It’s graced by fabulous beaches, year-round sun and numerous opportunities for deep-sea fishing, diving and surfing, but there’s far more to Puerto Rico than suntans and snorkelling. Beyond the glitzy veneer of San Juan the coast remains incredibly raw and unspoiled, lined with miles of glittering white sands. Dig deeper and you’ll see the influence of the island’s rich stew of cultures – African, European and Taíno – in an exuberant array of festivals, tantalizing criollo food, gracious colonial towns, world-class rum and a dynamic musical tradition that gave birth to salsa. The scenery is similar but this is not the West Indies (think baseball not cricket), and despite its links with the US, Puerto Rican identity – like Cuba – remains proudly Latino.
The island boasts an astounding diversity of landscapes, from the misty rainforests of El Yunque and the crumbling outcrops of karst country, to reef-encrusted desert islands and the withering dry forests of the southwest. And in several places, impenetrable mangrove swamps cradle one of nature’s most mind-boggling spectacles, the glowing waters of bioluminescent bays. Rent a car and it’s easy to escape the tourist areas, and you can zip between cool mountain forests and sun-bleached beaches in minutes. The island is remarkably safe, and though it can be tough for budget travellers, Puerto Rico compares favourably with other islands in the region.
Beaches understandably remain one of the biggest draws here. Thanks in part to a small but vigorous coalition of environmental groups, property development has been confined to small clusters, with low-key resorts such as Rincón successfully holding back the tide of condo and hotel building, at least for now. Occupied by the United States Navy until relatively recently, Vieques and Culebra in particular offer some of the most idyllic coastlines in the Caribbean, the military having ensured that both islands were spared the excesses of tourism.
The island’s mountainous interior is just as enticing, a land of torpid Spanish hill towns and gourmet coffee plantations. Ranches still raise Paso Fino horses, the finest in the Americas, and state forests preserve lush, jungle-covered peaks, fish-filled lakes and gurgling waterfalls. Yet it’s the juxtaposition of old and new, rather than a nostalgic throwback frozen in time, that makes Puerto Rico such a beguiling destination. The old Puerto Rico of suntanned jíbaros and horsedrawn carts has largely disappeared, and instead you’ll find towns where bareback horse riders use mobile phones, and beautifully preserved colonial architecture coexists with modern shopping malls and speeding SUVs.
Despite all this, the perception of Puerto Rico is inextricably shaped by its sometimes bewildering relationship with the US. Not a state, nor independent, Puerto Rico has been a “commonwealth” since 1952, making it especially attractive to Americans looking for a passport- and hassle-free holiday in the sun, but creating the misconception elsewhere that the island is simply an extension of the US in the Caribbean – quite untrue. While it lacks the revolutionary chic of other Latin American nations, Puerto Ricans have created one of the region’s most vibrant cultural identities; they may be divided over their political future, but their sense of cultural pride in Boricua – the indigenous name for the island and its people – unites them.
Where to go in Puerto Rico
Most trips to Puerto Rico start in the capital, San Juan, one of the largest and most dynamic cities in the Caribbean. Old San Juan is a Spanish colonial gem, its cobbled streets lined with elegant eighteenth-century flower-strewn houses, chapels and grand mansions. Nights out in the capital are especially lively, while the resort zones of Condado and Isla Verde have surprisingly handsome stretches of beach.
Wickedly tempting kiosco food is one of the main reasons to visit Luquillo, the gateway to the east coast, while Fajardo is the departure point for La Cordillera, a haven for snorkelling and swimming. Looming over the whole region, El Yunque National Forest is a rainforest of lofty, jungle-covered peaks crisscrossed with hiking trails.
Offshore, the smaller island of Vieques is blessed with vast stretches of sugary sand backed with nothing but scrub, palm trees and sea grape. Swimming in the bioluminescent bay here is a bewitching experience, boats leaving ghostly clouds of fluorescence in their wake. Culebra is much smaller and even more languid, a rocky island ringed with turquoise waters, empty beaches and dazzling cays.
Inland from the north coast lies the bizarre, crumbling limestone peaks of karst country, containing the Observatorio de Arecibo, the Cavernas del Río Camuy and the ruined Taíno ball-courts at the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Caguana.
The Porta del Sol, or “gateway to the sun”, starts at the northwest coast, justly regarded as a surfing paradise that peaks at Rincón. Divers should check out Isla Desecheo, a protected island reserve encircled by brilliant sapphire waters. Back on land, Mayagüez is the “sultan of the west”, a once-depressed industrial city gradually regaining its former colonial glory. Beyond the city lies a chain of low-key resorts: Playa Buyé and Boquerón boast gorgeous white sand beaches, before the west coast ends at the weathered cliffs of Cabo Rojo. On the south coast, La Parguera faces a tangled labyrinth of channels and mangrove cays while inland, San Germán is crammed with flamboyant mansions and charming Spanish churches. East of here, the southern coastal plain is known as the Porta Caribe, or “gateway to the Caribbean”. Don’t miss Guilligan’s Island, a mangrove cay spliced by a lagoon of crystal-clear water, and Ponce, still proud of its fine mansions, museums and richly stocked art gallery. The city’s annual carnival, (held one week before Ash Wednesday), features parades, salsa and the unforgettable ghoulish masks known as vejigantes. Just to the north, the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes is another rare reminder of Puerto Rico’s pre-Columbian past, while the best of the once booming sugar towns are Guayama and Coamo.
While the coast attracts the most tourists, the spiritual heart of Puerto Rico lies in the mountains, accessed by the winding Ruta Panorámica and famous for its lechoneras, roadside diners roasting whole pigs over wood or charcoal fires. Other highlights include the massive flower festival at Aibonito, the jaw-dropping Cañón de San Cristóbal, and the rural town of Jayuya, which offers poignant reminders of Puerto Rico’s Taíno heritage. At the far end of the route, Maricao is the producer of some of the world’s finest coffee.
Top image: San Juan fort, Puerto Rico © Bogdan Dyiakonovych/Shutterstock
US colony or 51st state?
Puerto Rico’s political status is a highly emotive issue, and though it looks set to remain a Commonwealth of the US for the immediate future, there’s a lot of truth in the old adage, “after two or three drinks every Puerto Rican is pro-independence”. Most Puerto Ricans fear that becoming a US state would mean a dilution of their Hispanic identity, but that full independence would lead to economic and political chaos – even a cursory look at the modern history of Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic looks pretty bleak. Although the island has a lot more freedom than the stereotypical colony, liberals and artists generally despair at the US association. Esmeralda Santiago in Island of Lost Causes says, “the truth is, we do have a history of struggle for independence, but the opposition has always won. The failure of our best hopes…has caused many Puerto Ricans to simply give up.” That may be true: many Puerto Ricans now believe US statehood is inevitable.