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Puerto Rico

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Travel Guide Caribbean Puerto Rico





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What is most striking about Puerto Rico is the apparent contradiction between its Latino/Caribbean culture and its cosmopolitan city centers, akin to mainland U.S. cities. The influences of U.S., Spanish, African and Taíno cultures have had a perplexing effect on all aspects of Puerto Rican life. Fast food chains and old Spanish colonial buildings stand side-by-side in San Juan; folk music descendant from Spanish folk music contrasts with the bomba, a dance carried over from Africa.

Since it is easy to reach from the United States (no visa is required), Puerto Rico has matured into a tourist hot-spot. But while San Juan continues to be the country's prime attraction, journeys into the countryside reward travellers with a clearer glimpse into the unique Puerto Rican culture.



Brief History

The first settlers were the Ortoiroid people, an Archaic Period culture of Amerindian hunters and fishermen. An archaeological dig in the island of Vieques in 1990 found the remains of what is believed to be an Arcaico (Archaic) man (named Puerto Ferro man) dated to around 2000 BC. Between the 7th and 11th centuries the Taíno culture developed on the island, and by approximately 1000 AD had become dominant. This lasted until Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493.
Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista, in honor of Saint John the Baptist. Later the island took the name of Puerto Rico while the capital was named San Juan. Puerto Rico soon became an important stronghold and port for the Spanish Empire. Various forts and walls, such as La Fortaleza, El Castillo San Felipe del Morro and El Castillo de San Cristóbal, were built to protect the port of San Juan from European enemies. France, The Netherlands and England made several attempts to capture Puerto Rico but failed to wrest long-term occupancy. During the late 17th and early 18th centuries colonial emphasis was on the more prosperous mainland territories, leaving the island impoverished of settlers.
On July 25, 1898, during the Spanish-American War, Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States with a landing at Guánica. As an outcome of the war, Spain ceded Puerto Rico, along with Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris. Natural disasters, including a major earthquake, a tsunami and several hurricanes, and the Great Depression impoverished the island during the first few decades under U.S. rule.
In 1947, the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans the right to elect democratically their own governor. Luis Muñoz Marín was elected during the 1948 general elections, becoming the first popularly elected governor of Puerto Rico.
During the 1950s Puerto Rico experienced rapid industrialization and presently, Puerto Rico has become a major tourist destination and it is the world's leading pharmaceutical manufacturing center.




Puerto Rico consists of the main island of Puerto Rico and various smaller islands, including Vieques, Culebra, Mona, Desecheo, and Caja de Muertos. There are also many other even smaller islands including Monito and "La Isleta de San Juan" which includes Old San Juan and Puerta de Tierra and is connected to the main island by bridges.
Puerto Rico has an area of 13,790 km2, of which 8,870 km2 is land and 4,921 km2 is water. The maximum length of the main island from east to west is 180 kilometres, and the maximum width from north to south is 65 kilometres. Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles, about 20% smaller than Jamaica and not even 10% of the largest of these Greater Antilles: Cuba. Puerto Rico is mostly mountainous with large coastal areas in the north and south. The main mountain range is called "La Cordillera Central" (The Central Range). The highest elevation in Puerto Rico, Cerro de Punta at 1,339 metres, is located in this range. Another important peak is El Yunque, one of the highest in the Sierra de Luquillo at the El Yunque National Forest, with an elevation of 1,065 metres. Puerto Rico has 17 lakes, all man-made, and more than 50 rivers, most originating in the Cordillera Central. Rivers in the northern region of the island are typically longer and of higher water flow rates than those of the south, since the south receives less rain than the central and northern regions.




Aside from these islands, there are numerous smaller islands (many uninhabited) included in the archipelago.




Sights and Activities

Bay of San Juan

La Fortaleza and San Juan National Historic Site in Puerto Rico is the only site on the island that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Here, a series of defensive structures was built during the period between 1400 and 1900 at a strategic point in the Caribbean Sea to protect the city and the Bay of San Juan. They represent a fine display of European military architecture adapted to harbour sites on the American continent. The site includes Fort San Cristóbal, Fort San Felipe del Morro, Fort San Juan de la Cruz (called El Cañuelo as well), and bastions, powder houses, and three quarters of the city wall surrounding San Juan.

El Yunque

El Yunque National Park is located in the Luquillo mountains and is a park of around 11,000 hectares big. It encompasses a lush rain forest with over 400 species of trees and ferns. Within the park, you have the choice of about 13 hiking trails. Some of them are easy strolls, while others require better physical conditions, like the one to the peak of El Yunque. While walking, keep an eye out for the coquí frog (the national symbol of Puerto Rico), the rare Puerto Rican parrot, beautiful orchids and waterfalls. It's only about one hour from the capital San Juan.

