A diverse tropical landscape awaits the visitor to the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which boasts more than 300 miles (500 km) of palm-fringed coastline and a lush interior of montage thicket, palm, dwarf and rain forests. The island is a progressive blend of old and new. Nowhere is this more evident than in the capital city of San Juan, with its centuries-old Spanish fortresses and glamorous resort hotels. “Out on the island,” as the Puerto Ricans refer to the remainder of the island, the changes are less dramatic but no less important.
Puerto Rico has made great strides economically and today enjoys one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. The island is a major banking and business center, and San Juan is the Caribbean's primary air and cruise hub. Complementing this progress, the Commonwealth, with the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture, has fostered an atmosphere in which writers, painters, sculptors, musicians and actors flourish, and has taken steps to preserve the island's crafts, folklore, dances, music and architecture.
About Puerto Rico
Originally named Borikén (Island of the Brave Lord) by the Taíno Indians, Puerto Rico was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 during his second voyage to the New World. He landed on the northwestern part of the island and named the island San Juan Bautista. The island derived its present name, however, from the exclamation “¡Qué puerto rico!” (What a rich port!), said to have been made by conquistador Juan Ponce de León upon entering the bay. He established the first settlement at Caparra in 1508 and in 1510 he was appointed the island's first governor by Spain's King Ferdinand. The capital was transferred to its present site and named San Juan Bautista de Puerto Rico in 1521, the year of de León's death.
The Spanish used San Juan Bay to protect their ships from pirates and attacks by other countries. This strategic area of land was attacked unsuccessfully by Sir Francis Drake, occupied by English forces in 1598, burned and plundered by the Dutch in 1625 and subjected to other sieges until a last attempt by the British in 1797.
Puerto Rico remained a loyal Spanish colony until 1897, when Luis Muñoz Rivera obtained the Charter of Autonomy, which gave the island dominion status. However, before the charter could go into effect, Spain became engaged in the Spanish-American War. In 1898 Puerto Rico became part of the United States by the terms of the Treaty of Paris. The Foraker Act of 1900 enabled the island to establish a civil government under the direction of a U.S.-appointed governor; in 1917 the Jones Act made the Puerto Rican people citizens of the United States and provided for the creation of a local senate.
The first native-born governor was Jesús T. Piñero, appointed by President Harry S. Truman in 1946. The following year Truman signed an act giving Puerto Rico the authority to choose its chief executive by popular vote. Luis Muñoz Marín, the first elected governor, held the office until 1965, when he was succeeded by Roberto Sánchez Vilella. A Congressional resolution signed by President Truman in 1952 elevated Puerto Rico to the status of a commonwealth associated with the United States.
The best buys to look for in Puerto Rico are traditional island crafts. Calle Fortaleza in Old San Juan, a 20-minute bus or 10-minute taxi ride from the Condado section of resort hotels, is the center of a large and varied collection of shops selling both local crafts and imports—Thai silks, Spanish furniture and antiques, jewelry and items from the Philippines, India, Mexico and Europe. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture in the Ballajá Sector has lists of the numerous craft shops where artisans ply their trade in front of visitors.
Local artisans can be seen in Plaza de la Dársena near Pier 1 every Saturday and Sunday from noon to late evening. Some of the most notable island crafts include mundillo or bobbin lace; santos, or hand-carved, wooden religious figurines; cuatros, handmade 10-string guitars; festival masks made from coconut husks or papier-mâché; hand-embroidered linens, blouses and dresses; Spanish-style jewelry of copper, gold and silver filigree; hand-painted scarves and clothing; handbags; hammocks; baskets; ceramics; musical instruments; original artwork; and items made of mahogany. Cigars and rum made in Puerto Rico also are popular buys. Though some plants and fruits may be brought to the United States, it is best to check with the USDA Plant Protection and Quarantine Department in San Juan before departure; phone (787) 919-0585 or (787) 931-7900.
