Puerto Rico Tourist (Covid Christmas Edition)
“It had the unmistakable stamp of the Brooklyn neighborhoods I’ve lived in for many years, though not in the form they take today but as they were five or ten years ago: scrappy but sophisticated, in that sweet transitional spot where it was still possible to feel in on a secret, part of something new and indisputably thrilling.”
Living in Puerto Rico for three months escaping New York winter during Covid. Run down — looks sketchy but no safety issues. Friendly people. Enough English to get by. Most things are shut Mondays. Lack of fresh vegetables, use deet to protect from mosquito bites, surprising coffee and craft beer scene, no spicy food, not much seafood (pork everywhere), scooters to get around, cars will aggressively stop for peds, not that cheap (comparable to US), legal weed, wildlife (lizards, frogs, birds, chickens), rainforests and fantastic beaches (warm water, waves).
San Juan: Castillo San Felipe del Morro, Ron del Barrilito, El Bowl, Ocean Beach, Gustos, La Casita Blanca, Lot 23, La Preña, Vianda, JungleBird, La Factoría, La Placita, Puerta de San Juan, Isla Verde beach.
Elsewhere: El Yunque, Cabo Rojo, Rincón surfing, Cosecha, Uma’s, Puma 606, Finca El Girasol, Crash Boat Beach, Hacienda Tres Ángeles, Parador Bajo las Estrellas, Cueva Ventana, Hacienda Siesta Alegre, Lechonera El Mojito, Mosquito Bay.
The world’s oldest colony (and oldest European city in America) translates to “rich port” and is officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. It’s located in the Caribbean Sea, has over 3 million people, speaks (95%) Spanish and (10%) English (“Spanglish”), the only US territory with a non-English legal system, and is an unincorporated territory (no Congress vote, no US election vote, no federal taxes) of the United States. Comprised of several smaller islands such as Mona, Culebra, and Vieques.
Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista (in honor of Saint John the Baptist), while the capital city was named Ciudad de Puerto Rico (“Rich Port City”). Over time the names switched. Often call Borinquén — a derivation of Borikén, the indigenous Taíno name meaning “Land of the Valiant Lord” — locals are known as Boricuas. Popularly known in Spanish as la isla del encanto meaning “The island of enchantment.” Puerto Ricans also go by the terms boricua and borincano.
Once one of the most heavily fortified settlements in the Spanish Caribbean, earning it the name of the “Walled City.” The most recognizable endemic species and a symbol of Puerto Rican pride is the coquí — a small frog easily identified by the sound of its call, from which it gets its name.
The main drivers of Puerto Rico’s economy are manufacturing (primarily pharmaceuticals, petrochemicals, and electronics) followed by the service industry (namely tourism and hospitality). The highest GDP per capita in Latin America, but 45% of the population is below the poverty line. After 21 consecutive years of budget deficit, Puerto Rico currently has a debt of $74 billion (73% GDP) leading to “junk status” bonds and almost 10% of its annual budget servicing debt. High cost of living due to the Marine Act of 1920, which prevents imports directly into Puerto Rico — instead they must be shipped from mainland US ports!
An archipelago in the northeastern Caribbean Sea roughly 70 miles east of the Dominican Republic, the 9,104 square kilometer island (roughly the size of Connecticut) is home to 3.2 million people — making it the third-highest density state/territory. Only the main three islands (Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra) are inhabited, dozens (including Gilligans Island) open for day trips, and some wildlife refuges (Desecheo, Monito, and Mona Island — the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” due to the large colony of unique iguanas). Uses the US dollar (nicknamed “dolar” or “peso”), grants a separate Puerto Rico citizenship, and uses an odd mixture of metric and imperial systems!
Part of the Atlantic hurricane season. Notable hurricanes include the Lake Okeechobee Hurricane (1851, only Category 5 landfall), Gilbert (1988), Irma (2017, 1 million people lost power), Maria (2017, electricity out for 4–6 months in certain areas), Dorian (2019) and Karen (2019). A 2019 report stated that Puerto Rico “is affected by climate change more than anywhere else in the world” (1° warmer since 1950, water 2° warmer since 1900, sea rising an inch every 15 years, worse storms). In 2020, a string of large earthquakes struck. Lies at the boundary between the Caribbean and North American tectonic plates and at risk from earthquakes and tsunamis.
Home to the largest cave network in the Western Hemisphere, the world’s brightest bioluminescent bay, 270 miles of beaches, and 17 lakes (all man made). Also has the highest US homicide rate (80% gang and drug related).
Local produce includes yuca, culantro (spiny leaf coriander), sarsaparilla, avocado, pimienta (allspice), achiote (annatto), ají caballero (the hottest pepper native to Puerto Rico), peanuts, guavas, pineapples, jicacos (cocoplum), quenepas (mamoncillo), lerenes (Guinea arrowroot), calabazas (West Indian pumpkin), guanabanas (soursops), beans and some maíz (corn/maize). Spanish introduced wheat, chickpeas (garbanzos), black pepper, onions, garlic, cilantro (using plant and seeds in cooking), basil, sugarcane, citrus fruit, grapes, eggplant, lard, chicken, beef, pork, lamb, goat, cocoa, tomatoes, chayote, papaya, bell peppers, passion fruit, vanilla, and dairy. Olives are popular but don’t grow in the climate. Coconuts, coffee, orégano brujo, okra, tamarind, yams, sesame seeds, gandules (pigeon peas in English), banana fruit and other root vegetables all came through Africa. African slaves also introduced the deep-frying of food. Panapén (breadfruit) was first imported from the South Pacific as cheap slave food.
