It is called the Island of Enchantment because of its stunningly diverse landscape that would delight the ultimate outdoorsman or outdoor woman. It is carved and dotted with sandy beaches, caves, mangrove lagoons, rugged mountains, and a rainforest with hiking trails galore, refreshing bathing pools and majestic waterfalls. In fact, it has the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system.
It also has three of the few bioluminescent water bodies in the world and is home to the Mona Island ecosystem known as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean.”
This island is Puerto Rico or Boriquen as it was called by the Tainos, the island’s original inhabitants. Many present-day Puerto Ricans call themselves Boricuas.
Historical events and a melding of traditions birthed what we now identify as Puerto Rican culture. A blend, primarily, of its Spanish, African, and Taino origins into one vibrant and distinct mélange that bred its own unique cultural practices, musical traditions with African roots (plena and bomba), and cuisine that produced mouthwatering dishes such as mofongo, pastelón, and pernil.
The name of this capital city was originally given in the late 15th century when it was called San Juan Bautista after St. John the Baptist. Today, San Juan is the country’s financial capital, home to the second largest port in the Caribbean where it welcomed 1.6 million cruise travelers in 2018, and is the center of many of the island’s industries.
Old San Juan is a 500-year-old town that has over 400 restored 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial buildings, narrow cobblestone streets, brightly painted homes, plazas, forts, parks, and a long roster of museums.
Known as “Museum City” or the “Pearl of the South,” Puerto Rico’s second largest city is located on the island’s southern coast. Founded in 1692 by Loíza Ponce de León, the famous explorer’s great-grandson, the city is well known for its cluster of historical buildings many built in a Neoclassical colonial architectural style and recently restored to reclaim the beauty and history of the city and attract more visitors.
Visitors to Ponce can enjoy a cultural or historical tour, a trip by ferry to the uninhabited nearby Caja de Muertos Island, and the city’s many museums including Museo de Arte de Ponce which houses the Caribbean’s largest collection of art and Museum of Puerto Rican Music.
Eleven miles west of San Juan is the toney town of Dorado. Known for its luxury resorts, Robert Trent Jones-designed golf courses, historic homes and its museums, Dorado is your destination for luxurious accommodations and nothing spared amenities.
Outside the walls and private beaches of exclusive resorts, you can explore the town of Dorado and nearby attractions such as the Museo Historico del Dorado, Arecibo Observatory, Camuy River Cave Park and, just a twenty-five-minute drive away, is the famed Casa Bacardi Distillery.
Cultural activities where residents and visitors can enjoy live music and local food together include Noche Paraiso held the first Friday of every month in the Dorado Town Square.
Loíza is the epicenter of African-inspired culture in Puerto Rico. It is where Africans from the Yoruba ethnic group were brought to the island by the Spaniards and where, to this day, it has the highest percentage of African descendants on the island. Africans were brought from other regions of the continent.
One of the ways you can immerse yourself in the gastronomic and cultural melting pot of Loíza is to plan your trip around Fiestas Patronales that is celebrated in July of each year in honor of Loíza patron saint, St. James. During the nine-day festival, Loiceños celebrate with masquerades, parades, bomba, and food and craft vendors.
Rincón is located in the northwest corner of the island “where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea” and is Puerto Rico’s famous vacation destination. Named after landowner Don Gonzalo Rincón, its name literally means “corner” or “niche” and this town has certainly developed its niche for some of the best surfing, whale watching, snorkeling, and scuba diving in Puerto Rico.
While water-based activities are what Rincón is famous for, its burgeoning arts and dining scene should not be missed. Every Thursday evening you can mix and mingle with locals during the Rincón Art Walk, a small festival complete with food trucks, music and artwork by local artists.
For surf enthusiasts, check out the Galeria del Surfing (Rincón Surfing Museum) and for the naturally curious, a visit to the famous landmark, Punta Higuero Lighthouse, is a good option. Divers can enjoy some of the best diving spots off Isla Desecheo where the crystal-clear waters of the dive site are said to have over 100 foot visibility.
Isla de Vieques is a Spanish Virgin Island located 7-8 miles off the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. With a population of approximately 9,300 people, this island is where you will find Mosquito Bay, the home of the world’s largest and brightest bioluminiscent bay.
Vieques also has secluded beaches, some of the country’s best snorkeling sites, and the Caribbean’s largest wildlife sanctuary. In fact, over two-thirds of the island is a federally-protected wildlife refuge so wild horses roaming the island is a frequent sight.
With five centuries of history and heavy influences by several distinct cultures, it should be no surprise that this island’s cultural and historical well runs deep.
We admit that a single article about Puerto Rico cannot sum up everything this amazing island has to offer to would-be travelers. Our goal is to infuse what we have learned about its culture to pique your interest and broaden your knowledge so you go with a sense of curiosity, deference and humility.