Old San Juan has a reputation as an art center, harboring many galleries that sell paintings and sculpture by Puerto Rican artists. Calle Cristo in Old San Juan houses many well-known art galleries such as the Botello Gallery; phone (787) 723-9987.
The Plaza Las Américas in San Juan, considered to be the largest shopping mall in the Caribbean, and the Plaza del Caribe Shopping Center in Ponce offer a full range of local and continental goods. The Mall of San Juan, at jct. Hwys. 8 and 17, features such upscale boutiques as Louis Vuitton, Tory Burch and Versace, and it offers a terrace with panoramas of San José Lagoon and San Juan. For last-minute purchases, San Juan's airport also has shopping counters which are open daily, with varied hours based on airline schedules.
In addition to usual holidays, many shops and restaurants are closed on Good Friday. While banking hours are usually Monday through Friday 8:30-4, some banks also are open on Saturday.
Food and Drink
Fruits, vegetables, poultry and fish, prepared with a strong Spanish and island accent, are found in abundance. Roast pork, lobster dishes and seafood platters are specialties in many restaurants. Fruit is often combined with main dishes for a tropical flavor. Buffets featuring American, French, Italian, Chinese and native fare are popular at several hotels. Upscale eateries around the island offer a wide range of cuisines.
Some of the delightful Puerto Rican dishes include arroz con pollo, rice with chicken; pasteles, a local variation of the tamale made of ground plantain with meat, olives, raisins and chickpeas wrapped in plantain leaves and boiled; lechón asado, or barbecued pig; pastelillos, thin dough filled with meat or cheese and deep fried; tostones, green plantains fried in deep fat; jueyes, fresh land crabs, shelled and boiled; paella, rice with saffron, chicken and seafood; and asopao, a traditional Puerto Rican soup made with rice and chicken or shrimp, cooked with wine sauce and often garnished with peas, pimientos, asparagus and hard-boiled eggs. Tap water is safe to drink and milk is pasteurized. A tip of 15 percent, with more for special service, is customary.
Sports and Amusements
The Caribbean, with its clear, warm water, is ideal for both scuba diving and snorkeling. Coral reefs and cays in many areas provide natural harbors for an array of beautiful and exotic sea life—coral, sea horses, starfish and tropical fish.
One of the best diving spots is off the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico around a small chain of islands. Visibility is exceptionally good in these waters, which range in depth from about 15 to 60 feet (5 to 18 m). The southwestern coast near La Parguera and the waters surrounding the eastern islands of Vieques and Culebra, dotted with many reefs, also are excellent spots for diving. Along the northwestern coast, the towns of Rincón and Aguadilla offer diving excursions to Mona and Desecheo islands.
Diving or snorkeling excursions from either the beach or a charter boat can be arranged for an hour, a day or longer; beginners might want to stay along the beach where there is a sheltered cove. There are courses for both beginning and advanced snorkelers and divers. The longer and more expensive advanced courses usually feature night dives or search and recovery expeditions. Major hotels and resorts have information about lessons and packages.
With 272 miles (438 km) of coastline, the island is ringed with good beaches with public facilities, called balnearios, which offer lockers, showers and parking for a nominal fee. They are open Tues.-Sun. 9-5 and are closed election days, Good Friday and the Tuesday following Monday holidays. Balneario de Luquillo, east of San Juan near El Yunque, is one of the most beautiful and popular beaches; the scenic bay at Balneario Boquerón near Cabo Rojo is a favorite among islanders.
Like Costa Rica, Panama and many other Central American countries, Puerto Rico is also widely known as a mecca for surfing. Thousands of pro and amateur surfers come here to ride some of the best beach and reef breaks in the Caribbean. The surfing season begins in September and runs through May. Surfing conditions are excellent along the north and west coast. Rincón, on the west coast of the island facing the Mona Passage, is popular with winter surfers, with typical swells delivering 15-foot waves. Surf shops abound in Rincón, as well as throughout the rest of the island.
