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Tourist Profile: Puerto Rico

The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is situated between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of the Dominican Republic. This Caribe-an Island is proudly independent in spirit but technically a territory of the USA, but not a single Puerto Rican will say he carries the American Nationality. They are proud of their country and are very willing to show it to you. Discovered by Columbus in 1493, the is-land was ceded by Spain to the US in 1898 following the Spanish-American War. A popularly elected governor (Juan Ponce de León) has served since 1948. In plebiscites held in 1967 and 1993, voters chose to retain commonwealth status.

Puerto Rico is where four centuries of Spanish Caribbean culture comes face to face with the American convenience store. This leads to some strange contradictions- parking lots and plazas, freeways and fountains, skyscrapers and shanties - but they're not hard to reconcile in the context of the Caribbean's hybrid history. Puerto Rico is a true holiday-paradise and the islands has a lot more to offer than just its beaches, like a piece of unspoilt rainforest and an unexplored desert island. Add to this a perplexing culture that is proud of its past yet unable to seize its independence and you have the ingredients for an intriguing adventure.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

You really should visit San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico which is a modern metropolis and has something that the most Caribbean cities don't have: a million inhabitants. "La Ciudad Amurallada" (city surrounded by walls) with its beautiful beaches and it relatively new looks doesn't seem to have much history, but appearances may hide the fact that there is an Old San Juan (a 465-year-old neighbourhood) and it's the second oldest city in the Americas. You couldn't leave the city without seeing places Plaza San José, Plaza del Quinto Centenario (commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery of the New World). Visit the grand fort El Morro and of course the Pigeon Park ("Parque de las Palomas"). The park is the perfect spot from which to enjoy a magnificent view of the harbour, city and mountains. Despite a veneer of American influence evident in cars, styles and products, San Juan is thoroughly enmeshed in a culture wholly unlike that of the United States. The Taínos Indians believed the god of happiness hung out on El Yunque, which is no doubt why you will want to hike through the rainforest to this 1065m (3500ft) peak.

Loaded with exotic tropical flora, this is the only rain forest in the U.S. national forest system. You could spend months exploring this place and not get bored. You'll hear the sing-song of the coquí frog (Puerto Rico's national emblem) and maybe even glimpse the rare Puerto Rican parrot. In front of the rain forest is Luquillo Beach which is considered as one of the best in the American Hemisphere. Tourists and Puerto Ricans alike flock to the beach because of its beautiful blue-green water and magnificent resorts.Walk below the shadow of thousands of coconut palms trees and enjoy the whispers of the ocean waves in our Atlantic coast, certainly a paradise for beach lovers.

Ponce, called "La Perla del Sur" (Pearl of the South), is Puerto Rico's second largest city and features many interesting tourist attractions including Ponce Fire House located in the town's main square, the stately Cathedral of our Lady of Guadeloupe that looms over the Plaza Las Delicias), the Ponce Museum of Art, the best in the Caribbean, and is enhanced by the Museum of the History of Ponce and the Puerto Rican Music Museum. Viewing-point Cruceta el Vigia just north of the center looks over Ponce to the sea or walk on La Guancha, the boardwalk and beach area just south of the city. Río Camuy Cave Park.

Experienced cavers can get dirty and wet by climbing, scrambling, abseiling and swimming through the underground river system, but you have to know the difference between grappling and rappelling to contemplate entering this dangerous terrain. This picturesque town of San Germán looks like it was lifted lock stock and barrel from Mediterranean Spain. It's Puerto Rico's oldest settlement outside San Juan. This town has an unusual two plaza design with a church on both plazas. The church on the west plaza is now the Porta Coeli (('Gate of Heaven') Religious Art Museum. Beach. If you're still having the feeling that you haven't seen enough of the beauty and the beaches, go visit islands like Isla Mona, Isla de Vieques en Isla de Culebra. Isla de Roque, Isla Verde and many other beaches.