Río Camuy Cave Park

In the northeastern region of Puerto Rico over 200 caves have been discovered. With some experience, you can go climbing, abseiling and swimming through the underground river system of the Camy River. This is one of the biggest underground rivers in the world.


Billions of dollars have been spent to restore the colonial centre of the second biggest city in Puerto Rico, Ponce. The centre dates back to the 7th century AD and is known as a national treasure. You will find churches, squares, decorated colonial houses and other buildings and fountains. Plaza Las Delicias is one of the highlights for sure.

Other sights and activities

  • Arecibo Observatory. The largest single-dish radio telescope in the world.
  • Bosque Estatal de Guánica. A national park.
  • Iglesia de San José. San Juan.
  • Bacardi-walhalla. San Juan, producing hundreds of thousands of liters a day. Be sure to take a taxi!
  • Vieques. A small island off the coast, known for it illuminating organisms .
  • Culebra. A popular weekend getaway, so go during the week, or visit one of the even smaller islands by water taxi nearby.
  • Mona Island. An island to the east, between the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. You can only visit if you have a permit, as the island has a wonderful natural environment.



Events and Festivals

Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian

Starting off the year in January is Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastian. Held annually in San Juan, this festival offers residents one last holiday party. Lasting three nights, the event is a celebration of the saint Sebastian with a huge street party. Visitors will be treated to vibrant music, colorful dancing and, invariably, a great deal of drinking.


One of the most anticipated festivals in Puerto Rico, Carniva, is a hallmark of February each year. Taking over the central plaza of all major cities, Carnival is a brilliant display of Puerto Rican culture at its finest. Visitors will see everything from street parades to masked dances. Although not as flamboyant as some other countries, this event is still highly enjoyable and worth engaging in.

Festival Casals

Also in February is Festival Casals which has been taking place in San Juan for over 50 years. This event is entirely dedicated to the life and work of Pablo Casals, the world-famous cellist and honorary Puerto Rican. Music spans almost an entire month and showcases some of the best classical and jazz performers from around the globe.

Puerto Rico Open

Golf lovers will be happy to know that March marks the start of the Puerto Rico Open in Rio Grande. Attracting top players from around the world, this annual event is no joke. With a prize purse of US $3.5 million, all golfers pull out their A-game to provide visitors an experience they won't forget.

Heineken JazzFest

Another beloved music festival, the Heineken JazzFest takes place in March every year in the trendy San Juan metropolitan area. JazzFest showcases both local and international talents and is an institution that has been happening for over 20 years. The main focus, unsurprisingly, is Latin Jazz, which provides a great deal of entertainment for everyone who chooses to go.

Saborea Culinary Festival

There are many food festivals in Puerto Rico throughout the year, but by far the most popular is the Saborea Culinary Festival in San Juan. Held annually in April the weekend is a feast of flavors, influences and styles. Top local and international chefs make appearances and there are a plethora of workshops to keep visitors entertained. Anyone planning on attending will definitely not leave hungry.

International Salsa Congress

An amazing display of one of the finest cultural activities in Puerto Rico, the International Salsa Congress takes place in July. Held annually in San Juan, the congress brings together dancers and salsa lovers from around the world to celebrate this vibrant and exciting form of dance. Lasting for two weeks, there are several live music shows and the main event – a piping hot dance competition.




Puerto Rico has a hot and humid climate with temperatures rarely dropping below 18 °C at night, although the mountainous areas can get a bit chilly sometimes. Average daytime temperatures hoover around 30 °C, a bit cooler from December to April and a bit warmer between June and October. This latter period also is the rainy season with a chance of hurricanes from late July onwards. Obviously, this is not the best time to visit.



Getting there


Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU) in San Juan is where all international planes arrive and depart. It serves as the Caribbean hub for American Airlines and American Eagle and there are connections to almost every island nation in the region with these two airlines.

Many other airlines based in the United States serve Puerto Rico from numerous cities. These include Delta Air Lines and US Airways.
Destinations further away include Frankfurt, London and Madrid in Europe and several cities in South America like Bogota.


Dominican Republic - Puerto Rico vv
Ferries del Caribe offers three weekly ferries between Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic and Mayagüez in Puerto Rico. From Santo Domingo they leave on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 8:00pm arriving in Mayagüez at 8am the following morning. From Mayagüez, Puerto Rico, they leave on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8:00pm, and arrive in Santo Domingo at 8:00am the next morning. The journey takes about 12 hours in both directions.

