The singer, Ricky Martin was born in Puerto Rico and while Jennifer Lopez was born in the Bronx in New York City, her parents originally came from Puerto Rico.
The Latin Salsa dancing, bomba , music and party atmosphere is still very much alive in Puerto Rico, with Puerto Rico having the busiest airport in the Caribbean, with people coming to Puerto Rico to stay and holiday and also transiting to other islands too. There's a lot to see in Puerto Rico.
Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) arrived here on the island in 1493 and by 1508 a Spanish settlement had been established by Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521) in Caparra on the island with him becoming Puerto Rico's first Governor but moving to San Juan which became the capital city of Puerto Rico in 1521 and one of the most important port cities for the Spanish Galleons that would anchor here carrying gold and other treasures as they made their way back to Spain and then bring back manufactured goods or African slaves on the slave ships.
At the time the island was home to the Taino people, and while many survived with their descendants still living here, many also died from disease brought to the island by the Spanish as well as through confrontation with the new Spanish arrivals.
Juan Ponce de León's tomb is located in the (St John the Baptist) San Juan Bautista Cathedral at 151 Calle del Christo in the old city, and when you consider that New York was only established in 1609, San Juan had by that time been established for almost 100 years making San Juan is one of the oldest cities in the Americas. Ponce de León is perhaps best known for his search in Florida for the 'Fountain of Youth' which he thought he would find there.
While the Spanish initially found some gold in Puerto Rico, forcing Taino workers to dig for gold, the first of many African slave ships arrived in 1513 bringing African slaves to work in the early mines and plantations.
San Juan and Puerto Rico came under attack by Sir Francis Drake and the English in 1595 and by the Dutch in 1625, and the English again in 1702 but the island remained in Spanish hands right up to 1898 when the United States gained control over the island following the Spanish-American War and the Treaty of Paris that followed.
Puerto Rico has remained as US "Commonwealth" Territory, but not a state since 1898, retaining its Spanish, Taino and African cultures and the merging of these cultures to establish a unique Puerto Rican Hispanic/Latino character, with those cultures entwined with significant American influences. The population of the island is around 3.5 million people but over 8.5 million people pass through the Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in San Juan, reflecting the large numbers of tourists who come here each year.
Puerto Rico has also retained Spanish as its official language, but English is widely spoken and understood too, and the island uses the US Dollar as its currency.
The Capital, San Juan on the northern side of the island is divided between the Old City (San Juan Viejo) located on a small island that forms almost a barrier between the Atlantic Ocean and the San Juan Bay, with a bridge crossing over the Bay to the new city which stands tall as a mass of skyscrapers and new buildings and residential areas.
From a tourist point of view, the Old City is the most fascinating part of the City due to the age of its buildings and heritage architecture and it is a great city to just walk along blue cobblestone streets and just take in the colourful buildings and atmosphere around you.
The Old City was once a walled city and most of the old stone walls are still here. There is a long walkway (about 1 ½ miles) promenade walkway beside the water that allows you to walk inside the massive old stone walls of the city and see the old cannons pointing out to sea and also the Fort on the headland entrance to the Harbour – Fortaleza San Filipe del Morro, built in various stages between 1539 and 1786. T
here is also a lighthouse located here too on top of the Fort that lights the sky just as it has since 1846 and the historic Cementerio de San Juan (Cemetery) is located next to the Campo del Morro (parklands below the Fort). The cemetery has many historic headstones to see and is outside the wall on the ocean side. Also on the ocean side is the small area called La Perla that originally was the location of a slaughterhouse, where the workers came to live. Today, La Perla is said to be a dangerous area due to the combination of poverty, drugs and crime. It is best not to go there.
Equally imposing and impressive to Fortaleza San Filipe del Morro is the Castello San Cristóbal (Calle Norzagaray) facing the Atlantic Ocean with massive stone walls, covering an area of around 27 acres of fortification buildings and grounds constructed between 1634 and 1783. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was used as a fortress right up to 1961. Here you will find cannons, great stone walls and battlements with cannons, barracks, tunnels and other military displays showcasing the history of the Castello.
There is also San Juan de la Cruz – a fort at El Cañvelo on the western side of the San Juan Bay, on the opposite shore from Fortaleza San Filipe de Morro.