The peak tourist season is between December and April, but this has more to do with the climate in North America than anything else. Because of the tropical climate Puerto Rico is the ideal holiday destination for hibernation. Even during the winter the temperature never goes below 25 º C. The best time to avoid the crowds is during the official hurricane season (May through November), but this could be dissuaded as well. Although hurricanes are rare, they're able to do more than put a damper on your holiday. In the North on the average there's a precipitation of 1500 mm a year and in the south it's seldom over a 1000 mm a year which is a significant difference.

Currency: US dollar (US$)

  • Budget: US$5-15
  • Mid-range: US$15-25
  • Top-end: US$25 and upwards
  • Budget: US$40-75
  • Mid-range: US$75-150
  • Top-end: US$150 and upwards

Puerto Rico is one of the Caribbean's cheaper destinations, but there's no limit to what you can spend if you're in a party mood or on a gambling binge. It's possible to travel very comfortably on around US$250 a day, staying in ritzier hotels and eating three meals a day in decent restaurants. A moderate guesthouse-and-diner budget would slip somewhere between US$150 and US$200, while budget travelers can get by on less than US$100 a day by bunking up in no-frills hotels, eating at local food stands and taking public transport in preference to hiring a car. Note that accommodations are cheaper in the May through November low season. All major credit cards and traveler's checks are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATMs should you prefer to access your home bank account directly. Once you leave the cities and touristed areas, it's best to carry cash.

The US dollar is sometimes referred to as the peso. Tipping follows North American rules. Restaurants usually include the service charge in the bill, but if they don't a 15% tip is expected. Some hotels add a 10% service charge, otherwise an equivalent tip is expected. There's a government tax of 7-10% on hotel rooms and some hotels charge an energy surcharge of around 3%. These extras can really add up - find out what you're in for when you make your booking to save a nasty surprise at settle-up time. Bargaining isn't common except in artisan markets where you can probably wrangle a discount.

A number of Amerindian peoples have lived on Puerto Rico, which may be the earliest site of human habitation in the Caribbean. It was the Taínos who were in residence when Columbus arrived in 1493. This largely peaceful family of autonomous tribes had developed a sophisticated culture, language and religious system. Unusually, the Taínos had female chiefs as well as male, who were entitled to numerous husbands, the foremost of which was burned with his wife at the time of her death. Taínos received prophecy from gods and the dead through such mind-altering practices as inhaling a hallucinatory powder made from cohoba seeds and crushed shells. They were also remarkably nifty at ball games: They invented the rubber ball and the results of their contests were of oracular value. Unfortunately, game-playing and shell-inhaling did not leave the Taínos prepared to defend themselves against the well armed Spanish settlers who arrived from Hispaniola with Juan Ponce de León in 1508. The settlers enslaved and evangelized the Taínos, and many of the mostly male conquistadors took local ladies as 'wives.' Although pockets of Taíno resistance could be found in the mountains, swamps and other inaccessible areas if the island until the 19th century, the vast majority succumbed to superior weaponry and European diseases by the beginning of the 17th century.

The Spanish settled at San Juan, which became one of the most strategic outposts in the New World. Over the next century it underwent massive fortification to protect it from British, French and Dutch maritime incursions. In response to a Spanish stranglehold on regional trade, Puerto Rico imported African slaves and dabbled with sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations in the 16th and 17th century, but there was more money to be made in black market trading with its neighbors. Spain's inability to prevent smuggling undermined its moral authority on the island, and Puerto Rico began to develop its own distinct identity during the 18th century. This was enhanced by a growing number of immigrants and an emerging bourgeoisie of coffee plantation owners. As revolution swept through the New World, Spain relaxed its totalitarian trade policies in a bid to keep Puerto Rico and Cuba in the colonial fold. Spanish loyalists and Puerto Rican nationalists spent the second half of the 19th century arguing the pros and cons of self-rule with the colonial government. An unsuccessful revolt in the mountain town of Lares in 1868 focused everybody's mind on the seriousness of the problem at hand. A degree of autonomy - including an elected local government, representation in Spain and their very own currency - was achieved in 1897. This became obsolete almost immediately when US forces invaded and occupied Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War.

