Although it is the smallest island of the Greater Antilles (only about three times the size of Rhode Island), Puerto Rico holds a great diversity of attractions for travelers. Whether you are interested in history, culture, nature, or nightlife, this island has a little bit of everything. And if youâre a U.S. citizen, donât worry about getting a passport or visa â Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, and citizens from both countries may pass back and forth freely.
The islandâs first inhabitants were the indigenous Taino, who were almost totally destroyed shortly after the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the early 1500s. You can go see what remains of their culture and society at Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park and Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center. The most famous artifacts there are carved stone petroglyphs and ceremonial ball courts.
Puerto Rico was under Spanish control until the late 1800s, when it was ceded to the U.S. following the Spanish-American war. Because of its history, Puerto Rico presents a unique cultural setting â a blend of Taino influence, Spanish colonialism, African influence from the slave trade, and a growing modern American culture.
The island is divided into three main geographical zones: the interior mountain ranges, the topical zones and the coastal planes. The mountainous zone makes up at least 60 percent of the island. The main mountain range, la Cordillera Central, runs across the country from east to west and also divides the island into distinct north and south regions. The average annual temperature for the entire island is 26ÂșC (80Âș F).
Puerto Ricoâs biggest cities are situated in the coastal plains: essentially, on the beaches. The capital, San Juan, lies to the north, Ponce to the south, and Mayaguez to the west. Your first stop should probably be San Juan, the nexus of tourist activity and a good jumping off point to other popular destinations. As far as travelers are concerned, this bustling port city has two areas to offer â the beaches and resorts, and Old San Juan, a 465-year-old neighborhood that once served to protect against military assaults. The night life is nothing to sneeze at either â live music, dance clubs, casinos, and lively bars that cater to all sorts of people.
Ponce, founded in 1692 by Ponce de LeĂłnâs great-grandson, is known for its gorgeous colonial architecture. Itâs not the best place to go if you want to party, but the boardwalk (la Guancha) is a good place to take a stroll at night, have a few drinks, and maybe hear some live music. Ponce has pleasant beaches good for swimming and snorkeling, an art and a music museum, and itâs close to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center if you want check out one of the Taino archeological sites.
MayagĂŒez is located right in the middle of the West coast, just a two hour drive from the capital. The city is mainly industrial and doesnÂŽt have much in the way of tourist attractions, but it sits close to places like Mona Island, BoquerĂłn, San GermĂĄn, RincĂłn, RĂo Camuy Cave Park (the third largest underground cave system in the world) and the Arecibo Observatory.
A big draw for many travelers to Puerto Rico is its rainforests, great for hiking, camping, swimming or nature tours. El Yunque National Forest is the largest and most visited on the island and lies conveniently close to San Juan. Others include Bosque Estatal de Maricao, Toro Negro, GuĂĄnica Dry Forest Reserve, Bosque Estatal de Rio Abajo, Carite, Guajataca and Guilarte.