Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island with a difference. It has the pristine beaches, tropical climate, crystal-blue sea, and coconut palms characteristic of its counterparts. But along with its unmistakable Spanish colonial heritage, the island today is also part of the United States Commonwealth, meaning it has a first-world infrastructure mixed in with its traditional Latin American culture. Hamburgers are as endemic as island dishes like , and freeways connect shantytowns to strips of high-rise beachfront hotels. The second thing that makes Puerto Rico different to other Caribbean holiday Meccas is that it remains largely undeveloped, except for the coastal region around its capital city, San Juan. The island is edged with some magnificent beaches that are mostly non-commercialised, and which are easily reached from the capital and its large resort hotels because the island is so small and compact.
Exploring Puerto Rico, both around its coast and throughout its interior, is a delight. Roads are excellent and there are numerous interesting attractions and unrivalled experiences, from one of the world's largest radio telescopes to the magical experience of swimming at night amongst tiny phosphorescent creatures on the offshore island of Vieques.
Puerto Rico, like many other Caribbean islands, was originally inhabited by Taino Indians until the arrival of Christopher Columbus and the instigation of Spanish rule and settlement. The island's capital and larger towns have preserved their Spanish heritage as 'old quarter' tourist attractions, full of charm and interest. Puerto Rico is a hybrid of old and new, which makes it an intriguing cultural destination rather than just another tropical island paradise.
Puerto Rico is a paradise in many a tourist's mind, and for good reason. A tropical Caribbean destination with cultural interests and lots of character thrown in, Puerto Rico certainly delivers on all fronts.
For those with a penchant for the outdoors, Puerto Rico will not disappoint. The country makes for a brilliant natural playground, offering beautiful islands, undeveloped beaches, caves, and a mountainous region to explore, as well as quaint villages and towns. Surfing and scuba diving are popular choices in areas such as Vieques's bioluminescent bay or on the western shores, while adventuring through the caves in the Camuy Cave Park is thrilling.
Apart from the obvious sun-soaking at the likes of Isla Verde or the Rincon shoreline, holidaymakers will also get the chance to indulge in Puerto Rico's interesting history. The fortress of San Felipe del Morro, built in 1540, makes for a great cultural excursion.
The historic San Juan, with its fascinating colonial architecture dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries, will delight history lovers. For those looking for art and culture, sculptures are a common sight in San Juan and there are wonderful museums such as Puerto Rico's showcase art gallery, Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico.
Home to a diverse and vibrant nightlife scene, as well as many fine restaurants offering memorable fusion cuisines, a night out in Puerto Rico's San Juan will offer tourists some good fun and fantastic gastronomy. What's more, the tropical temperatures in Puerto Rico mean that visitors can enjoy its offerings all year round.
The water in Mosquito Bay sparkles like stars when disturbed due to the hundreds of thousands of bioluminescent dinoflagellates resident there. Of the bioluminescent bays all over the world, Vieques' Puerto Mosquito has been certified the brightest by the Guinness Book of World Records.
A trip to Bio Bay, as it's locally known, is one of the best tourist attractions in Puerto Rico and well worth the excursion from San Juan. Several tour companies offer kayaking and snorkelling in the magical water, often ranked as one of the most romantic places on earth. The bioluminescence is at its brightest during the full or near-full moon, and this is considered the best time to visit.
A historic town with a colourful past, San Germán was the second city founded in Puerto Rico by the Spanish. Its mountainous location made it an ideal escape for artists, poets, and revolutionaries, and present-day San Germán still carries that lively spirit. It has a number of pretty buildings dating back to the 16th century, including the Porta Coéli (Gate of Heaven) Church and the San Germán de Auxerre Church.
Because of these, San Germán is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. There are also a few interesting museums, including the Lola Rodríguez de Tió Museum and the Ramírez de Arrellano y Rossell Museum. San Germán also hosts several religious and cultural festivals throughout the year.
Encompassing about seven blocks, this area dates back about 500 years to the Spanish occupation when it served as a military stronghold that even withstood Sir Francis Drake's armies. The original cobbles on the streets are blue-tinged and were originally used as ballast on Spanish ships. The ancient stones set off the more than 400 restored 16th- and 17th-century Spanish colonial buildings that fill Old San Juan and draw thousands of tourists to walk the narrow, steep streets every day. The old town is enclosed in amazingly thick, high walls, and features numerous attractive plazas bearing sculptures and memorials.
The mighty six-level fortress of San Felipe del Morro, built in 1540, towers 140 feet (43m) above the sea on San Juan Bay, its 18-foot thick (5m) walls having proved a worthy defence against invasion. One of the largest fortifications in the Caribbean, it is a maze of tunnels, dungeons, barracks, lookouts, and ramps, offering spectacular views from atop its ramparts. Also in Norzagaray Street, Old San Juan, is El Morro's partner in defending the city, Castillo San Cristobal, built in the 17th century to a confusing and intricate modular design.