The USA ruled Puerto Rico as a colonial protectorate for the next five decades, despite continued calls for autonomy. Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917, just in time for them to be eligible for military service in WWI. Reform and investment improved the economy for large landholders (particularly US sugar interests), but the 1930s depression hit the island hard and the independence movement turned to violence. During World War II, the US military appropriated extensive agricultural lands that have never been returned, including the loudly disputed island of Vieques. Puerto Rico won the right to elect its own governor in 1948, shortly after President Truman implemented 'Operation Bootstrap,' aimed at kickstarting the island's economy, largely by forcing the sale of many publicly owned enterprises and giving tax breaks to resident US companies. Puerto Ricans voted three to one in a 1951 referendum to become a commonwealth of the US rather than remain a colony. Nationalists seeking full independence took the fight to the US mainland where they attempted to assassinate President Truman and opened fire on US congressmen from the visitors' gallery in the House of Representatives. Political support for full independence waned and calls for US statehood increased, though neither independence nor statehood has ever won a majority vote in any of numerous referenda on status.

The Puerto Rican economy continued to post impressive gains in GNP, around one million Puerto Ricans went to work in New York City and elsewhere in the US during the 1950s and '60s. Return migration to Puerto Rico increased during the 1970s and '80s; US citizenship has helped facilitate a type of circular migration that has led some intellectual types to label Puerto Rico the 'commuter nation'. The island has a high standard of living compared to most other Caribbean islands, but it still languishes behind the poorest US states and continues to suffer high unemployment. Puerto Ricans voted in 1993 and 1998 for commonwealth status in preference to statehood, though the margins were not decisive. On 21 February 2000, at least 100,000 Puerto Ricans gathered for what was possibly the nation's largest demonstration ever, to protest US Navy plans to resume training on the island of Vieques. The crowd, which had been summoned by religious leaders, carried the Puerto Rican flag and banners demanding peace. Although organizers claimed the march was not political, many leaders of the Independence Party participated, as did Governor Sila Calderon.

On 24 April 2001, Calderon signed a law prohibiting activities that create more than 190 decibels of sound; US officials admitted that the repeated shelling of Vieques break the new law, but stated that they would continue bombing. In June 2001, however, President George W Bush agreed to end the assault on Vieques, agreeing to phase out military activities on the island by May 2003. Although the victory at Vieques has many Puerto Ricans celebrating, the US territory's ability to determine its own future continues to be compounded by an inability to vote in US national elections.

Puerto Rican culture is a mixture of Spanish, African and Taíno traditions overlaid with a century-thick layer of American influence. At times, parts of San Juan can seem like any US city with a large Latino population, but dig a little deeper or get into the countryside and you'll find a complex Creole culture that certainly won't be erased by the arrival of Budweiser and Burger King. The intermingling of cultural influences is so pronounced that nothing on Puerto Rico is ever one-dimensional. Spanish is the island's main language, though the local version contains plenty of English, Amerindian and African words. Roman Catholicism is the main religion, but it's infused with spiritualism, Indian and African folkloric traditions. The music you hear on Puerto Rico's streets may sound like it originated in the 'hood, but la bomba and la plena, featuring call-and-response dialogues and satirical lyrics sung in high, plaintive voices, are distinctly African, and salsa hails from émigrés in New York. Out of boombox range, typical Puerto Rican instruments include maracas, güiro (a type of gourd used as percussion) and cuatro, a ten-stringed guitar-like instrument. Puerto Rican painters, both native and expat, are achieving international recognition. Names to look out for include Arnaldo Roche-Rabell and Jorge Zeno, as well as canonized Spanish masters such as Angel Botello.

Uncomfortable with their ambiguous political status, much debate on the island revolves around questions of national identity. Though political will for independence is a slippery animal, vocal Puerto Ricans clearly see themselves as distinct from their gringo cousins - and there's little doubt that the island has much more in common with its Caribbean and Latino neighbors than it does with Uncle Sam. Much Puerto Rican literature is produced by expatriates and deals with national identity and the links between acá (here) and allá (there). 'Nuyoricans' such as Pedro Juan Soto, Emilio Díaz Valcárcel and José Luis González tackle the elusive idea of home in stories, novels and poetry.