness. This constitutes the driest region of Puerto Rico, and also happens to be the largest tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world. With thirty miles of trails winding through 18,000 acres, this UNESCO site is a wonderful place to witness the wild beauty of Puerto Rico. Best of all, there are plenty of caves to offer the hiker some natural subterranean air conditioning.
Rio Camuy Caves
Deep below the ground lie these caverns in all of their prehistoric glory. A trolley whisks visitors through this geological wonder, which includes Cueva Catedral, home to Indian rock paintings from the 15th century. Call it Puerto Rico's first underground art museum.
Mother Nature has a few tricks up her sleeve, as evidenced by the underwater fireworks that can be seen on moonless nights in some of Puerto Rico's bays. This surreal effect is caused by millions of bioluminescent organisms that light up the sea. There are three such bays around Puerto Rico, one on Vieques, one in Fajardo and another in La Parguera. Nocturnal boat trips bring visitors up close to this aquatic light show.
Off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico lies this lovely verdant beach-lined island. Once home to a US Navy base that took up half of the island and spawned plenty of protest, Vieques is now military-free, which means even more of its bountiful beaches are accessible. With a wealth of funky bars, restaurants and hotels, this island has a easy-going vibe that has sparked a new wave of tourism.
More arid and certainly more quiet than Puerto Rico and Vieques is this tiny jewel of an island, blessed with some of the best beaches in all of the Caribbean. The pace of life here runs on island time, which means super-slow for those not in the know. For beach bums, hammock lovers and snorkelers, the white sands of Culebra might just be heaven on earth.
People and Culture
It is impossible to define just what is Puerto Rican, as history has shuffled the cards on this Caribbean island. Though the indigenous Taíno people have disappeared, their influence remains, as does that of the other populations that have called Puerto Rico home: African slaves brought over to work the sugar plantations, Chinese workers hired to build the railroads, French immigrants that came from nearby Haiti, Spanish immigrants that fled their country's civil war and the exodus of North Americans that have been moving to Puerto Rico since the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. All of these groups helped create the cultural amalgam of modern-day Puerto Rico, a diversity reflected in everything from food to skin color to music.
Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated islands in the world. It is interesting to note though that there are an estimated 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living on the US mainland, yet less than four million on the island itself. New York, in fact, has more Puerto Ricans than San Juan. Most of this immigration north took place in the 1950s and 1960s, when economic opportunities on the island were particularly grim. Most Puerto Ricans have either lived in the states or have relatives that have, so they are closely connected with American culture. That being said, they still cling to their island roots, which manifests itself in everything from their dress to their music. Though politically a commonwealth of the US, Puerto Ricans are fiercely proud of their culture, which defines their identity. Language is one such cultural factor; though kids are taught English as a second language in school, the fact that most Puerto Ricans are fluently bilingual illustrates the ties many keep with the states. In fact, it's completely ordinary to hear boriquas peppering Spanish sentences with English words or vice versa. American pop culture is everywhere, from the radio waves to the onslaught of fast food restaurants that have handed Puerto Rico with the American-bred obesity epidemic on a plastic platter.
Any visit to a salsa club will confirm the fact the Boriquas love to dance. After all, this is Ricky Martin territory. Salsa itself, the danceable Latin music that came out of New York in the 1960s and 1970s, represents this cultural mishmash, as it incorporates Afro-Cuban rhythm sections, Latin instruments and is sung in English and Spanish. Though salsa is still as popular as ever, reggaeton has become the latest craze amongst the younger set. This music, which combines hip-hop and dancehall reggae with Latin rhythms, began in Puerto Rico and Panama and is rapidly spreading throughout the world. Most of the biggest stars, such as Don Omar, Tego Calderon and Daddy Yankee, hail from San Juan.
Due to the American influence, baseball is the national sport and any look at the major league rosters will indicate that after the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico has given birth to many of the league's best players. Ever since Roberto Clemente broke into the majors, his compatriots have been following suit, with such names as Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Delgado and Bernie Williams putting up big numbers on a regular basis. Regarded as national heroes, these baseball stars are the yet another object of pride for Boriquas.