Puerto Rico - United States Virgin Islands vv
Every two weeks leaving on a Sunday at 1pm, there is a fast ferry between Fajardo in Puerto Rico and St. John and St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands. In the opposite direction, boats leave every two weeks on a Thursday at 5pm from St. John and 6:00pm from St. Thomas. The trip takes about 2 hours and services are wih Transportation Services Virgin Islands.



Getting Around

By Plane

American Eagle, Vieques Air Link and Cape Air all provide domestic services between San Juan, Vieques and a few other towns.

By Car

Renting a car is one of the best ways to explore a lot of Puerto Rico and there are at least a dozen rental companies to choose from. Most are located at the international airport or in San Juan. An (inter)national driver's license is valid in the country. Although there is no reason for panic, just watch the road and stay calm. Most Puerto Ricans are not.

By Bus

Minivans known as públicos travel around the island and go to almost every corner of the island. They don't travel according to a schedule and they can be flagged down anywhere. If you don't travel between the largest cities, you will need to change once or twice to get to your final destination. It's a safe, cheap and social way of getting around.

By Público

A público is a shared taxi service and is much cheaper than taking a taxi around the island, and depending on your travel aspirations, might be cheaper than renting a car. Públicos can be identified by their yellow license plates with the word "PUBLICO" written on top of the license plate. The "main" público station is in Río Piedras, a suburb of San Juan. They're also known as colectivos and pisicorres.

There are two ways of getting on a público. The easier way is to call the local público stand the day before and ask them to pick you up at an agreed time. (Your hotel or guesthouse can probably arrange this, and unlike you, they probably know which of the multitude of companies is going your way.) This is convenient, but it'll cost a few bucks extra and you'll be in for a wait as the car collects all the other departing passengers. The cheaper way is to just show up at the público terminal (or, in smaller towns, the town square) as early as you can (6:00-7:00am is normal) and wait for others to show up; as soon as enough have collected, which may take minutes or hours, you're off. Públicos taper off in the afternoon and stop running entirely before dark.

Públicos can make frequent stops to pick up or drop off passengers and may take a while to get to their destination terminal, but you can also request to be dropped off elsewhere if it's along the way or you pay a little extra. Prices vary depending on the size of the público and the distance being traveled. As an example, a small público that can seat three or four passengers from Ponce to San Juan will cost roughly $15, while a 15 passenger público that is traveling between San Juan and Fajardo will cost about $5 each person.

By Train

Tren Urbano - or Urban Train in English - is a 17.2-kilometre-long fully automated rapid transit that serves the metropolitan area of San Juan, which includes the municipalities of San Juan, Bayamón, and Guaynabo. Tren Urbano consists of 16 stations on a single line. The Tren Urbano complements other forms of public transportation on the island such as the public bus system, taxis, water ferries and shuttles. The entire mass transportation system has been dubbed the “Alternativa de Transporte Integrado” (Integrated Transportation Alternative) or “ATI”.

Its services are very reliable and are almost always on time. A single trip costs $0.75 including a 2-hour public (AMA) bus transfer period. If you exit the station and wish to get back on the train the full fare must be re-paid; there is no train to train transfer period. Students and Seniors (60–74 years old) with ID pay 35 cents per trip. Senior citizens older than 75 and children under 6 ride for free. Several unlimited passes are also available.

By Boat

There are ferries between the main island of Puerto Rico and some island to the east. Boats leave Fajardo for the islands of Culebra and Vieques at least four times a day to either island. It takes around one hour and services are with the Puerto Rican Port Authority Office.



Red Tape

Since Puerto Rico is a US territory, travelers from outside the United States must meet the same requirements that are needed to enter the United States. For travel within the United States, there are no passport controls between the US mainland and Puerto Rico, or vice versa. There are also no customs inspections for travel to and from the US mainland, but the USDA does perform agricultural inspections of luggage bound from Puerto Rico to the US mainland.




See also Money Matters

The US Dollar, or "greenback", is the currency Puerto Rico. One dollar consists of 100 cents. Frequently used coins are the penny (1¢), nickel (5¢), dime (10¢) and quarter (25¢). 50¢ and $1 coins also exist, but are rarely used. Frequently used banknotes are the $1, $5, $10 and $20 notes. $2, $50 and $100 notes can also be found, but are rarely used.




There is a small international workforce on the island. In general, it's possible to find a nice job on the island doing various things. The island is full of international businesses which look for skilled labor all the time. Tourism is obviously a big industry for Puerto Rico. Also, the majority of pharmaceutical companies can be found here and the island plays a very important part in pharmaceutical manufacturing for the U.S. and other places in the world.




