Puerto Rico //

Travel essentials

Costs

Prices in Puerto Rico tend to be similar to the US, so for non-US citizens much depends on the exchange rate: while the US dollar remains relatively low, Puerto Rico will stay much more affordable than some of the glamorous resort islands in the eastern Caribbean.

Though it’s hard to survive comfortably in San Juan on less than $80 a day, it is possible if you self-cater, take buses everywhere and stay in the cheapest hotels – in theory, you’d find this sort of budget easier outside the city, but without a car (which will add at least $50 per day), your options are extremely limited. You can tour the island with careful planning for $100–150 per day, and in style for over $200. Depending on the season, comfortable mid-range accommodation in Puerto Rico can cost anything from $80–$250, but you should be able to snag comfortable two- to three-star rooms from $75–150. Eating out can be pricey: dinners at restaurants, especially in the cities, can be very expensive, though you should be able to find something in the $20–30 range. Lunch is much cheaper (under $20) and breakfast should be under $10. You can pick up local snack food for a few dollars at any time, comparable in price (and fat quotient) to US fast food, which is likewise available everywhere. Puerto Rico does apply a sales tax and tipping in restaurants and at hotels is standard practice.

Admission prices to most museums and tourist sights are usually quite reasonable; government-run venues are typically free, while the cost of privately operated attractions rarely tops $10. Discounts are usually given to children, seniors and students. Activities such as diving will add another $80–100 per day.

Crime and personal safety

Despite worrying crime statistics and highly publicized carjackings, tourists rarely run into trouble in Puerto Rico. On the contrary, most of the island is extremely safe, with petty theft (especially off the beaches) an occasional problem and even the mean streets of San Juan posing little danger if you stick to the main tourist zones and exercise common sense. On paper, however, it doesn’t look good. Puerto Rico’s homicide rate in 2010 (22.5 per 100,000 people) was much higher than any state on the US mainland outside Washington DC, and robberies and murders rose between 2008 and 2010.

Puerto Rico’s main problem is drugs: the island has become one of the most important transshipment points to the US mainland for the Colombian cocaine cartels, which typically smuggle the product across from the Dominican Republic. Gun crime is overwhelmingly linked to the drug trade, with police attributing 75 percent of all murders to wars between gangs (the remainder are mostly a result of domestic disputes). Visitors are rarely affected by any of this: crime is concentrated in housing projects well away from tourist zones (which are in any case heavily policed), and if you exercise caution at night you should have no problems. In other areas Puerto Rico has made good progress in stemming petty crime in recent years, and most of the scare stories you might hear relate to the 1990s. For any emergency, call t 911.

Electricity

The electrical current in Puerto Rico is 110 volts, exactly the same as the continental US and Canada, and outlets take the same two-prong plugs.

Entry requirements

Puerto Rico is a commonwealth of the US, so US citizens do not need a passport to enter the country: all you need is some form of official government-issued picture ID (a current driver’s licence is fine).

For everyone else, the passport and visa requirements for entering Puerto Rico are the same as for entering the US. Note however, that there is no passport control on flights between the US mainland and Puerto Rico – non-US citizens will have cleared immigration upon arrival in the US. Citizens of 27 countries including Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and the UK are granted visa-free entry (known as visa waivers) to the US for up to ninety days. You will, however, need to obtain Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) online before you fly (at whttps://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/esta), which involves completing a basic immigration form in advance, online; the ESTA fee is $14 (all paid via credit card). It’s recommended that you submit an ESTA application as soon as you begin making travel plans (in most cases the ESTA will be granted immediately, but it can sometimes take up to 72hr to get a response).

You’ll also need to present a machine-readable passport and a completed visa waiver form (I-94W) to Immigration upon arrival; the latter will be provided by your airline (it’s the green one, not the white one). Canadians now require a passport to cross the border, but can travel in the US or Puerto Rico for up to 6 months without a visa. For visa information, visit whttp://www.travel.state.gov. For customs information, visit whttp://www.cbp.gov. South Africans and other nationalities not eligible for ESTA must apply for a tourist visa at their nearest US embassy.