Steady trade winds provide excellent opportunities for boating and sailing, particularly in San Juan Bay and the waters off Fajardo and La Parguera, which are well protected by coral reefs. Boats and equipment for sailing or deep-sea fishing can be rented from charter operators and marinas in San Juan, Mayagüez, Fajardo, Humacao and other towns. Game fish abound in Puerto Rico's waters, where more than 30 world records have been set, and include marlin, sailfish, mackerel, dolphin fish and wahoo. Snook, grouper, snapper, tarpon and amberjack teem along the southern coast. The International Billfish Tournament usually starts in early August; other fishing tournaments take place throughout the month.
Puerto Rico offers golfers some 23 courses to play. Most of these are of championship caliber, designed by some of the best-known architects in the golf world and host to local and international tournaments. Landscaped championship golf courses are at the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar Puerto Rico Golf & Beach Resort; Dorado Beach, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve; Palmas del Mar Golf Club in Humacao; Golf Links at Royal Isabela in Isabela; and Punta Borinquen Golf Club in Aguadilla. Other golf courses on the island include Aguirre Golf Club in Salinas; Bahía Beach Plantation in Río Grande; Club Deportivo del Oeste in Mayagüez; Caguas Real Golf & Country Club in Caguas; and Río Bayamón Golf Course in Bayamón.
Tennis courts are available at San Juan Central Park and at many of the hotels in the Condado and Isla Verde areas of San Juan. Hotels out on the island with more than 7 tennis courts include the Palmas del Mar Resort in Humacao. Horseback riding is available at Carabali Rainforest Park in Luquillo and Tropical Trail Rides in Isabela.
Spectator sports in Puerto Rico cover a wide range of interests reflecting both Spanish and American cultures. One of the local favorites is basketball; Puerto Ricans eagerly await the beginning of the basketball season in May. Second only to basketball in popularity is baseball, whose season runs from October through February; the game is played at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium (Estadio Hiram Bithorn) in San Juan. Another popular and exciting sport is horse racing; races with pari-mutuel and daily double betting take place at Hipódromo Camarero in Canóvanas. Paso Fino horse shows, featuring Puerto Rico's own smooth-gaited breed, take place regularly around the island.
Activities in Puerto Rico do not end at sundown. Supper clubs feature elaborate floor shows, dining and dancing. The Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center (Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré) in San Juan regularly presents internationally acclaimed musicians, opera and ballet stars in its four theaters. One of the oldest municipal theaters in the Western Hemisphere, Old San Juan's restored El Tapia Theater (Teatro Tapia) offers performances every weekend. Another historic cultural center in Old San Juan is the Puerto Rican Athenaeum (Ateneo Puertorriqueño), which produces all kinds of cultural events throughout the year. The Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra, a top-ranked ensemble, kicks off its concert season every year at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center in September and wraps up in May.
Government-regulated casinos are found in most of the large hotels. Various hotels offer a weekly rendition of the Le Lo Lai Festival, sponsored by the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. This colorful extravaganza of Puerto Rican folk songs and dances showcases the European and Afro-Antillean heritage of the island; phone (787) 721-2400.
In mid-January, internationally acclaimed opera singers, ballet dancers and chamber music artists from around the globe perform at the Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center in the Santurce sector of San Juan. San Juan Bautista Day is celebrated on June 24, with public parties, bonfires on the beaches, street dances and concerts. Constitution Day on July 25 marks the anniversary of the island’s commonwealth status; parades, fireworks and regattas are held throughout the island.
A copy of QuéPasa! (What's Happening!) is available at hotel desks and at the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.'s information centers. This quarterly magazine lists events, scenic tours, points of interest, restaurants, nightclubs, shops and visitor information for San Juan and places out on the island.
With about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) of good roads, Puerto Rico is popular for motor excursions. Though San Juan receives the majority of attention, it is a good idea to venture out on the island to get a true picture of Puerto Rico. Currently, there are 20 forest reserve areas in the island. For detailed information about guided driving tours, consult the Puerto Rico Tourism Co.'s information centers at the International Airport in Isla Verde, Ochoa building near Pier 1 in Old San Juan and the PRTC Headquarters at the La Princesa Building, also in Old San Juan. Self-guiding driving and walking tours are detailed in QuéPasa!, the official guide to Puerto Rico.