Local cuisine (called cocina criolla) is pork-heavy and includes mofongo, tostones (plantain chips), arroz con gandules (national dish), pasteles (tamales), pique (hot sauce) and the piña colada (claimed to be invented at Caribe Hilton in 1954; Barrachina in 1963). The only rum producing country in the world to enforce a minimum aging law. The word “barbecue” derives from the Taínos word barbacoa.
Local arts include Santos — Catholic statuettes introduced by the Spanish to convert the local Taíno population — crafted by santeros (or santeras, if female) and stored in special wooden boxes called nichos and passed down through generations, but reduced in popularity after the US took possession in 1898. Caretas — masks worn during carnivals and used by the Spanish to frighten lapsed Christians into returning to the church — feature several horns and fangs and are usually constructed of papier-mâché and coconut shells.
Unlike in most states of the US, cockfighting was legal in Puerto Rico until 2019. It is known as the “Gentleman’s Sport” due to the common practice of verbal wagers. Incredibly popular (a million spectators annually until 2005, 83 venues) and often televised, roosters are specially bred to fight.
Notable Puerto Ricans include Enrique Laguarre (novelist), Roberto Clemente (baseball), Héctor “Macho” Camacho (boxing), Julia de Burgos (poet), José Ferrer (actor), Benicio del Toro, Raúl Juliá, Joaquin Phoenix, Luis Guzmán, Bad Bunny and Ricky Martin. Competes independently in the Olympics, World Cup, and Miss Universe (won five times).
The first known settlers were the Ortoiroid people migrated from the South American mainland around 4,000 years ago and were later displaced by the Saladoid, a culture from the same region that arrived on the island between 430 and 250 BC. Between 120 and 400 AD the Igneri tribe arrived from northern South America, co-existing with the Arcaico from the 4th and 10th centuries. The Taíno culture developed between the 7th and 11th centuries and became dominant by around 1000 AD, calling the island Borikén. Savage cannibalistic Caribes from neighboring islands attacked Taíno villages and stole their women — and were later reduced to slavery by the Spanish.
In 1493, Christopher Columbus “discovered” and colonized the island for Spain during his second voyage; for which he arrived somewhere between Aguada and Aguadilla (disputed) and only stayed two days and brought a papal bull from King Ferdinand empowering him to use any course of action necessary for the expansion of the Spanish Empire and Christian faith. On Columbus’ arrival there were an estimated 30,000 to 60,000 Taíno Amerindians, led by the cacique (chief) Agüeybaná. Despite the protection Laws of Burgos, some Taíno were forced into labor while the population suffered extremely high fatalities from European diseases. The colony relied heavily on enslaved Africans and creole blacks for the growing sugar and coffee plantations.
In 1508, the first Spanish settlement of Caparra by Ponce de León, the first governor; abandoned and relocated to 4 miles north to Old San Juan due to malaria and Taíno attacks. In 1511, chief Urayouan ordered the drowning of a Spaniard to test whether they were Gods. In 1519, Pope Leo X declared Puerto Rico the general headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition! In 1520, King Charles I of Spain issued a royal decree emancipating the remaining Taíno population. In 1523, the first sugar mill in San Germàn. In 1595, Queen Elizabeth I dispatched Sir Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins from Plymouth, England, with 27 ships and 2,500 men to capture Puerto Rico in the Battle of San Juan; Hawkins died of fever before arriving and Drake retreated after losing around ten boats and 400 men. In 1625, a second Battle of San Juan when the Dutch attacked — setting the village on fire before withdrawing.
By the end of the 16th century, the Spanish Empire was diminishing and redesigned port settlements into military posts with the objective of protecting territorial claims and ensuring the safe passing of the king’s fleet and West Indies convoys.
In 1797, Sir Ralph Abercromby’s fleet invaded the island with around 60 ships and 6,000–13,000 men with both sides sustaining heavy losses before a British retreat. In 1809, recognized as an overseas province of Spain. In 1821, Marcos Xiorro led an unsuccessful slave revolt — but achieved legendary folklore status. In the early 19th century, 450,000 mostly-Spanish immigrants arrived on the promise of free land while smugglers and pirates prospered. In 1873, slavery abolished. In 1890, Spain refused an offer by the US to buy Puerto Rico for $160 million.
In 1898, following the Spanish–American War, the US acquired Puerto Rico for $20 million. In 1898, cockfighting banned (lasted 34 years). In 1900, Puerto Rico recognized by Congress. From 1898 to 1932, called Porto Rico. In 1914, In 1914, voted unanimously in favor of independence from the US, but this was rejected by Congress as unconstitutional! In 1917, locals were recognized as American citizens — which was unanimously opposed as thought to be a ploy to draft citizens to fight in World War I; the Jones–Shafroth Act provided for a local senate, legislative assembly and bill of rights. In 1918, a major earthquake, tsunami and several hurricanes — as well as the Great Depression — impoverished the island for decades. In 1936, independence defeated by the local political party in charge.
