Just 1,600 km (1,000 mi) southeast of Miami, the freeways, skyscrapers, malls and parking lots of the United States crash into four centuries of Spanish colonial culture. Puerto Rico sounds like the most uncomfortable kind of shotgun alliance – but being Caribbean, it gets away with it. It became American in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and you’d think a century was enough for two fundamentally opposed cultural styles to assimilate.
It isn’t, even in San Juan, and even though all Puerto Ricans are US citizens. When you explore the island’s mountainous interior, you feel that the infrastructure of roads and amenities is extraordinarily misplaced, like gleaming chrome set in the middle of the old porcelain. What Puerto Rico has given so successfully to New York and other US cities, doesn’t travel back the other way. The island’s delights are all in its colonial history, its Taino (Amerindian) origins, and its Caribbean presence.
The best of these is Old San Juan, the island heart of the capital, and the site of its colonial government since 1509. Massive ramparts and fortifications guard its oldest sections, a maze of Palatial homes, tree-shaded plazas and public buildings that demonstrate Puerto Rico’s colossal wealth.
The dramatic panorama from the Santa Barbara Bastion on the 42 m (140 ft) heights of Morro Fort, of towers, tunnels and 5m (16ft) thick bulwarks guarding the headland where the Atlantic is restrained by San Juan Bay, is an inspirational image of bygone power, and Old San Juan’s historic splendour (now enlivened by little bars and quietly sizzling music) ranks with the world’s best historical areas.
Like Honolulu, San Juan has sugar-soft white beaches, and like Hawaii generally, Puerto Rico is a unique version of the United States. Weirdly Caribbean, horribly crowded and brash, but fun.
When to visit
Puerto Rico is ‘full’ from December to April. Come for the Salsa Congress in July, when thousands participate in dance competitions, at Isla Verde, San Juan.
How to reach
By air to San Juan, which is also the hub for domestic flights.
- The trompe l’oeil painting in the cathedral dome, and the 17th-century splendour of the colonial homes, plazas, fountains and churches of colourful Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second city.
- The stunning cavern systems, weird rock formations, the world’s largest underground river and blu-eyed river crabs at Parque de las Cavernas del Rio Camuy, SW of San Juan.
- El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US, and rich in flora and fauna Eating ‘alcapurria’, a plantain fritter stuffed with seafood, from a roadside kiosk at the Balneario (public beach) de Luquillo, one of the prettiest beaches near San Juan.
You should know
1. There is a board game called ‘Puerto Rico’. This witty game of colonial domination was ranked the No.1 Internet Game in 2007.
2. Puerto Ricans who live in New York City are called ‘Nuyoricans’.