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The Americas & Caribbean

About Puerto Rico

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an archipelago that includes the main island and several smaller islands. With spectacular tropical vistas and rainforests, a fascinating history and mouthwatering traditional cuisine, it is one of the most visited islands in the Caribbean.

Part of the island’s allure is the rich and colorful Spanish heritage that dates back to its founding. Fifteen years after Christopher Columbus landed here, Juan Ponce de León arrived, in 1508, and began construction of Fort San Felipe del Morro 13 years later. This marked the beginning of 400 years of Spanish rule and dominance in the area. San Juan grew into a major settlement of the empire, with many Spaniards from Andalusia and the Canary Islands settling here. It wasn’t until 1898 during the Spanish-American War that US Navy ships arrived, claiming Puerto Rico from Spain.

Today, San Juan boasts the largest industrial center on the island, refining sugar, processing tobacco and distilling rum. La Milla de Oro (the Golden Mile) is where many local and international banks are located. This influential stretch is often called the “Wall Street of the Caribbean.”

Puerto Rico Lifestyle and Culture

Puerto Rico is a mix of Taíno, African and Spanish influences, and all of these traditions permeate the culture. Vibrant and colorful architecture throughout the island blends four centuries of stately colonial and Ibero-Islamic style with 20th-century art deco and postmodern design. Spanish and English are the primary languages you’ll hear, and Catholicism is the island’s dominant religion.

Arts are central to Puerto Rico’s culture. Music exudes a rich blend of traditional and local rhythms, with influence from Spanish and African traditions. Opera singer Justino Díaz, pop artist Ricky Martin and actor Benicio del Toro are notable talents who hail from the island.

Puerto Ricans certainly know how to celebrate life, as evidenced by their annual events. The Fiestas de la Calle San Sebastián, which ends the Christmas season, is a giant block party with music, dance, parades and crafts. Some refer to this four-day extravaganza as Puerto Rican Mardi Gras. The Casals Festival, honoring world-renowned cellist and conductor Pablo Casals, pays homage to classical music with performances from top musicians. Another favorite celebration is La Fiesta de San Juan Bautista, which commemorates the patron saint each June with more music, dancing, parades and lots of amazing food.

Puerto Rico Sights and Landmarks

The centerpiece of Puerto Rico’s natural beauty is El Yunque national rainforest. The pride of the island, it is sacred to the Taíno people and the only national tropical rainforest in the United States. Towering trees and huge ferns, 70 types of orchids and the tiny coquí tree frog make this one of the most entrancing places in the Caribbean.

At Casa Bacardi, one of the Caribbean’s most popular rums is distilled. Since 1862, the spirit has been central to island culture. This family-owned business has production facilities worldwide.

One of Puerto Rico’s iconic symbols is the garita, the distinctive style of watchtower that stands guard at the island’s several fortresses. Perhaps the most dramatic place to admire them is Fort San Felipe del Morro (Castillo San Felipe del Morro). With walls 20 feet thick, a dramatic perch over the roiling Caribbean waters and formidable cannons pointed out to sea, it’s no wonder this citadel has withstood the test of time. Today, a vast green esplanade reaches up to the center of the Old Town from the moat, an inviting lawn dotted with kite-flyers and picnickers.

San Juan’s fortified Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, still has streets paved with steel-blue adoquín stone, which was used to ballast the Spanish galleons that brought settlers and goods here. These colorful, narrow byways lead to picturesque multihued facades, townhouses with neoclassical balconies, restaurants serving some of the most creative fare in the Caribbean and charming boutique shops.

Puerto Rico Entertainment and Activities

From lush green landscapes to sprawling white sands, Puerto Rico’s natural beauty is never far from reach. You can get a bird’s-eye view of the sweeping harbor, city and mountains from San Juan’s Parque de las Palomas (Pigeon Park), on top of the city wall. And wandering the streets of Old San Juan, exploring its inviting plazas and colorful building facades, is a fine way to while away an afternoon.

About 30 miles from San Juan, El Yunque national rainforest is the only subtropical rainforest in the US National Forest System. It hosts myriad plants and animals, including the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the ten most endangered bird species in the world.

To soak up the sun, make your way to one of San Juan’s many beaches. Playa Isla Verde has been called the “Copacabana of Puerto Rico” with its mile-long beach dotted with volleyball courts. Escambron in Puerta de Tierra is one of the city’s best stretches of sand, with calm, crystal-clear water perfectly suited to swimming and snorkeling. For a quieter experience, Playa Peña is a hidden gem in the heart of the Old City.

Puerto Rico Restaurants and Shopping

Puerto Rican cuisine (cocina criolla to locals) fuses Spanish, African and Taíno influences with a plethora of bright flavors. Adobo—crushed peppercorns, oregano, garlic, salt, olive oil and lime—is a popular blend used on a variety of meats.

In San Juan, celebrated chef José Enrique set up shop in a hidden yellow house. The restaurant bears his name, but you won’t find a sign announcing that you’ve arrived. Instead, a crowd of people will tell you you’re in the right spot. Upscale Puerto Rican food with fresh, local ingredients has earned him multiple awards. Marmalade is another celebrated chef-focused eatery; here, Peter Schintler cooks up California-French dishes and offers splendid tasting menus. Other notable restaurants include St. Germain Bistro & Café and Santaella.

To take home a piece of Puerto Rico, visit San Juan’s Artisan’s Fair for arts and crafts, while Galeria Exodo offers great works by local artists. Plaza las Américas is the largest mall in the Caribbean. For authentic Panama hats, visit Olé.