In 1937, the Ponce Massacre when police opened fire on a protest killing 19 and injuring over 200; in the aftermath another independence bill that was defeated. In 1940, gambling legalized. In 1947, Congress approved a local constitution allowing locals to elect a governor. In 1948, the Olympics was the first major sporting event as the nation of Puerto Rico. From 1948 to 1957, a “gag law” made it illegal to challenge the government, sign a patriotic song, or display the Puerto Rico flag! In 1950, various revolts against the US government leading to martial law and attacks against insurgents with infantry, artillery and bombers! In 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists from New York attempted to assassinate President Truman in DC; one was killed while the other captured, sentenced to death, commuted by Truman, then released by Carter 29 years later. In 1952, the Constitution of Puerto Rico was formally adopted.
In 1955, the maiden voyage of the world’s first nuclear submarine, the USS Nautilus, arrived in San Juan after breaking the record for longest submarine trip, time underwater, and average speed. In 1967, overwhelming vote to remain a commonwealth. In 1979, held the Pan-American Games. In 1986, visit by Pope John Paul II. In 1992, 70 sailboats arrive in San Juan to celebrate the 500th anniversary of European discovery of the Americas. In 1993, voted to retain Commonwealth by only 2.3%. In 1998, another statehood vote ended with 0.1% for commonwealth; 2.5% for independence; 46.5% for statehood; and 50.3% going to None of the Above! In 2006, first person to receive Puerto Rican citizenship. In 2012, referendum voted to become the 51st US state.
Old San Juan is historic but touristy (with vibrant facades); Condado is the tourist hotel and beach area; Miramar is basically Bushwick; Santurce is a cool bar area; Ocean Park has the best beach; Hato Rey is the financial district (the street is called the “Gold Bullion Mile”); and NoLo (North of Loiza Street) has the best restaurants.
Featured in the songs En mi Viejo San Juan (recorded by over 1,000 times by artists around the world) and Despacito (music video filmed La Perla); film The Rum Diary; novels The Rum Diary and United States of Banana; and music videos by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Ricky Martin, Bad Bunny, and Marc Anthony.
* Note: An asterisk denotes a place I have yet to visit properly.
Casa Blanca (1521)
House museum of of 16th and 17th artifacts in the former residence of Juan Ponce de León and his family (although de Leon died before living in the house) until the mid-18th century. First governor’s residence until moving to Fortaleza. Disrepair following World War II. In 1967, transferred to the local government.
Grounds surrounding the museum contain a secluded fountain, community garden, El Bastión cultural center, and gardens overlooking the water (all free).
Castillo San Felipe del Morro (1539)
El Morro is a citadel built between 16th and 18th centuries to defend the city, and was named for King Philip II of Spain. Complimented by a smaller fortification known as El Cañuelo on the opposite side of the bay. Roughly 10% of the current structure dates to 1539. Flagpoles fly the US, Puerto Rican and Cross of Burgundy (Spanish flag between 1506 and 1785) flags. Over two million visitors a year.
By 1555, a small battery with 8 cannons. In 1593, Portuguese soldiers from Lisbon composed the first garrison. In 1595, Sir Francis Drake unsuccessfully attacked by sea. In 1598, the third Earl of Cumberland successfully attacked by land — but was forced to flee by a dysentery epidemic. In 1625, the Dutch attacked by land — managing to sneak by the castle defenses into the harbor, out of reach off the cannons, where they sacked the city but were unable to capture the fort and retreated. Between 1634 and 1650, city walls constructed to make make it “a Defense of the First Order.” In 1797, General Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Henry Harvey attacked with a force of 7,000–13,000 men but were defeated. In 1825, pirate Roberto Cofresí was jailed and later executed within the fort’s walls. In 1843, the first lighthouse in Puerto Rico built.
In 1898, bombarded by US naval forces — destroying the lighthouse. Renamed Fort Brooke under US Army command, who filled in the esplanade and filled it with baseball diamonds and a golf course! In 1908, Army rebuilt the lighthouse. In 1915, first shots fired by the US in World War I when a German supply ship was fired upon attempting to force its way through the bay to delivery supplies. During World War II, a massive concrete bunker added to the top of El Morro. In 1961, converted to a national park. In 1992, to celebrate the Quincentennial voyage of Columbus the esplanade and lighthouse was restored.
Considered by the Spanish crown as the “Key to the Antilles”; no enemy ship could navigate its waters without fear of capture. Annual artisans festival every July. Featured in the film Amistad.
La Fortaleza* (1540)
The Fortress was built as Santa Catalina’s Palace and is currently the official residence of the Governor — oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas. The first defensive fortification built for the city of San Juan. Features Homage Tower (where governors would take oaths of fidelity to the King and Queen), Austral Tower, formal living quarters, private quarters, gardens and swimming pool.
In 1598, captured by the Earl of Cumberland. In 1625, captured by Balduino Enrico — who set it ablaze when he left. During the 1640 reconstruction, the chapel of Santa Catalina, which originally stood outside the walls, was integrated into the walls of the structure, resulting in the alternate name Santa Catalina’s Castle. In 1846, reconstruction to a palatial facade. In 1950, the San Juan Nationalist revolt resulted in a five-minute shootout killing four Nationalists and injuring three guards. In 2004, a 2½ hour knife hostage standoff ended when the governor entered the building to listen to the attacker read a letter. In 2019, Telegramgate protests led to the resignation of the governor.