La Fortaleza was built in 1540 as a fortress to guard the entrance to the San Juan harbour, but later became the official Governor's residence. During succeeding centuries, the original structure has been remodelled and expanded, with a neoclassical façade being added in 1846 to leave the building with its palatial aspect. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the oldest administrative mansion still in use in the New World.
Puerto Rico's showcase art gallery is housed in a former city hospital in Santurce and offers a permanent and visiting exhibition. The aim is to highlight the island's heritage through the work of local artists, such as Francisco Oller, who studied in France with Cézanne, and Jose Campeche, a late-18th century classical painter. The museum has been described as a 'living textbook of Puerto Rico', providing on overview of centuries of the island's history through the medium of art. The museum also hosts events like concerts and festivals throughout the year.
The Caribbean National Forest, 35 miles (56km) east of San Juan, is the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Park system and was named El Yunque by the Spanish. Its 28,000 acres contain about 240 different species of tree and numerous other plants, from tiny, delicate wild orchids to gigantic ferns.
Visitors can start their visit at the El Portal Tropical Forest Centre where there are films, exhibits, and interactive displays on the rainforest. Maps are available of the dozens of walking trails through the forest, graded according to difficulty. Nearby is Puerto Rico's best beach, Luquillo Beach, famous for its soft white sand and towering coconut palms.
Located on three promontories on the extreme northeast corner of the island, Las Cabezas reserve is one of the most beautiful and bio-diverse natural areas in Puerto Rico. The reserve is close to Fajardo, a major marina and diving resort, located about an hour's drive from San Juan. The area offers pristine beaches ideal for snorkelling.
The reserve contains seven different ecological systems, including coral reefs, sandy beaches, lagoons, mangroves, and dry forest. It is also home to several endangered species. Boardwalk trails provide easy access to the different natural sites. A restored 19th-century lighthouse, El Faro, is situated on one of the headlands and offers an information centre and observation deck.
The Museo de Arte de Ponce contains one of the largest art collections in the Caribbean, housed in a building designed by Edward Durrell Stone, who designed the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The impressive building is comprised of seven interconnected hexagons topped with glass cupolas.
Inside its walls are more than 1,000 paintings and 400 sculptures covering classical, ancient, and contemporary works. Among the prizes of the collection are works by Velasquez, Rubens, and Rodin, as well as a celebrated collection of Pre-Raphaelite works. Puerto Rican art also features strongly.
On weekends, a ferry carries visitors from the pier at La Guancha on the Ponce waterfront to Coffin Island, a tiny uninhabited island five miles south of the city. The island, also known as Dead Man's Chest, is part of the Reserva Natural Caja de Muertos natural reserve. Its status as a sanctionary is due to its native turtle traffic.
There are five pristine beaches, including Playa Ensenadita, Playa Larga, Playa Blanca, Playa Chica, and the blue-flag designated Playa Pelícano. Beaches on the east side of the island are roped off during turtle-nesting season.
There are hiking trails throughout the interior of the island and visitors can also explore the 19th-century lighthouse Caja de Muerto Light that has been restored and now houses a museum. Coffin Island is a great excursion for visitors to Ponce, and ranks as one of Puerto Rico's best tourist attractions for diving enthusiasts.
The Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña is dedicated to documenting the rich tapestry of the island's music history and pays tribute to Puerto Rican musicians. The museum explains the significance of the romantic danza music style, and the African-inspired popular forms of bomba and plenza. The museum features displays of Indian, Spanish, and African musical instruments, and memorabilia of local composers and performers, all housed in the attractive former residence of the Serralles family, renowned rum producers. Displays are in both English and Spanish.
Perched above the city of Ponce on El Vigia Hill is the restored residence of the Serralles rum-producing family. The multilevel Spanish-revival hacienda, designed by Pedro de Castro and built in 1930, is a beautiful example of the island's post-World War I architecture.
The house surrounds an elegant courtyard featuring fountains, and is renowned for its splendidly carved dining-room ceiling. The mansion is set in magnificent terraced formal gardens with breathtaking views, and makes for a wonderful day-trip destination from Ponce.
Dubbed 'the enchanted isles', Vieques and her smaller sister Culebra are located off Puerto Rico's east coast, accessible from San Juan by air and from Fajardo by ferry. Both support a few thousand friendly, laidback inhabitants who live life peacefully and slowly, enriching rather than impacting on the natural beauty of their environment.