Health

As one of the Caribbean’s most developed destinations, Puerto Rico doesn’t present any significant health risks for foreign travellers and residents – health care is on a par with the mainland US, and taking the usual precautions will be more than enough to stay healthy. For emergencies call t911.

Medical facilities in the big cities are of a high standard, although English-language abilities vary among staff, so if you don’t speak Spanish you may need the help of someone who does – doctors will almost certainly speak English, however. There are hospitals and clinics in most towns:  call the Departamento de Salud (Health Department; t 787/766-1616) to find the closest.

Puerto Rico’s health system was privatized in the 1990s and works in a similar way to the US system: visitors must pay for health care on the spot and claim back the costs from their insurance providers later. Costs vary widely, ranging from $300 upwards for treatment in A&E, to less than $60 to see a local doctor.

There are pharmacies (farmacias) everywhere, and US chain Walgreens (whttp://www.walgreens.com) has a major presence, with many stores in the cities open 24 hours.

Health risks

Your biggest health risk in Puerto Rico is likely to be sunburn or dehydration, though minor stomach upsets are also possible, with travellers’ diarrhoea the most common ailment. Serious cases may need antibiotics, but most bouts pass within 24 hours after drinking plenty of clean water and avoiding solids. Prevention is key: avoid unpeeled fruits or uncooked vegetables, unpasteurized milk and food that looks as if it’s been left out in the sun. If you are prone to stomach upsets, avoid food from street vendors, kioscos and raw seafood, and drink bottled or purified water. It’s always a good idea to keep up with hepatitis A, typhoid and tetanus shots before you travel, though these diseases are not common in Puerto Rico.

Mosquitoes can be a problem in parts of Puerto Rico, and though there is no malaria, dengue fever – a mosquito-borne viral disease whose symptoms are similar to malaria – does occasionally appear. Dengue fever has no cure, but the illness is rarely life-threatening to adults and the flu-like symptoms usually subside after several days of rest; seniors and young children are most at risk.

The only way to prevent dengue fever is to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. The aedes aegypti mosquitoes that transmit dengue bite day and night, so you should use insect-avoidance measures at all times. Cover exposed skin with insect repellent containing 20–35 percent DEET, wear loose-fitting, long sleeves and trousers, and avoid dark colours. At night, make sure your room is sealed from the outside or has mosquito nets. For more information about dengue, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at whttp://www.cdc.gov.

Insurance

It’s important to take out an insurance policy before travelling to Puerto Rico, as much to cover against theft as illness and accidental injury. However, it’s worth checking whether you are already covered: some all-risks home insurance policies may cover your possessions when overseas, and many private medical schemes include cover when abroad – this is especially true for US visitors. Given the likelihood that you’ll find yourself driving in Puerto Rico, you should make sure this is covered as well.

Internet

Puerto Rico is geared up for travellers who bring their own laptop computers, with plenty of small hotels, restaurants and coffee-shop chains such as Starbucks offering free wi-fi connections. Accessing the internet can be frustrating otherwise, as internet cafés are rare and only the top hotels tend to have business centres or computer rooms where you can surf the net.

The best strategy for those without a laptop is to locate the nearest public library (biblioteca pública), which increasingly offer free internet access. The only downside is that most are closed in the evenings, and some impose time limits on computer usage – students are often given priority.

Laundry

Most large hotels in Puerto Rico provide a laundry service, but in almost every town you can find lavanderías (laundromats) that are far cheaper, typically charging $2 for 8–9kg. You’ll also find self-service coin laundries that take quarters, typically requiring $1.50 per load.

Mail

Mail in Puerto Rico is managed by the US Postal Service, with post offices, stamps and prices identical to those in the US, and most post office workers speaking at least some English. Service to the mainland is fairly reliable, though posting letters and cards back to Europe can take considerably longer, up to two or three weeks in some cases. You can find post offices in almost every town, usually open Monday to Friday 8am to 4 or 5pm, and some on Saturday mornings.

Money

Puerto Rico’s currency is the US dollar, usually written $ (but sometimes referred to as the peso locally), and made up of 100 cents. Notes come in $1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100, while coins comprise 1¢ (penny, chavo or perrita in Spanish), 5¢ (nickel, vellon or ficha), 10¢ (dime) and 25¢ (quarter or peseta). You might also see $1 coins. For current exchange rates, check whttp://www.xe.com.