According to legend, just before the US invaded during the Spanish–American War, the last Spanish governor of the island struck a longcase clock in La Fortaleza with his sword, stopping the clock and marking the time at which Spain lost control over Puerto Rico!
Notable guests include President Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy, King Juan Carlos of Spain, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, President Barack Obama. King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain. Featured in the novel United States of Banana.
Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint John the Baptist (1540)
One of the oldest buildings in San Juan, the oldest cathedral in the US, and second-oldest cathedral in the Americas. Built on the location of the first school in Puerto Rico, it is undergoing restoration for its 500th anniversary in 2021.
The original wood structure was destroyed by a hurricane and replaced with the current structure in 1540, with changes up until 1917. Contains the tomb Juan Ponce de León, a shrine to Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago, the first Puerto Rican and first Caribbean-born person to be canonized.
Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (1630s)
Fort Saint John of the Cross, known locally as El Cañuelo, are the ruins of the smallest San Juan fort built on Isla de Cabras (Goat Island). The sandstone walls date back to the 1630s.
The original fort built on this site in the late 1500s was made of wood and burned to the ground in 1625 during a Dutch attack. However, the Spaniards replaced it with a stone fort between 1630 and 1660. Although the U.S. Navy bombarded the fort in 1898, the fort survived.
It is said that, at one time, there was a huge chain crossing from El Morro to El Cañuelo that was extended during attacks to provide a physical barricade across the bay entrance. No entry, but you can walk around it.
San José Church* (1735)
Constructed from 1532 to 1735 as the Saint Aquinas monastery and renamed in 1865. In 1972, a 15th-century painting Our Lady of Bethlehem disappeared. In 2002, several murals were discovered during restoration. In 2018, restoration.
Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of Puerto Rico, was buried in the crypt of the church from 1559 to 1836, when his remains were exhumed and later transferred to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista; but his coat of arms is still located near the main altar. Juan Ponce de Leon II (grandson) and painter José Campeche are buried in the crypt.
Capilla del Santo Cristo de la Salud (1780)
The Chapel of Christ is a small chapel and museum. Most of the articles located at its altar are from 1753. Inside the chapel are paintings by Jose Campeche and a painting by Jorge Sen called El Milagro (The Miracle). The altar is made of silver and gold.
Built on the site of a horse race where a young ride named Baltazar Montañez supposedly went over the edge but was miraculously saved. Only open Tuesdays.
Castillo San Cristóbal (1783)
The largest (27 acres) fortification built by the Spanish in the New World that partly encircled the city of San Juan and sealed by double gates. In 1897, a third was demolished to allow better traffic flow.
Most of the fortified walls have guerites (sentry boxes, “garitas” to the locals) — with one built in 1634 called “The Devil’s Guerite” (“La Garita del Diablo”) after a soldier disappearing (fled with his girlfriend), which is inaccessible to the public. Five water storage cisterns were used as bomb shelters during World War II.
Fortín de San Gerónimo* (1791)
Built to replace the smaller battery of El Boquerón, used by the Spanish to defend the city from attacks by Sir Francis Drake in 1595 and George Clifford, the third Earl of Cumberland in 1598, who managed to destroy it during his attack.
Unlike similar forts, it’s owned by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture but is managed by the Caribe Hilton. Occasionally used for private gatherings, but has fallen into disrepair and visitors are no longer allowed. The gunpowder house built in 1769 is now part of the nearby Luis Muñoz Rivera Park.
In 2007, site of a protest to allow public access. In 2018, a non-profit association created to preserve and reopen the fort.
La Mallorquina* (1848)
Claimed to be the first restaurant in Puerto Rico and named after Palma de Mallorca in Spain. Puerto Rico’s first elected governor dined at the restaurant.
Ballajá Barracks / Museo de las Américas (1854)
Former military barracks for Spanish troops and their families (up to 1,000 people), it was the last and largest (7,700 square meters) building constructed by the Spaniards in the New World. Damaged during the Spanish–American War, military hospital during World War II.
The first floor contains an open courtyard, cafe, library, plus music and dance schools. The second floor features the Museo de las Américas, which contains works of Indian, African and Popular Arts.
Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery (1863)
Colonial-era cemetery located outside the walls of Fort San Felipe del Morro fortress to overlook the ocean to symbolize the spirit’s journey to the afterlife. Holds many of the most prominent natives and residents.
Ron del Barrilito (1880)
Oldest surviving Puerto Rican rum distillery continuously operated by the Fernández family. On the site of the 1787 Hacienda Santa Ana, a sugarcane plantation. Third-generation Pedro Fernández started producing rum for personal use after studying engineering in France, but it was so popular that people began asking for “rum from the small barrel” (ron del barrilito in Spanish). The star-based denomination was borrowed from French brandy making.