Vieques is 20-odd miles long and five miles wide, and consists largely of the biggest wildlife sanctuary in the Caribbean, protected by the United States Fish & Wildlife Service. Some of the world's most beautiful beaches, with azure clear waters and sugary white sand, are to be found in the sanctuary.
Visitors planning to see Vieques should consider staying overnight to experience its premier attraction, Bio Bay. On a moonless night, the bay glows with the bioluminescence radiated by microscopic one-celled organisms called dinoflagellates, providing an unforgettable sight.
Smaller Culebra, just seven miles long and three miles wide, is a few miles north of Vieques and is renowned for the clarity of the waters washing its shores. This is caused by the fact that the island has no rivers or streams causing run-off: the arid island has to have water piped from Puerto Rico via Vieques.
This quiet, unspoiled island offers unrivalled snorkelling and scuba diving in its magnificent encircling reefs, as well as kayak expeditions and hiking trails for bird-watchers through the Culebra National Wildlife Refuge.
Undoubtedly one of the top tourist attractions in Puerto Rico, a trip to the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre is a must for travellers to San Juan. Following their exile from Cuba in the 1950s, the Bacardi family moved to Puerto Rico and set up a small rum distillery on the outskirts of San Juan.
Today, that small distillery has grown into the largest in the world, producing a jaw-dropping 100,000 gallons of rum per day and 21 million cases per year. Tours of the Casa Bacardi Visitor Centre last about an hour, as visitors are shown around a variety of exhibits and vintage rum stills. They will also be informed about the history of Bacardi rum (including a short movie).
The tour culminates in a visit to an on-site, classically-styled bar, where a bartender will show you the proper methods of preparing Cuba libres and mojitos. The best part? All visitors receive two complimentary drink tickets, which they can cash in on ice-cold Bacardi-based drinks. There is also a gift shop located on the premises, a perfect place to pick up some rum or Bacardi apparel for friends back home.
Isla Verde ('Green Island') is San Juan's hippest area and home to many of its best beach resorts and upmarket hotels. The area's name is inspired by the colour of the water in its bay: a rich, green-turquoise shade that will prove irresistible to swimmers and divers.
While the beautiful crescent-shaped beach, with its soft sand and tall palm trees, is a tourist attraction in its own right, most visitors to Puerto Rico will seek out Isla Verde for its excellent beach resorts, plush hotels, international dining options, world-class spa treatment facilities, and vibrant nightlife. Isla Verde is home to two of the island's best casino hotels and a wide range of raucous night clubs and bars, where live local music is often staged.
A natural base for well-heeled travellers to San Juan, Isla Verde makes for a luxurious home away from home during your holiday in Puerto Rico. A fantastic winter sun vacation destination, Isla Verde sees most of its tourist activity between December and January, when days are warm and sunny and there is no threat of hurricanes or storms.
Although found rather off the beaten tourist track in Mayaguez on the east coast of Puerto Rico, the Mayaguez Zoo (also called the Dr Juan A. Rivero Zoo) is a world-class establishment and well worth a visit for animal lovers and those passionate about wildlife conservation.
The island's only large-scale zoo, the Dr Juan A. Rivero Zoo has been growing a collection of rare and exotic animals since its establishment in 1954, including lions, tigers, jaguars, hippos, giraffes and rhinos, as well as many species of tropical birds and large and varied collections of butterflies, amphibians, and snakes.
Central to the Zoo's growth has been a focus on conservation and several native species - including the Andean condor and the Puerto Rican crested toad - have benefited greatly from this approach.
Featuring several recreated habitat systems (including the tropical Spider Monkey Island), as well as numerous recreation areas, the Mayaguez Zoo is a wonderful place to take the kids for the day. Budget at least two or three hours to take it all in.
Puerto Rico enjoys a warm, tropical climate with temperatures of around 82ºF (27ºC) throughout the year. The temperature in the south is usually a few degrees higher than the north and temperatures in the central interior mountains are always cooler than the rest of the island.
The dry season is usually from November to May but short showers can be expected throughout the year. The hurricane season is between June and November, but generally there is plenty of warning.
The United States Dollar (USD) is the unit of currency, which is divided into 100 cents. It is often referred to as the 'peso' in Puerto Rico. ATMs and bureaux de change are freely available and all major credit cards and travellers cheques are generally accepted. Banking hours are 9am to 3.30pm.
Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico.
Electrical current is 120 volts, 60Hz. Two-pin flat attachment plugs are in use.
US nationals: Valid passport or passport replacing documents are required. Visa not required.
UK nationals: Those with UK passports endorsed 'British Citizen' require a passport valid for 6 months beyond the period of intended stay, but no visa is required for touristic stays of 90 days. Those with any other endorsement should check official requirements.
