Puerto Rico is a curious blend of Spanish tradition, dynamic criollo culture and recent Americanization. Most Puerto Ricans are broadly familiar with mainland US culture and behaviour, and you are unlikely to face the cultural misunderstandings that sometimes occur, for example, in rural parts of Mexico or South America.
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Vestiges of the island’s conservative roots do remain, however, and it pays to maintain a degree of friendly formality when meeting people for the first time – being polite and courteous is always a good idea. When it comes to bars and restaurants (unless on the beach), Puerto Ricans tend to dress up, and men with shirt-tails hanging out are regarded as a bit scruffy. Many restaurants and casinos have dress codes, although women tend to be treated more leniently than men. The Catholic Church remains very important, so always be respectful when wandering around churches, especially during Mass. Locals are generally tolerant of foreign visitors and will only approach you if you are making lots of noise, but it’s best to dress conservatively (no shorts or bare shoulders).
Above all, Puerto Ricans are extremely sociable, family-oriented and friendly people. As a traveller, especially if you stay within the main tourist zones, that last quality may not always be apparent, but attempting to speak a little Spanish will go a long way. One of the things that makes Puerto Rico such an easy place to visit is the abundance of English-speakers – in fact, the vast majority of Puerto Ricans can understand basic English, though only those in the tourist zones speak it every day. Nevertheless, language is an important element of Puerto Rican identity, so trying to communicate in Spanish will yield far better results than assuming that a person understands inglés – you might end up speaking English anyway, but your efforts will still be appreciated. for more on language.
Gay and lesbian travellers
Puerto Rico is something of a trailblazer for gay rights in Latin America, making it a burgeoning holiday destination for gay travellers, especially the Condado and Santurce areas of San Juan. San Juan’s gay pride events run for a week in June, with parties, fashion shows and art exhibitions culminating in a parade through Condado attended by thousands: the annual gay pride parade in Boquerón also attracts huge crowds.
Other parts of the island, too, are refreshingly open-minded when it comes to gay travellers. In areas such as El Yunque, Vieques, Fajardo and Boquerón, where many guesthouses are run by liberal US expats and easy-going locals, gay couples are welcome. You can even find a list of gay-friendly hotels at wpuertoricosmallhotels.com. For more information visit the directory at wwww.gaysanjuan.com to get the latest on what’s going on. For info on Vieques, visit wwww.gayvieques.net.
Women travelling alone are perfectly safe in Puerto Rico, and although gender roles remain traditional, the island has a strong record of fighting sexual discrimination. In fact, Puerto Rican women often display a degree of self-confidence and independence that many overseas female visitors find liberating. Machismo still exists, but it’s not as prevalent as in other Latin American nations, and in the cities you’ll see plenty of single women out and about – the worst you’ll get is the odd catcall or beep of a horn. As always, things are a little more conservative in rural areas, but if anything, locals tend to be overprotective rather than critical of single women travellers. As anywhere, the usual precautions apply; take extra care when out in the evening and, if solo, avoid local bars late at night; take reputable taxis to get around San Juan; and avoid empty streets and deserted beaches if you’re on your own.
In March 2007 smoking was banned in all restaurants, bars and casinos in Puerto Rico. Smoking on terraces or in outdoor bars and in cars carrying children under 13 is also prohibited, making this the Caribbean’s most stringent anti-smoking law by far. On-the-spot fines start at $250 for the first offence, rising to $500 and $2000 thereafter.
Given Puerto Rico’s ties with the US, it’s no surprise that tipping is an important part of life on the island and often an important source of income, especially for waiting staff in San Juan restaurants, where a tip of fifteen to twenty percent is expected – unless you’ve had unusually bad service, anything less will be received very poorly. In local cocinas or bars in smaller towns and villages tips are not so common – never tip in fast-food or self-serve buffet restaurants. Porters generally expect $1 per bag, and maids $1–2 per day in posh hotels (ask the reception at other places, and leave the money in the room when you check out). Taxis get ten to fifteen percent, though this isn’t as rigorously adhered to.