Before the arrival of the Europeans (and the disaster that ensued), the indigenous Indians called their island Boriquén, which meant "Land of the Great Lord." These Taíno Indians (part of the Arawak tribe) were a peaceful people, which may be why they were wiped out so quickly once Columbus arrived in 1493. On this his second journey to the New World, Columbus was joined by Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish nobleman who later searched for the fountain of youth, but settled for Florida (the old age capital of the eastern Hemisphere). They dropped anchor, renamed the island and proclaimed it for the Spanish crown. Wham, bam, thank you ma'am. Ponce de León was named the island's first governor (no surprise) and founded the island's first settlement, which was soon relocated and renamed San Juan. Hungry for more riches, De León's main mission was searching for that Spanish obsession: gold. He enslaved thousands of the estimated 60,000 natives to work in the atrocious conditions of the mines, but soon discovered that in terms of oro, Puerto Rico was not as well-endowed as other Spanish colonies.
As the colonial record has displayed time and again, the native islanders met a sad fate. Upon the colonists' arrival, the Taíno believed the Spaniards were Gods, but after watching a captured soldier die with his head held under water, they realized the Europeans were mere mortals, so they rose up to rebel their mistreatment in 1511. Unfortunately, Spanish firepower, combined with the diseases that ravaged the Taíno people, decimated the indigenous population.
Though Puerto Rico wasn't as full of gold as the Spanish had dreamed, it's location made it an ideal port, attracting pirates, buccaneers and other surly characters who aimed to infiltrate the city and make off with its riches. Aargh! The English and Dutch forces were also chomping at the bit, so the Spanish started protecting San Juan's harbor with elaborate forts, most notably El Morro and San Cristóbal. Over the next two centuries, the English and Dutch would continue their assault on Puerto Rico but even expert pirate Sir Francis Drake was repelled and when the British were defeated in 1797, the Spanish hold on the island was cemented.
During this time, Puerto Rico was hardly flourishing; in fact, the Spanish had a hard time populating the island, which was falling into poverty and neglect. It was hard to attract mainland Spanish to emigrate; after all, there were plenty of other Caribbean colonies, many of them with more valuable resources than ginger (the island's top export at the time). Puerto Rico became more well-known as a stopover point to these other colonies, kind of like the cruise ship capital it has become today.
In the 19th century, the growth of coffee and sugar plantations raised the demand for slaves, many of which were imported from Africa. But slaves made up less of the population (only 11% in 1834) than on nearby islands and in 1873, slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico. Once trade started to flourish due to the burgeoning sugar and coffee industries, Spain granted Puerto Rico "home rule," which changed their status from colony to dominion (applause).
But this autonomy didn't last long; after the United States defeated Spain in the aptly-named Spanish-American War, the island was handed over to the Yankees in 1898. Puerto Rico was named a US Territory in 1917, which granted the island's inhabitants American citizenship. In the coming decades, US corporations came to control the sugar industry (which by then made up the whole economy), paying the locals horrendous wages and sending all the profits home to the states. Partial self-government was granted in 1948, which allowed the islanders to elect their own governor and four years later Puerto Rico became a commonwealth of the US. There has been plenty of debate regarding the status of Puerto Rico as some political parties favor independence, while others crave statehood. The most recent plebiscite though reaffirmed the island's current status. Though Puerto Ricans do not have a representative in Congress and cannot vote in US presidential elections, they pay no federal income tax, which isn't a bad trade-off considering that half Americans don't vote anyway.
In the last twenty years, the local economy has grown substantially, thanks in large part to the US corporations, especially pharmaceutical firms that have built factories and assembly plants along the southern coast of the island. In 1998, Hurricane Georges ravaged the island, causing $2 billion worth of damages and leaving 800,000 without electricity. The US Naval Base on neighboring Vieques Island was recently closed after years of protests against the bombing practice that used live ammunition and resulted in the death of a civilian in 1999.
Despite being one of the world's most densely populated islands, Puerto Rico is home to a dynamic natural landscape. In fact, no other Caribbean destination offers such natural diversity. Puerto Rico, the easternmost island of the Greater Antilles, is a rectangular shaped island roughly a hundred miles long by thirty-five miles wide. In addition to its beautiful beaches, Puerto Rico is home to a wide array of ecosystems such as rain forests, bioluminescent bays, deserts and caves. With all of these jewels, there exist plenty of nature oriented activities for the visitor.