In 1880, started producing “Three Stars” rum (aged 6–10 years). In 1920, produced “medicinal” alcohol to continue producing during Prohibition. In 1933, released the younger “Two Stars” rum (3–5 years). In 2018, released “Five Stars” (up to 35 years). In 2019, to celebrate the new visitor’s center (incorporating wood from the previous structure destroyed by Hurricane Maria) released “Four Stars” (up to 20 years); only available on-site and you can pour and seal your own bottle!
Home to some of the oldest aging rum stocks in the Caribbean (“La Doña” aging since at least 1952 and remains unopened). Aged in Spanish sherry (oloroso) oak barrels, the rum formula is a closely guarded family secret. Both the location and rum have remained unchanged; the label virtually unchanged (award medals added from various US Expositions in the early twentieth century.). No artificial flavorings or colors. Tours available, bar open to the public.
Our Lady of Lourdes Chapel (1908)
Gothic church with Celtic cross and four gargoyles that serve as a drainage for rain water. Restored various times between 1982 to 1993 — including the 24 Jesus and the Children and the Holy Spirit stained-glass windows. The furniture and the doors are mahogany, while the bell was built in Spain.
Plaza del Mercado (1909)
Farmers’ market surrounded by bars and restaurants within Placita de Santurce. Market location founded over 100 years ago, with current vendors selling a limited range of produce (including cigars and medicinal herbs). One of the most popular nightlife areas in San Juan.
Condado Vanderbilt Hotel (1919)
The same design firm as Grand Central and built by the Vanderbilt family for $1 million ($15.7 today) and it marked the beginning of high end tourism in Puerto Rico. The original roofing featured antique Spanish tiles sourced from older buildings. Activities included golf, tennis, motoring and gambling (first hotel with a casino).
Sold and renamed the Condado Hotel in 1930, then the Condado Beach Hotel in the 1950s. In the 1970s, saved from demolition by an executive order from the governor, joined with the La Concha Hotel (1958, La Perla* seashell event space) and owned by the state before closing in 1997. Vacant until 2002, severed from the La Concha, then renovated for ten years (two years longer than planned) at a cost of $270 million! Reopened 2014.
Features banquet halls, bars and restaurants (1919 has been called “Puerto Rico’s finest restaurant”) and the original staircases. Notable guests include JFK, Franklin Roosevelt and his wife Eleanor, Charles Lindbergh, composer José Luis Moneró, singer-songwriter Carlos Gardel, Errol Flynn, Bob Hope, and pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
El Capitolio (1929)
commonly referred to as the “Palace of the Laws” holds the offices of senators on one wing and those of representatives on the other, galleries, friezes, mosaics, library, archives, and an impressive rotunda in which Puerto Rico’s constitution is exhibited. The domed lobby was constructed in 1961.
Casa Bacardi (1936)
Largest rum distillery in the world — producing more than 100,000 liters every 24 hours — nearly 85% of Bacardi’s total rum production. Established in 1862 in Cuba, it shifted production to Puerto Rico after Prohibition to sell its rum tariff-free in the US.
Tour focused on drinking rather than seeing the factory. Beware expensive Uber rides there, and lack of rides back!
Hiram Bithorn Stadium* (1963)
Baseball stadium and home to the Santurce Crabbers and named after the first Puerto Rican to play in the major leagues. The Cangrejeros are the “NY Yankees of Puerto Rico” with 12 titles and most games won — including famed 1954–55 team nicknamed “Panic Squad” that included Roberto Clemente and Willie Mays.
In 1972, hosted the first outdoor NBA game between the Suns and Bucks. In 2001, hosted the MLB Opening Day Game (4,000 ticket holders had to be turned away due to capacity!). Hosted part of the World Baseball Classic in 2006, 2009 and 2013. In 2008, hosted Soccer League matches. Hosted MLB games in 2010 and 2018. A 2016 MLB game was postponed (then moved) due to Zika; 2020 games were cancelled due to Covid-19.
Other notable sporting events include the WWC Anniversary Show (1984), WWE aka WWF (1985), and 71 boxing matches (various world championships, late-career Floyd Patterson). Notable concerts include The Byrds (1967), Santana (1971), The Jackson Five (1973), Peter Frampton (1981), Bon Jovi (1984, 1987), Ozzy Osbourne (1984), Men At Work (1985), Sting (1985), The Beach Boys (1987), Toto/Rod Stewart (1988), Whitney Houston (1994), Billy Joel (1999), Shakira (2000, 2003), Backstreet Boys (2001) and Rihanna (2013).
Parque Central Municipio de San Juan* (1979)
Central Park is 35 acres created for the Pan-American Games. Features jogging paths, boardwalk, 20 tennis courts, four racquetball courts, a full track-and-field area with stadium bleachers, Olympic diving and swimming arena, exercise trails, and children’s play area. A golf course is being developed.
Luis A. Ferré Performing Arts Center* (1981)
The primary performance space for theater, ballet, operas and concerts in San Juan. Home to the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra and the annual Casals Festival.
Features four theaters, theatre cafe (1988), restaurant (owned by pop star Luis Fonsi), and open plaza. Artwork includes the mural La Plena; stained glass Form and Tropical Crystals; 40-foot aluminum sculpture Melodic Reflection; and bronze female sculptures The Muses.
It 1994, renamed after a local philanthropist, politician and Governor of Puerto Rico. In 2019, hosted the third production of Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda reprising his role. Other notable performers include Plácido Domingo and Menudo.