Most universities in Puerto Rico are accredited by US authorities and they offer quality educational programs. Its very easy to find Spanish courses as well as learn to dance salsa. Puerto Rico has 3 ABA-accredited law schools which are very competitive. The University of Puerto Rico Law School is very friendly towards international students and is a great option for foreigners looking for a quality, cheap education (subsidized by the government) that is less than 10 minutes from a beach!

Also the island has major medical teaching centers which are internationally acclaimed such as the University of Puerto Rico Center for Medical Sciences and the Ponce School of Medicine.




Related article: Spanish: Grammar, pronunciation and useful phrases

Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico. English is spoken by about 50% of the population, and is taught as a second language at high school. Puerto Rican Spanish is quite distinct from that of other Spanish-speaking countries, owing to the influence of ancestral languages and English.




Authentic Puerto Rican food (comida criolla) can be summed up in two words: plantains and pork, usually served up with rice and beans (arroz y habichuelas). It is rarely if ever spicy, and to many visitors' surprise has very little in common with Mexican cooking.

Plantains (plátanos) are essentially savory bananas and the primary source of starch back in the bad old days, although you will occasionally also encounter cassava (yuca) and other tropical tubers.




There are over 12,000 hotel rooms in Puerto Rico and 50% are located in the San Juan area. All major international hotel chains have properties in Puerto Rico. Guests can expect a high level of service even in lower quality properties. The San Juan area is very popular and perennially full of visitors but also suffers from a shortage of hotel rooms which results in high prices during the winter season. New developments on the horizon look to alleviate this problem.

International chains such as Sheraton, Westin, Marriott, Hilton, Ritz-Carlton, Holiday Inn as well as some luxurious independent resorts offer very reliable accommodations. There is a boom underway in boutique hotel construction which promise a higher level of service and Miami-chic appeal. Most large cities have at least one international chain hotel.

There are properties to rent, buy, or lease available, whether it is a quiet home or a vacation rental. There are also many fully furnished apartments you can rent by the day, week and month, especially in Old San Juan. These are usually inexpensive, clean and comfortable and owned by trustworthy people. They are located mostly in the residential area, which is safe (day and night), and within walking distance to everything from museums to nightlife.




Puerto Rico is obviously famous for its rum and rum drinks, and is the birthplace of the world renowned Piña Colada. Several rums are made in Puerto Rico, including Bacardì, Captain Morgan and Don Q.

If you are an avid coffee drinker, you may find heaven in Puerto Rico. Nearly every place to eat, from the most expensive restaurants to the lowliest street vendors, serves coffee that is cheap, powerful, and delicious. Puerto Ricans drink their coffee in a way particular to the Caribbean, known as a café cortadito, which is espresso coffee served with sweetened steamed milk.




See also Travel Health

There are no vaccinations legally required to travel to Puerto Rico. It's a good thing to get your vaccinations in order before travelling to Puerto Rico. The general vaccination against Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio (DTP) is recommended. Also a hepatitis A vaccination is recommended and vaccination against hepatitis B, rabies and typhoid are also sometimes recommended for stays longer than 3 months.

Dengue sometimes occurs as well. There is no vaccination, so buy mosquito repellent (preferably with 50% DEET), and sleep under a net. Also wear long sleeves if possible.

Finally, other possible health issues include diarrhea and other general travellers' diseases like motion sickness. Watch what you eat and drink and in case you get it, drink plenty of fluids (to prevent dehydration) and bring ORS.




See also Travel Safety

Puerto Rico in general is a safe destination to travel around. Just be careful when walking around parts of San Juan, especially after dark when it's best to take a taxi.
Also note that Puerto Ricans are not the most friendly drivers, so take care when renting a car and be sure not to leave anything in the car which is in sight.



Keep Connected


Internet cafes exist but are not very common, although some cafes, such as Starbucks, and restaurants, such as Subway, provide free WiFi. Some of the major metro areas provide free WiFi zones, such as along Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan, but these tend to be slow and unreliable. There is no free WiFi at the primary airport, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU). Most hotels provide wired or wireless (or both) internet for guests, either for free or a fee, however many motels do not. Puerto has continually strived to improve the Internet on the island.


See also International Telephone Calls

Puerto Rico has a modern cellular network. All the major US carriers are represented and are not roaming for US subscribers with nationwide plans. Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile have native coverage, while Verizon roams on their legacy network now operated by Claro. Other CDMA carriers also use Claro or Sprint. For non-US travelers, AT&T and T-Mobile are the GSM carriers, while Sprint and Claro are CDMA and probably not compatible with your phone.


Quick Facts

Puerto Rico flag

Map of Puerto Rico


San Juan
Commonwealth associated with the US
Christianity (Catholic, Protestant)
Spanish, English
Calling Code
Puerto Rican


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