Almost all cities and towns have ATMs (cajeros automaticos), from which travellers can withdraw funds using bank debit cards or credit cards – this is by far the most convenient and safe method of obtaining cash for daily expenses. Though some ATMs are only for domestic account-holders, many of them take Visa, MasterCard, Accel, Cirrus, Interlink, Plus and Star. The most common ATMs are those of Banco Popular. Banking hours are normally Monday to Friday 9am–4pm, while some branches open Saturday mornings (all Citibank branches open Mon–Fri 8.30am–5pm, Sat till12.30pm).

Most hotels accept credit card payment, with Visa and MasterCard the most widely accepted brands. American Express and Diners Club also are fairly commonly recognized. In the cities, stores may accept debit cards, but in many rural areas they won’t.

Other than at the international airports, moneychangers are rare in Puerto Rico, and if you need to exchange foreign currency you’ll have to do so at Banco Popular, the only one with a foreign exchange department (call t787/722-3240 for the nearest branch). Travellers’ cheques are becoming increasingly outmoded in Puerto Rico and are probably more trouble than they’re worth if the island is your only destination. US dollar cheques are the easiest to cash for obvious reasons.

Opening hours

Business hours are usually 8.30am or 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. Shops are generally open 9am–6pm, closing later on Friday and often all day on Sunday, especially in rural areas. Government offices open 8.30am–4.30pm: in most towns this means that museums and galleries also open at these times on weekdays, closing Sunday and usually Saturday. Conversely, privately owned attractions, and most of the museums and galleries in San Juan, are open weekends, closing Mondays and sometimes Tuesday. For a list of public holidays and festivals.

Phones

If you have a US mobile phone, it should work as normal in Puerto Rico: in fact, most companies treat the island as part of their domestic network and you’ll be charged accordingly. For visitors from other regions, Claro GSM (whttp://www.clarotodo.com) offers GSM roaming agreements with overseas companies – check with your provider before you go (you’ll need an unlocked 3G or tri-band phone that accepts the 850 and 1900 MHz frequencies). Companies such as InTouch SmartCards (wintouchsmartcards.com) sell SIM cards to use in Puerto Rico for $59.99, but it’s best to arrange this in advance.

Otherwise you can rent mobile phones via Phonerental (US t1-800/335-3705, international t+1-619-446-6980, w http://www.phonerentalusa.com) for $1.50 per day. You get charged $1.69 per minute for incoming and $1.89 for all local and national outgoing calls. Triptel (t877/874-7835, whttp://www.triptel.com) offers a similar service with GSM phones.

Within Puerto Rico, dial t 411 for directory information (call t787/555-1212 from overseas). To call Puerto Rico from overseas, dial your international access code, then 1 (USA country code), then the Puerto Rico area code (787 or, less commonly, 939), then the phone number. Note that you always dial the prefix, even when calling within the island (though some mobile numbers have different codes).

Tax

Puerto Rico has a 5.5 percent sales tax (payable on tours and all food and drink). Municipalities have the option of imposing an additional 1.5 percent. Price tags in shops and entry fees at museums do not include these taxes, so the actual price will be at least 5.5 percent higher.

Time

Puerto Rico is four hours behind GMT throughout the year, which means that in summer (March 11 to Nov 4) it’s the same as US Eastern Standard Time (New York City, Miami), as Daylight Saving is not observed, and five hours behind BST (in the winter it’s one hour ahead of the US east coast). GMT is five hours ahead of US Eastern Standard Time and ten hours behind Australian Eastern Standard Time. For the exact time when in Puerto Rico, call t787/728-9595.

Tourist information

The Puerto Rico Tourist Company (wseepuertorico.com and whttp://www.topuertorico.org) has made a concerted effort in recent years to promote the island internationally, but their focus (and their primary market) remains the US. for international offices.