Museum of Art of Puerto Rico (2000)
MAPR is a non-profit and one of the largest (24 galleries) in the Caribbean. Features 17th century to contemporary work, craft workshop for children, restaurant, gift shop, and outdoor sculpture garden (open all week).
Museum of Contemporary Art (2002, founded 1984)
MAC was founded by artists and sponsors of the civil society as a non-profit organization. Features art from mid-20th century to today from artists in Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, and Latin America, such as Myrna Báez, Daniel Lind-Ramos, and Noemí Ruiz. Housed in the Rafael M. Labra Building (1916).
José Miguel Agrelot Coliseum* (2004)
The biggest (18,500 people) indoor entertainment arena in Puerto Rico and called Choliseo (portmanteau of “Coliseo” and “Cholito”, in reference to Don Cholito, one of José Miguel Agrelot’s characters) by locals. Ranked 8th on the Top 50 Arena Venues of the world and second of the Western Hemisphere in ticket sales. As of 2013, the arena has received over 5 million spectators, hosting more than 600 events with a gross ticket revenue around $200 million.
Named after a late local comedian José Miguel Agrelot (law prohibits facilities from being names after anyone alive). Construction was stopped for close to two years due to budget overrun. Part of the Olympic bid to host the 2004 Olympic Games. Used as a warehouse and recollection center to prepare and distribute food, water and basic necessities following Hurricane Maria; resuming events in 2018.
Notable events include Van Halen (2004), Andrea Bocelli (2004), Hilary Duff (2005), Nelly Furtado (2005), The Black Eyed Peas (2005), Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus (2005), WWE New Year’s Revolution (2005), Megadeth (2005), The Rolling Stones (2006), Sting (2006), Aerosmith (2006), Ricky Martin (2006, 2011), Usher (2006), Beyoncé (2006, 2013), Elton John (2007), The Killers (2009), Jonas Brothers (2009), ECW/WWE SmackDown (2009), Gloria Estefan (2009),
Paul McCartney (2010, first Beatles to perform in Puerto Rico), Metallica (2010), Bruno Mars (2011, 2013), Cirque du Soleil (2011), Britney Spears (2011), Enrique Iglesias (2011), Shakira (2011), Lady Gaga (2012), Creed (2012), Justin Bieber (2013), Jerry Seinfeld (2014), Miley Cyrus (2014), Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band (2015), Katy Perry (2015), Def Leppard (2015), Anthrax (2016), Madonna (2016), Duran Duran (2016), Ed Sheeran (2017), Phil Collins (2018)
First and only NHL game (2006), Andre Agassi & Pete Sampras (2010, first tennis match at venue), 2010 Billboard Latin Music Awards, Luis Raúl (2013, first stand up comedy), Rafael Nadal & Víctor Estrella Burgos (2016)Marvel Universe Live! (2019).
Puerto Rico Convention Center (2005)
The largest convention center in the Caribbean and one of the most technologically advanced in the Americas. Includes a 157,000-square-foot (14,600 m2) Exhibition Hall that can seat up to 16,965 people and a 39,500-square-foot (3,670 m2) ballroom that can accommodate up to 4,158 people. Approximately 25,000 people can be accommodated within the center simultaneously.
Olympic-level aquatic sports facility and most advanced in the Caribbean and fourth worldwide. Hosts local and international events such as the Pan American Masters Swimming Championship and Summer Nationals. Winter practice for NCAA-affiliated colleges.
Features adjustable depth (from 9' to 0') pool, diving pool, medical facilities, and commercial gym. Design based on the Atlanta Olympic Center, where the 1996 Olympics were held. Closed for a year for repairs following Hurricane Maria.
University of Puerto Rico General Studies Building* (2019)
Four-story reinforced concrete annex building with a façade that includes a monumental sculpture by a local artist in colored perforated aluminum that provides sun and hurricane protection.
Museo de Arte y Diseño de Miramar*
MADMi is an interactive design museum in The Pink House (1913) — the former residence of Judge Luis Méndez Vaz and later a residence and studio for renowned Puerto Rican artists such as Lorenzo Homar, Juan Ramón Velázquez, Ada Bobonis, and Aaron Salabarrías.
Extremely small museum.
San Juan Misc
- Barista Squared. Great coffee and sweets, only place with Oatly.
- Café Comunión. Cool hipster vibes.
- Café con Cé. CCC has great coffee, sweets, well-priced and laptop-friendly.
- Café Regina. Solid.
- Don Ruiz. Local, decent.
- Gustos. Great coffee, impressive setup.
- Hacienda San Pedro. Local coffee, friendly, cheap.
- 1919*. Fine dining.
- Abracadabra. Mostly a brunch spot, magic shows.
- Acapulco. Mexican, great quesadilla.
- Bodegas Compostela*. Fancy wine restaurant in sketchy area.
- Cafetería Mallorca* Local spot named after the breakfast sandwich.
- Casita Miramar. Fancy authentic Puerto Rican food in a nice setting.
- La Alcapurria Quemá
- La Casita Blanca. Best Puerto Rican food, cozy atmosphere, good prices and quick service.
- La Marqueta. Upmarket food hall with great view.
