Sunrise and sunset are both worth waiting for when you’re vacationing on Puerto Rico. The pinks and yellows that hang in the early-morning sky are just as compelling as the sinewy reds and purples that blend into the twilight. It’s easy to compare them, as Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles.
At 110 mi (177 km) long and 35 mi (56 km) wide, you can easily have breakfast in Fajardo, looking eastward over the boats headed to enchanted islands like Vieques and Culebra, then settle down for a lobster dinner in Rincón as the sun is sinking into the inky-blue water. That leaves you plenty of time in between to explore and travel the southern coast, perhaps stopping to see the fanciful firehouse in Ponce or the charming colonial chapel in San Germán.
Known as the Island of Enchantment, Puerto Rico will surely put you under its spell. Here, traffic actually leads you to a “Road to Paradise,” whether you’re looking for a pleasurable, sunny escape from the confines of urbanity or a rich supply of stimulation to quench your cultural and entertainment thirst. On the island you have the best of both worlds, natural and urban thrills alike; and although city life is frenetic enough to make you forget you’re surrounded by azure waters and warm sand, traveling a few miles inland or down the coast can easily make you forget you’re surrounded by development.
Puerto Rico was populated primarily by Taíno Indians when Columbus landed in 1493. In 1508 Ponce de León established a settlement and became the first governor; in 1521 he founded what is known as Old San Juan. For centuries, while Africans worked on the coastal sugarcane fields, the French, Dutch, and English tried unsuccessfully to wrest the island from Spain. In 1898, as a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded the island to the United States. In 1917 Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens, and in 1952 Puerto Rico became a semiautonomous commonwealth.
Since the 1950s, Puerto Rico has developed exponentially, as witnessed in the urban sprawl, burgeoning traffic, and growing population (estimated at nearly 4 million); yet, en la isla (on the island) a strong Latin sense of community and family prevails. Puertorriqueños are fiercely proud of their unique blend of heritages.
Music is another source of Puerto Rican pride. Like wildflowers, vellonera (jukeboxes) pop up almost everywhere, and when one is playing, somebody will be either singing or dancing along — or both. Cars often vibrate with reggaetón, a hard, monotonous beat with lyrics that express social malaise. Salsa, a fusion of West African percussion, jazz, and other Latin beats, is the trademark dance. Although it may look difficult to master, it’s all achieved by just loosening your hips. You may choose to let your inhibitions go by doing some clubbing a la vida loca espoused by pop star Ricky Martin. Nightlife options are of the variety available in any metropolitan environment — and then some.
By day you can take in the culture of the Old World; one of the richest visual experiences in Puerto Rico is Old San Juan. Originally built as a fortress by the Spaniards in the early 1500s, the old city has myriad attractions that include restored 16th-century buildings and 200-year-old houses with balustraded balconies of filigreed wrought iron that overlook narrow cobblestone streets. Spanish traditions are also apparent in the countryside festivals celebrated in honor of small-town patron saints.
For quiet relaxation or more adventures travel off the beaten track, visit coffee plantations, colonial towns, or outlying islets where nightlife is virtually nonexistent. And of course you don’t come to a Caribbean island without taking in some of the glorious sunshine and natural wonders. In the coastal areas, the sun mildly toasts your body, and you’re immediately healed by soft waves and cool breezes. In the misty mountains, you can wonder at the flickering night flies and the star-studded sky while the coquís (local tiny frogs) sing their legendary sweet lullaby.
On a moonless night, watch the warm ocean turn into luminescent aqua-blue speckles on your skin. Then there are the island’s many acres of golf courses, numerous tennis courts, rain forests, and hundreds of beaches that offer every imaginable water sport.