Mention Puerto Rico and many people are likely to think of sun, sand and sipping rum drinks. But as anyone familiar with that Caribbean destination knows, there’s more – a lot more – to the tiny island.
Virtually a full continent’s worth of diversity is shoe-horned into an area smaller than the state of Connecticut. A drive of about three hours from coast to coast, depending upon the traffic, provides an introduction to the variety. Puerto Rico is a something-for-everyone treats that awaits travelers to this almost-but-not-quite-a-state enclave of the U.S.
Even those whose goal may be nothing more than a stretch of soft sand on which to soak up the sun often surrender to the virtual A-to-Z list of activities and attractions. Puerto Rico is, in effect, many destinations in one, which helps to explain why people who set foot on the island for the first time often become repeat visitors.
Nothing provides a more dramatic introduction to the multiplicity of landscapes on Puerto Rico than to explore by car. The secluded palm-fringed beaches along the eastern shoreline give way to rolling hills. Then the terrain rises to form two rugged long-dormant volcanic mountain ranges that dominate the center of the island before falling into the rolling surf that lap beaches on the west.
Even forests in Puerto Rico offer their share of both prizes and surprises. Best known and most popular is El Yunque National Forest, a 28,000-acre tract of some 240 species of native evergreen trees, giant ferns, wild orchids and a tangle of hanging vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight. More than 50 species of birds provide a constant chorus and waterfalls cascade down moss-covered cliffs.
A stark counterpoint to this lush setting is the Guanica Dry Forest Reserve, the largest tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world. More than 700 species of plants have adapted to the sparse rainfall in this inhospitable desert setting, including 48 that are endangered and 16 which exist nowhere else.
Several Indian groups inhabited Puerto Rico beginning as long as 4,500 years ago. When Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493 and claimed it for Spain, he encountered the Taino (pronounced Tie-EE-no) Indians. Their name meant “friendship,” and they were peaceful people who farmed and fished.
Reminders of their society abound in place names and at an important archeological site. This was a ceremonial gathering place that included plazas, ball courts and burial grounds. Stones were placed to create a kind of astronomical observatory and some of them still reveal petroglyph etchings. A museum contains exhibits and artifacts pertaining to the Tainos and other pre-Columbian people.
The current predominant cultural influences on Puerto Rico are the result of some 400 years as an outpost of Spain in the New World. The language, food and many customs persist to this day. San Juan, Ponce (Pawn-say) and other cities and large towns are treasure troves of Spanish architecture.
Traces of Africa also persist, in favorite foods and other ways. Early Spanish explorers brought in slaves from that continent to help with their search for gold. Later, they were used to plant and harvest sugar cane which at one time was the most important cash crop on the island.
San Juan combines the bustle of a large American city with the grace of its Spanish heritage, along with colorful Caribbean touches. Given its draw as a tourist destination, the island’s capital has its share – and more – of shops, restaurants, bars and night clubs. Yet its historic center continues to reflect 500 years of history in its narrow streets, imposing public buildings and pastel-painted houses with graceful wrought iron balconies decorated with flowers and hanging plants. Some streets are paved with grey-blue bricks which were brought from Spain as ships’ ballast.
Remnants of the imposing city walls, the San Juan Gate which was the main entry point, and 16th-century El Moro castle and 17th-century Fort San Cristobal were part of what was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the New World.
Beginning just outside of San Juan and sprinkled around the island are towns and tiny hamlets which share vestiges of their Spanish heritage, like a central plaza often overlooked by the largest, or only, church. At the same time, each village has its own unique charm and flavor.
Ponce was named for Juan Ponce de Leon, who was the first Spanish governor. Referred to as the “Pearl of the South,” and second in size to San Juan, it is a stately old city that was founded in 1692. The airy main plaza is surrounded by the narrow streets of the historic district which are lined by architecture that evokes Puerto Rico’s colonial past. An added bonus is a collection of museums that explore various aspects of the island’s history and culture.
Mayaguez, the third largest city on the island, boasts a tropical botanical garden and Puerto Rico’s largest zoo. Rincon is perched on the western-most tip of Puerto Rico where the mountains run down to the sea. The scenery is spectacular, the nearby beaches are beautiful and surfers find plenty of large waves to ride.
Guanica is located at the place where American troops first landed during the Spanish-American War of 1898, which resulted in the United States gaining control of Puerto Rico.
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