In the old city there are the amazing blue/grey cobblestone streets, museums, plazas, courtyards, art galleries, statues, fountains, mansions and even a Palace dating back to the 1500's as well as the Cathedral , churches and many other great buildings to see. There are also places to buy souvenirs, Puerto Rican coffee, drinks and food, with a Zoo and the Cruise Terminal also located here too – so lots to see and do. There is a hop on-hop off trolley bus here in the old city, and you can also hire bikes too and there are organised tour operators who offer to show and tell more about what you are seeing.
For Arts and Crafts, there are a number of private galleries. A couple of places you might want to check out are Puerto Rican Art and Crafts at 204 Fortaleza Street, the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture and the Folk Art Center both in the Dominican Convent and Galeria Botello at 208 del Cristo Calle. Puerto Rico's most significant collection of paintings and art is in the Museo de Arte de Ponce on Las Americas Avenue in the City.
Great tropical beaches are located in and close by to San Juan too and there is also a lot to see in the newer suburbs, downtown and in the beach areas of San Juan, including the Jardin Botanico (Botanic Garden). You will also find a number of tour companies that will show you the main sights, including adventure tours out of San Juan to go mountain biking, rock climbing, rappelling down waterfalls and to ziplines that zoom over the treetops. Puerto Rico's favourite sport is Baseball, and going to a game here in San Juan might also be something to enjoy too.
Popular beaches in or near to San Juan include Ocean Park, Condado Beach, Playa Peña, Escambron, Puerta de Tierra and Isla Verde Island near Carolina and Dorado
San Juan in the Cataño suburb is the home of the Bacardi Rum Distillery see www.casabarcadi.org and there are tours of the Distillery available, with the distillery located in large landscaped parklands where there is also a planetarium and aerospace museum. The rum has a great history, with the Barcardi named after the founder, Don Facundo Barcardi Massu. The rum was first made in Cuba in 1862, but with the Cuban Revolution the distillery there was confiscated and the Rum is now made in Puerto Rico. There is a lot more to the story too, and it is worth coming here to see the distillery, learn about the Rum and maybe enjoy a taste test.
Puerto Rico has lots of great golf courses, sailing, beaches and resorts up and down the coastline and also mountains retreats too, so definitely worth hiring a car and seeing the island both along the coastline and also in the mountains too.
While you can certainly head to just San Juan and have a great time, you could also drive to see other parts of the island, stopping at various scenic points and towns as you drive along and grabbing some food and drinks at one of the many 'lechoneras' and 'friquitines' along the road to enjoy some of Puerto Rico's favourite foods – suckling roast pork, or oysters, crab, fish or shrimp (Prawns). There are many towns and beaches where you could also stay over too, with resort hotels and other accommodation options in many of them.
The island itself is around 110 miles long (177km) and 35 miles across (65km), and there are also smaller islands too, just off its coastline – like Culebra and Vieques. You could also take a flight over the island to see much of the coast and mountains too. These two islands off the east coast are also popular for divers and people wanting to scuba dive.
Just some of the popular sights or places you might like to look out for in Puerto Rico are –
- Rincón – on the west coast is a big surfing beach area with a number of beaches, big surfing waves with whale watching in winter, swimming, snorkelling, fishing, diving, beach bars and nightlife. There are many beaches all along the coastline – both isolated and popular ones too.
- Bioluminscent Bay - Laguna Grande near Fajardo town on the east coast, Mosquito Bay on Viegues Island and Lajas. If you have ever seen a really starry night sky, then imagine looking down into the water and seeing millions of shimmering tiny flickering blue lights in the water below you, almost like an underwater nightclub. This is what you can see at night here on one of the kayak or electric boat trips to one of these three locations. Fajardo town is a good place to stay too, with lots of beaches, water sports and activities. It is roughly about a one hour's drive from San Juan on the Expreso Román Baldorioty de Castro Expressway.
- Yunque National Forest – lots of trails to trek in the rainforest here with birds and nature in abundance. Note – it can get wet and muddy here too, so come prepared. The winding roads in the mountains take you past spectacular scenery and provide a contrast to the beaches and beach side activities.