In Puerto Rico itself, the best tourist information centres are in San Juan. The PRTC also operates offices at Aguadilla airport, Ponce, Vieques and Culebra, but local municipalities otherwise have the responsibility to promote tourism in their own areas; as a last resort, try visiting the local city hall (alcaldía) on weekdays 8am–4pm. The larger tourist offices should have copies of Qué Pasa! (whttp://www.casiano.com/quepasa/default.html), a glossy bimonthly magazine that contains a calendar of events, travel-related feature stories and more listings. Other publications include the annual Places to Go (whttp://www.enjoypuertorico.com) and Bienvenidos (the annual magazine of the Hotel & Tourism Association), all available for free at hotels and tourist offices. If you can read Spanish you should also check out the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña website (whttp://www.icp.gobierno.pr), a fount of information on museums, art centres and historic sites.

Maps

This guide aside, it’s hard to find decent maps of Puerto Rico. Metro Data (whttp://www.metropr.com) produces Guía Metro; $16.95, a handy booklet of maps covering every municipality on the island, usually available in pharmacies and bookstores in San Juan, and Todo Puerto Rico, with a bit more detail ($26.95). Serious hikers should order topographic maps from the US Geological Survey (whttp://www.usgs.gov), while everyone else should be satisfied with National Geographic’s detailed foldout map of El Yunque ($9.95). Rand McNally and International Travel Maps produce reasonable foldout maps of the whole island (around $10).

Travellers with disabilities

Puerto Rico prides itself on being one of the most welcoming islands in the Caribbean for disabled travellers, and US wheelchair access laws apply here to public buildings and transport – this means city buses, not private públicos. All public beaches, museums and galleries are also subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act, though again, in practice smaller places tend to have limited accessibility. Larger hotels and resorts will have special rooms for disabled guests, but many of the smaller hotels are not yet compliant. Most car parks have special spaces for the disabled.

Despite this, travelling around the island remains tough for many disabled travellers, with even the narrow, steep and generally crowded streets of Old San Juan hard work for wheelchair-users. The easiest option for the latter is to check into a larger hotel with spacious disabled rooms, such as the Marriott Resort in Condado, and explore the island and city with Rico Sun Tours (t787/722-2080, whttp://www.ricosuntours.com), one of the few companies to operate tour vans with wheelchair lifts at the back.

Three noteworthy highlights are a wheelchair accessible trail in El Yunque, the Bacardi Distillery, which is fully accessible and finally, the wonderful Mar Sin Barreras (Sea Without Barriers; daily 8.30am–5pm) at the Balneario de Luquillo. This specially constructed ramp, with equipment and staff to help disabled swimmers access the crystal-clear waters off the beach, is the one attraction that thrills every wheelchair-user who visits the island. Similar facilities are available at the Balneario de Boquerón. For more information, contact the Ombudsman for Persons with Disabilities (t787/725-2333, whttp://www.oppi.gobierno.pr).

Travelling with children

Puerto Rican culture is very family-oriented, and travelling with children presents few problems. Formula, nappies and medication are all easily available and most restaurants and hotels welcome youngsters – exceptions are usually confined to expensive or romantic hotels and are noted in the text. Though it’s extremely rare to see nappy-changing facilities, it’s perfectly acceptable to do as the locals do and change nappies wherever you can; breast-feeding in public is also fine, though you should try to be as discreet as possible. Unless you’re staying in one of the large resorts, finding a babysitter will be difficult, however. In general, resorts are the best places to find children’s activities, and all of them have excellent pools.

With a profusion of beaches, Puerto Rico is a fun destination for families, and older kids will enjoy the snorkelling and swimming: the ideal place to start surfing is Playa de Jobos on the north coast. The Río Camuy caves, Arecibo Lighthouse and Observatorio de Arecibo make popular day-trips in this part of the island.

In San Juan, the Museo del Niño caters specifically to children, but El Morro is also lots of fun, and you can fly kites on the grassy campo just outside.

In Mayagüez, the zoo is worth visiting, while Aguadilla has Las Cascadas Water Park, PR-2 km 126.5 ($15.95, children $13.95) and the Aguadilla Ice Skating Arena (daily; $10–13). If it’s just too rainy, most malls have cinemas where all the Hollywood blockbusters are shown in English.

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