- La Preña. Best arepas and cervice.
- Lot 23. Food trucks, great variety — Pernileria Los Proceres a favorite (excellent craft beer).
- El Vagón. Mexican, cheap and good.
- Empanada Lady*. Roams Condado beach.
- Kasalta. Local bakery and diner. Obama had breakfast here and you can order the (meat-heavy) “Obama” sandwich.
- Kudough’s Donuts
- Marmalade*. Fancy.
- Qué PezCao. Seafood restaurant and market.
- Palettamérica Puerto Rico. Ice-cream.
- Round Eye Ramen. Authentic ramen!
- Ruben’s Café. Old-school, open 24/7, potent sangria.
- Vianda. Best modern farm-to-table Puerto Rican.
Avoid Barrachina and Caribe Hilton Hotel (tourist traps). Gas stations near the beach have a decent range for cheap.
- Bar La Unidad. Speakeasy cocktail bar.
- Deshistoria: Birra & Empanadas. Casual fun drinking spot, good empanadas.
- El Bar Bero. Barbershop (during the day) speakeasy.
- El Batey Bar*
- El Tap. Biggest craft beer selection on draft.
- JungleBird. Coolest cocktail spot, good asian menu.
- La Factoría. Best cocktails, multiple rooms.
- La Penultima*
- La Placita. Bar district surrounding the market, very popular.
- La Taberna Lúpulo. Craft beer bar, above-average food.
- Lot 23. Craft beer, cocktails.
- Ocean Lab Brewing.
- Princesa*. Fancy gastropub.
- Superduper. Bottle shop with space to drink there.
- Antiguo Casino (1917). Originally a social club and now an event space.
- Calle Cerra. Street art.
- Cancha Carmelo Anthony. Carmelo Anthony basketball court (video).
- Casa Fantasmes. Low-fi home recording studio created by the psych rock group Fantasmes.
- El Bowl. Public swimming hole in the “notorious” La Perla neighborhood. Shoreline bar with Burning Man-type vibes!
- Escuela Central de Artes Visuales (1925). Visual arts high school.
- Fine Arts Miramar*. Cinema.
- Hotel el Convento (1860s). Luxury hotel on the site of a 1646 monastery founded by three nuns brought especially from Santo Domingo. Closed between 1903 and 1959, reopened 1962. Renovated in the 1990s. Courtyard contains a 300-year old Níspero fruit tree.
- La Casa Estrecha. A narrow house (134cm wide and 11m deep) that was originally an alleyway! Inhabited by a family for many years and now an art gallery.
- Plaza de Armas (1789). Main square featuring a fountain with four 1856 marble statues representing “The Four Seasons” which were originally placed in the four corners of the square.
- Piramide Cataño. Abandoned building (former library?) shaped like a pyramid!
- Puerta de San Juan (1630). One of three remaining gates into the old city (the others lead into the cemetery and the enclave of La Perla). Once there were a total of five gates, and the massive wooden doors were closed each night to thwart intruders.
- Residencia Aboy-Lompré (1912). “Casa Aboy” is a residence designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.
- Tras Talleres murals
- El Hangar en Santurce. Community collective with regular events in a plane hangar!
- MUSAN. Santos museum.
- Teatro Tapia*
- Backdoor Vintage. Street clothing.
- Electroshock. Thrift clothing.
- Flower Market. Huge flower shop with walk-in fridge, good prices for local flowers.
- Johnny & June. Vintage.
- La Plaza del Mercado. Small selection of local fruit and vegetables, cigars, and medicinal herbs.
- Santurce POP. Co-working space and collection of businesses (e.g. sneaker shops).
- Sixne Concept Store. Street clothing.
- Too many fiends. Street clothing.
- Vice Versa. Antiques and thrift.
- Condado beach
- Jaime Benítez (Condado Lagoon). Rent kayaks and paddle-boards for 2 hours, running path around.
- Ocean Park beach. Best beach in San Juan.
- Playita del Condado. Snorkle spot.
- Playa El Escambrón. Beach.
- Playa Isla Verde beach
- Hotel Villa Herencia Patio. Former convent turned boutique eight room hotel — complete with one of the oldest Virgin Mary statues on the island.
El Yunque National Forest
Formerly the Caribbean National Forest (1935–2007), it is the only US tropical rainforest and largest (113 square km) public land in Puerto Rico located in the Sierra de Luquillo mountains. Either loosely named after the Taíno word yu-ke (“white lands”), or after “anvil” in Spanish. Indigenous people believed El Yunque was the throne of their chief god Yúcahu (the Caribbean equivalent to Mount Olympus).
In 1876, the land was set aside by King Alfonso XII of Spain (one of the oldest reserves in the Western Hemisphere). In 1903, established as a forest reserve. Part of the park was constructed as part of FDR’s Green New Deal.
The second-tallest mountain within El Yunque is also named El Yunque. Features numerous trails, waterfalls, swimming holes (including hidden trespassing hike to an infinity pool), Taíno petroglyphs, El Portal Rainforest Center (1996, elevated walkway), Yokahu Tower (1963, observation tower) and Mount Britton Tower (1938, observation tower).