- Cavernas del Rio Camuy Caves – this is a massive limestone cave system, said to be the 3rd biggest in the world. See www.parquesnacionalespr.com These caves are located in the mountains south of the coastal town of Arecibo. The town of Arecibo is on the Grande de Arecibo River near the coast and close to town you will also find the world's biggest Radio Telescope – the Arecibo Observatory, with its dish being some 1000 feet (300 metres) in diameter. It is only open on some days during the week. The town of Arecibo dates back to 1556 and there is a great lighthouse and museum that dates back to 1898 and also the Cueva del Indio (Cave) with pre-historic cave drawings.
- Aibonito – this is the highest town in Puerto Rico at about 2000 feet high. From here if you like hiking, abseiling or horse riding, head to see the San Cristóbal Canyon where you will see great waterfalls, ravines, canyons and pools where you might be able to swim. Being high up it also can get cold and also rain can make trekking very slippery. Aibonito is also where the annual Festival of Flowers is held from the last weekend in June to the first weekend in July.
- Ponce – is the second biggest city in Puerto Rico with a population of around 200,000 people. It is located on the southern side of the island, a port city on the coast and named after Juan Ponce de León, Puerto Rico's first Governor. The City was founded in 1692 and has lots of historic buildings and atmosphere, in and around the Plaza de las Delicias along with the port which has operated since the city's foundation. It is roughly 70 miles (120 kilometres) from San Juan, about 2 hours distance away by road.
Here in Ponce look for the Ponce Museum of Art at 2325 Avenue Las Americas to see both Puerto Rican art and also European masterpieces by painters such as Rubin and Rodin. There is also the Museum of Puerto Rican Music at 70 Calle Christina, the Museo de la Historic de Ponce at 53 Calle Isabelle and the Parque de Bombas fire museum and Cathedral near the Plaza too.
Also look for La Cruz del Vigia – a 100 feet high cross tower for great views over the coast and city. It is also close to Castillo Serralles – a Spanish style castle with gardens, fountains and rooms dating back to the 1920'-1930's when the castle was built. Close to here too, you will also see the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center – an archaeological dig that unearthed petroglyphs, pottery, Ceremonial grounds and other relics said to date back to around 300AD when the Igneri Indian tribes lived here. There is also a Taino Village re-construction located here too.
The other place to see if it is open is the Hacienda Buena Vista just north of Ponce on State Road 10 in Barrio Magueyes - Telephone to check if it is open on 787 722 5882. This is an original coffee plantation and corn mill spread out over 87 acres of grounds. Here you will be able to see the Manor House, horse and mule stables, carriage house, corn mill and the waterfall and aqueduct that carried the water to it, as well as Slave quarters, magnificent fountain and gardens.
Just offshore by Ferry you can also head to the uninhabited island of Coffin Island (Caja de Muertos) where there is a lighthouse, white sand beaches and great water to snorkel and dive.
La Parguera – is on the far south west coast, a small town almost surrounded by water and mangrove islands and waterways. Here you can also see the 'Bahia de Fosforescente' light show under the water, while mangroves are a breeding ground for fish and other sea life (not forgetting mosquitos) so fish is definitely on the menu. La Parguera is also a popular dive location too for both experienced divers and also intermediate divers too who 'dive the wall' reef just offshore and also for fishing and other water sports like paragliding, windsurfing and kayaking.
As you are probably aware, if you want to go diving, you need to have a PADI certificate or be doing a PADI course with a recognized instructor. It will also involve carrying air tanks and wearing a wet suit, but diving enables you to dive deeper and to see more locations than you would if you just went snorkelling. There are also now special helmets attached to an air-hose that create a mid-way point between diving and snorkelling. Some of the dive excursions and tours here in Puerto Rico have these – and they enable you to get a great close up view of fish without the need for tanks and all the equipment that you need to go diving. One place that offers this service is www.aquaadventurepr.com in San Juan.
There is a lot of history and a distinct cultural character that distinguishes Puerto Rico from the other islands in the Caribbean and hopefully in these pages you will have picked up on some of the reasons why having a holiday here in Puerto Rico is worthwhile.
I hope you have a great time here on the island.