Many interesting sites are only a short distance from San Juan—famous resorts, craft villages, forests, beaches and scenic areas. For example, a half-day tour from San Juan to the Palo Colorado Recreation Site in the El Yunque National Forest might include a drive through the towns of Río Grande, Luquillo and Loíza, where intricate masks are carved out of coconut shells by descendants of the town's original black plantation slaves.
Another half-day trip from San Juan is a visit to Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Preserve, a beautiful, ecologically diverse area operated by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. Known locally as El Faro (the lighthouse), the reserve is home to indigenous and endangered species and features each of Puerto Rico's unique ecosystems.
A full day should be allotted for a round-trip drive from San Juan to Arecibo, including stops at Vega Baja, Manatí, and the Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park.
A drive through coffee country from Manatí to Ponce on rtes. 140 and 10, then to San Juan via Rte. 1, might include stops at rock formations and at the ruins of Central Mercedita near Ponce, where sugar was refined.
Longer excursions out on the island are usually worth the extra effort. A 3-day tour from San Juan to Ponce might include overnight stops in Mayagüez and La Parguera, then passing through San Germán and Ponce. Evening boat trips to La Parguera's bioluminescent bay offer an “illuminating” experience. Miniscule marine life known as dinoflagellates produce a glowing chemical light in the water when disturbed on moonless nights.
An interesting attraction in the southwestern area is the Guánica Dry Forest, a scrub and cactus landscape that was the site of the American landing in 1898. For the hardy traveler, a 4-day tour beginning and ending in San Juan and reaching Ponce via Barranquitas can include extensive sightseeing along the highway winding through the Cordillera Central, Puerto Rico's mountain range.
Guided tours provide insight into some of the island's more popular attractions. A 3-hour guided tour of Old San Juan includes visits to the Capitol Building, Fort San Felipe del Morro (El Morro), Fort San Cristóbal, La Iglesia de San José, San Juan Gate, Christ Chapel (Capilla del Cristo) and La Princesa and its paseo. The 4-hour El Yunque Rain Forest Tour explores the rain forest's waterfalls, observation tower and tropical plants; a full-day tour that includes swimming at the beach of Balneario de Luquillo also is available.
Boat and airplane charters to Mona Island, about 50 miles (80 km) west of Puerto Rico and inhabited by a variety of wildlife, are available on the west coast; for information phone the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources at (787) 999-2200. The islands of Vieques and Culebra off the east coast are reached by plane from San Juan or ferry service from Fajardo.
Puerto Rico is accessible by air from most mainland cities including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Miami, Newark, New York City, Orlando, Philadelphia and Tampa. There also is air service between San Juan and Mayagüez, Aguadilla or Ponce. JetBlue provides daily nonstop service from Orlando and New York City to Ponce. Several U.S. carriers operate out of San Juan's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and reach most major U.S. cities. Many of the flights continue to other Caribbean islands. Rafael Hernández Airport in Aguadilla and Eugenio María de Hostos Airport in Mayagüez serve the west coast of the island.
Having long been a popular port of call, Puerto Rico is one of the largest home-based cruise ship ports in the world. The terminal is in Old San Juan.
Transportation in San Juan includes metered taxicabs at the airport, hotels and other locations throughout the city; taxis can be rented by the hour. Taxis are the fastest way to get to San Juan from the airport. Flat fares from the airport to Isla Verde, to Condado and to Old San Juan are $12, $17 and $21, respectively, aboard Taxis Turísticos. A $1 fee is charged per piece of luggage, and there is a $1 fare surcharge between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.