Puerto Rico's geography is dominated by the mountains that cover sixty percent of the island. The largest, the Cordillera Central, which runs through the island's interior from east to west and is home to Puerto Rico's highest peaks, such as Cerro La Punta 4,390 ft (1,338 m), Cerro Rosas 4,156 ft (1,267 m) and Cerro Guilarte 3,953 ft (1,205 m). Nestled among these mountains is El Yunque Rain Forest; these 28,000 acres are all that remain of the massive forest that once covered most of Puerto Rico (and the rest of the Caribbean islands). Scattered throughout this verdant stretch of forest are 240 species of trees including mahogany and innumerable varieties of ferns, orchids and flowers as well. Another popular resident is the coqui frog, whose distinctive chirp has made it an unofficial mascot here.
In the island's north lies another geological wonder: the karst region. Here, the presence of volcanic rock and limestone, coupled with water erosion and the inexorable march of geological time, has resulted in striking rock formations. This region is also home to some of the most important caves in the Americas, the most well-known being the Camuy Caves, which were carved out by the river a million years ago. The Camuy River that runs underground here is the third largest subterranean river on earth and the adjoining caves are full of stalagmites, stalactites, 14th century rock paintings and plenty of bats (just to add that quintessential cave ambience).
Another unusual natural find here are the bioluminescent bays, which are home to "underwater fireworks" caused by bioluminescent organisms that light up the sea on moonless nights. The most famous is on the nearby island of Vieques, but this phenomenon can also be witnessed on small boat trips from Fajardo in the east and La Parguera in the south. Along the southwestern coast lies the Guánica Dry Forest, which is the antithesis of El Yunque. With over one hundred species of birds, including the endangered Whippoorwill, this dry forest is a bird-watcher's paradise. Many of the 700 dry forest plant species here are endangered and scores of the species here cannot be found anywhere else on Earth, which is why UNESCO declared this forest an International Biosphere Reserve.
There is plenty of underwater life along the shores of Puerto Rico as well. The outlying islands of Vieques and Culebra are especially popular with scuba divers and snorkellers, though there are exciting dive sites all over the main island as well. A few of the small islands off the Puerto Rican coast are especially rich in marine life, such as Isla Mona off the west coast.
Climate and Weather
With an average temperature of 82°F (28°C), Puerto Rico is not a white winter wonderland; in fact, there is no record of snow or frost anywhere on the island, except for the freezers full of Medalla beer. The climate here is purely tropical, with 80% humidity and average mid-day temperatures hovering around 85°C in the winter and 95°C in the summer. Though January to April are the driest months, there is no bad time to visit Puerto Rico, as even those months with more rain (May through October) are quite pleasant. Though there is generally more rain, torrential downpours often give way to long stretches of tropical sunshine. It's also worth noting that the southern coast receives half as much annual rainfall (910mm; 36 inches) as the northern coast (1,550mm; 60 inches).
Speaking of precipitation, though less vulnerable than many of its Caribbean neighbors, Puerto Rico is occasionally hit by tropical storms and hurricanes. Hurricane season is during the summer months, especially August and September. The last hurricane to hit the island was Hurricane Georges in 1998, which left a path of destruction and seventeen inches of rain in its wake. Along with Bermuda and Miami, Puerto Rico is also one of the apexes of the infamous Bermuda Triangle, which has been attributed to plenty of unexplained events…
Though sunny days are the norm, there are some regional climatic factors to consider. The southern coast, for example, is generally a few degrees warmer than the northern coast. Due to higher altitudes, temperatures in the central mountains are five to ten degrees cooler than the coasts; these regions also receive more rainfall, especially in El Yunque, hence its denomination as Rain Forest. Though Puerto Rico does not experience a lot of seasonal variation, some of the island's plants bloom according to season. The bright red flowers of the famous flamboyant (flamboyán) trees bloom in the heat of the summer, and the best time to admire poinsettias (Pascuas) is between November and February. During the spring months of April and May, the white cedar trees lose their leaves and bloom with pretty pink flowers, quite a sight to behold.
Map and Location
Location: Caribbean, between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of the Dominican Republic.
Geographic coordinates: 18 15 N, 66 30 W
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4
Area: 3,508 sq mi (9,104 sq km)
Length of coastline: 311 miles (501 km)
Elevation: Highest: Cerro de Punta 1,338 m; Lowest: Atlantic Ocean
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