CA nationals: Canadian citizens require a passport valid for period of intended stay. No visa is required.
AU nationals: Australian citizens require a passport valid for period of intended stay. A visa is not required for stays of up to 90 days.
ZA nationals: South Africans must hold a passport valid for period of intended stay and a visa is also required, unless holding a valid US visa.
IR nationals: Irish citizens require a passport valid for the period of intended stay. No visa is required for stays of up to 90 days.
NZ nationals: New Zealand nationals require a passport valid for the period of intended stay. A visa is not required for touristic stays up to 90 days.
All passport holders must have an onward or return ticket and documents necessary for further travel. Entry requirements for Puerto Rico are the same as for the United States of America. When arriving from mainland USA there is no immigration control. It is highly recommended that passports have at least six months validity remaining after your intended date of departure from your travel destination. Immigration officials often apply different rules to those stated by travel agents and official sources.
There are no vaccination certificates required for travel to Puerto Rico, but travellers are advised to be up to date with routine vaccinations. Cases of dengue fever occur annually and mosquito protection measures are essential. Schistosomiasis is endemic and swimming in lakes, rivers and streams should be avoided. It is best to drink bottled water to avoid stomach upsets. Thoroughly wash or peel produce you buy in markets before eating it. Medical services are good but can be expensive; medical insurance is advised.
Some restaurants and hotels automatically add a 10-17 percent service charge to the bill. If not, a 15 percent tip is expected. Taxi drivers and bar staff also expect tips.
Puerto Rico is still recovering from Hurricane Maria with regular power and communication outages and unstable buildings.
Visits to Puerto Rico are usually trouble-free but travellers should take sensible precautions to avoid petty theft.
Many travel and health authorities classify Puerto Rico as having a high risk of Zika virus transmission. Visitors are advised to seek advice from health professionals before travel.
Social etiquette in Puerto Rico is typically Latin American, with some North American influences such as a stronger sense of female independence, and a toning-down of the machismo ideal. Western visitors to the country should feel comfortable in most social situations.
Hygiene, cleanliness, and personal appearance are viewed as matters of self-respect, so travellers who've been on the road for a little while might consider neatening up their beards or trimming their hair, especially if they want to make a good first impression.
A final, important aspect of Puerto Rican social life, is the concept of relajo. Generally shy of direct confrontation and open criticism, relajo refers to the gentle, joking manner in which Puerto Ricans will bring up uncomfortable issues around each another. Visitors should be aware of this technique, as they may, on occasion, be required to read between the lines to discover what locals are really trying to express.
Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory although the resemblance is closer to Latin America. English is understood by many on the island, but Spanish may also be the language in which business is conducted. Dress codes will vary according to different sectors, but suits are favoured on very formal occasions. Shaking hands is common for both men and women. Business hours are generally 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday, with an hour taken at lunch.
The international access code for Puerto Rico is +1 787 and +1 939. The outgoing code is 011 followed by the relevant country code (e.g. 01144 for the United Kingdom). The outgoing code is not needed for calling the US, Canada, and most of the Caribbean. Mobile phones work throughout the island and local operators use CDMA networks that are not compatible with GSM phones, as used outside North America. Internet cafes are available in most towns and resorts.
Puerto Rico's customs regulations are the same as those for the United States. Visitors over 21 may bring in the following items without paying duty: 200 cigarettes or 100 cigars or 2kg of tobacco; 1 litre of alcohol; and gifts valued up to US$100.
There is a long list of restricted and prohibited items which may not be imported or imported only under license, ranging from fireworks and matches to pre-Columbian sculpture and Cuban cigars. If in doubt, consult your nearest US Embassy for advice. Any merchandise from embargoed countries (Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Serbia and Montenegro and the Sudan) may not be brought onto US soil.
The Puerto Rican Tourist Company, Old San Juan: +1 787 721 2400 or www.gotopuertorico.com
United States Embassy, London, United Kingdom: +44 (0)20 7499 9000.
United States Embassy, Ottawa, Canada: +1 613 238 5335.
United States Embassy, Canberra, Australia: +61 (0)2 6214 5600.
United States Embassy, Pretoria, South Africa: +27 (0)12 431 4000.
United States Embassy, Dublin, Ireland: +353 (0)1 668 8777.
United States Embassy, Wellington, New Zealand: +64 (0)4 462 6000.
British Consulate, San Juan: +1 787 850 2400.
Canadian Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Puerto Rico): +1 (202) 682 1740.
Australian Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Puerto Rico): +1 202 797 3000.
South African Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Puerto Rico): +1 202 232 4400.
Irish Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Puerto Rico): +1 202 462 3939.
New Zealand Embassy, Washington DC, United States (also responsible for Puerto Rico): +1 202 328 4800.
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