The bus system also operates throughout the metropolitan area. Stops are designated by a magenta, orange and white sign bearing the word Parada; fare 75c-$2. Carros Públicos, public cars that follow established routes between most towns on the island, run during daylight hours. Marked by the letters P or PD following the numbers on their license plate, públicos can usually be hailed from the main plaza of a town. Públicos are the least expensive transportation available, but prospective riders must wait until the car is full.
Free trolley rides are available within the Old San Juan historic district and along the beachfront in Isla Verde.
Rental cars also are available, as are chauffeur-driven cars. A valid U.S. driver's license is good in Puerto Rico for up to 90 days. Speed limits are posted in miles per hour and are strictly enforced; metric measurements generally are used on distance signs, and informational signs are in Spanish.
Tren Urbano provides fast and reliable mass transit to the municipalities of San Juan, Bayamón and Guyanabo. The “urban train” runs daily from 5:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. One-way fare is $1.50; 75c for ages 60-74, students with ID and persons with a disability. For information, phone (787) 765-0927.
Ferry service provides interesting and inexpensive interisland links. Crossing the bay every 30 minutes, Cataño Ferry (La Lancha de Cataño) connects Old San Juan with the municipality of Cataño; fares are very inexpensive. The Fajardo Ferry carries passengers and cars on a triangular route linking Fajardo on the east end of the island with the islands of Vieques and Culebra. Transportation to other Caribbean islands includes America Cruise Ferries, which operates the Caribbean Fantasy between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The eight- to 12-hour overnight crossing operates Monday and Friday from Puerto Rico's Pan American terminal; phone (787) 622-4800.
Area8,897 sq km (3,435 sq mi.).
Highest Point1,338 m (4,390 ft.), Cerro de Punta.
Lowest PointSea level, Caribbean Sea.
Time Zone(s)Atlantic Standard.
LanguageSpanish and English.
GovernmentCommonwealth associated with the United States.
Electricity110 volts, 60 cycles AC.
MINIMUM AGE FOR DRIVERS21-25, depending on the rental car agency; daily surcharge for ages 21-24, $10-$25. U.S. license valid for 3 months; drive on right.
Minimum Age For Gambling18.
Seat Belt/Child Restraint LawsSeat belts are required for driver and front-seat passengers. Child restraints are required for children under age 2; seat belts required for ages 2-12.
Helmets for MotorcyclistsRequired.
HolidaysJan. 1; Three Kings Day (Epiphany), Jan. 6; Eugenio María de Hostos' Birthday, Jan. (2nd Mon.); Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. (3rd Mon.); Washington's Birthday/Presidents Day, Feb. (3rd Mon.); Emancipation Day, Mar. 22; Good Friday; Easter; José de Diego's Birthday, Apr. (3rd Mon.); Memorial Day, May (last Mon.); July 4; Luis Muñoz Rivera's Birthday, July (3rd Mon.); Constitution Day, July 25; José Celso Barbosa's Birthday, July 27; Labor Day, Sept. (1st Mon.); Columbus Day, Oct. (2nd Mon.); Veterans Day, Nov. 11; Discovery of Puerto Rico Day, Nov. 19; Thanksgiving, Nov. (4th Thurs.); Christmas, Dec. 25.
TaxesPuerto Rico's sales tax is 10.5 percent. Municipalities may charge an additional 1 percent sales tax. A 7-11 percent room tax (depending on the size of the resort) and 10-12 percent service charge are added to most hotel bills.
ImmigrationThere are no immigration requirements for U.S. citizens, but a passport is required when travel may involve stops on other Caribbean islands.
PHONING THE ISLANDSTo call Puerto Rico from the U.S. or Canada, dial 1 + area code + the 7-digit local number.
Further Information Puerto Rico Tourism Company 135 W. 50th St., 22nd Floor New York, NY 10020. Phone:(212)586-6262 or (800)223-6530
Puerto Rico Tourism Company, Old San Juan La Princesa Bldg. #2 Paseo La Princesa Old San Juan, PUERTO RICO 00902. Phone:(787)721-2400 or (800)866-7827
Puerto Rico, PRI
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