Home to over 200 species of trees and plants — 23 of which are found nowhere else, the critically endangered Puerto Rican amazon parrot (an estimated wild population of only 30, and occurred exclusively here until 2006), and the beloved Coquí frogs (named after their distinctive call, can “rain” frogs as they float from treetops). No mosquitos as it rains every day, leaving no stagnant water. Over the past 30 years, forest temperatures have risen 2°C due to climate change.
Arecibo Observatory* (1963)
Formerly the Arecibo Ionosphere Observatory and also known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), it was the world’s largest (1,000 feet wide) single-aperture telescope for 53 years (second-largest when built was only 250 feet) and cost $9 million ($70 million today). Built by ARPA for missile defense, but has been used for astronomy, extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI), and near-Earth object detection. First detected the presence of ice on the poles of Mercury, determined the duration of that planet’s rotation, mapped the surface of Venus, and discovered the first binary pulsar (earning the astronomers the Nobel Prize). In 1974, a team including Carl Sagan beamed the Arecibo Message — a data radio transmission — was beamed to a cluster of stars more than twenty-five thousand light-years away.
Features a 305m Arecibo Telescope dish made from 38,778 perforated aluminum panels (with a cable-suspended receiver suspended 150m above the dish), radio telescope, LIDAR facility, and visitor center (1997).
In 2017, damaged by Hurricane Maria. In 2020, decommissioned after two cable breaks; a month later before it could be demolished another cable snapped causing a collapse that was sensationally captured!
Featured in films Contact and Goldeneye (featuring a prophetically similar collapse). Nearby Radioville named after a radio station (before the observatory).
BONUS Reactor* (1964)
The Boiling Nuclear Superheater Reactor Facility (or Museo Tecnologico BONUS Dr. Modesto Iriarte) informally known as “Domes,” is a decommissioned nuclear plant prototype (and first nuclear plant in the Caribbean) used to assess integral boiling superheating (one of two in the US). Achieved full operation in 1965.
Decommissioned between 1969 and 1970 due to technical difficulties. Many contaminated and activated materials were placed in the main circulation pump room beneath the pressure vessel and entombed in concrete. In subsequent years, more radioactive contamination was identified and cleaned up.
Birth of the New World (2016)
The tallest (110m) statue in the Americas — over twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty — to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the new world; built 24 years after the anniversary!
In 1820, two great fires affected the city of Ponce. One destroyed great part of the center of the city; and the other gutted 80% of Ponce’s port zone, paralyzing all commercial trade to the southern section of Puerto Rico. This exhibit includes response to two major fires those that took place in the city in 1820, and in March 1845
Another large fire included in this exhibit is the one that occurred on 25 January 1899. This was a large fire (later dubbed “El Polvorin”) which threatened the lives of Ponceños as well as the economy of Puerto Rico as a whole, given Ponce’s de facto role as Puerto Rico’s banking and agricultural capital.
Caguana Indigenous Ceremonial Center* (1270)
The Caguana Ceremonial Ball Courts Site is one of the most important archeological sites in the West Indies, with around 30 (bateyes) ball courts built by the Taíno around 1270 AD. Nearby Cemí Mountain (Montaña Cemí) was the home of the Taíno gods — and the reason for the courts in the area.
The game of batey is believed to have originated in Mesoamerica and is said to have been played in Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, the Bahamas and the Virgin Islands. Features carved monoliths and petroglyphs. The site is also believed to have hosted ceremonial dances, religious rituals, and astronomical observations.
Currently a park with small museum containing Taíno artifacts, archaeological exhibits, and a botanical garden featuring the plants the Taínos harvested for food. Many of the trees used by the Taínos to construct their homes (bohíos), such as mahogany and ceiba can be seen throughout the park.
Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe* (1835)
Ponce Cathedral dates back to 1670 and been damaged several times by fires and earthquakes during the 19th and 20th centuries including the 1918 San Fermín earthquake, which caused extensive damage and destoryed both of the original towers. Despite this, the 1839 building forms the core of the present building, which Pope Pius XI declared a cathedral in 1924.
From 1931 to 1937, the addition of two new chapels, a new roof, the remodeling of the upper story of the facade and the construction of two new square towers. A pipe organ was installed in 1934 and re-inaugurated in 1989 after a nine-year restoration. Dedicated by a Bishop in 1950. Since 1965, annual event known as “Las Mañanitas” where the namesake Mexican birthday song is sung during a pre-dawn religious procession in the downtown area to celebrate the day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Ponce.
Parque de Bombas (1882)
The first Puerto Rican fire station (1883), one of the island’s most notable buildings and second-most (over 100,000) visited landmark, was built as a pavilion for the 1882 Exhibition Trade Fair. A Fireman’s Band originally played weekly concerts from an open second floor stage; the band still plays every Sunday evening (Retretas), but from a different location.
Two story wooden frame building with two lateral towers, main central area and twin stairway. Located in the city’s central Las Delicias Plaza, it is attached to the Cathedral of Ponce at the rear. In 1920, briefly used as the Mayor’s office due to the 1918 San Fermín earthquake. In 1967, the Ponce municipal flag was designed using the red and black colors of the firehouse. In 1990, converted to a museum.
Exhibits feature original equipment (including hand pumps), a firetruck dating from the first half of the 20th century, and memorabilia — including a painting of seven courageous “bomberos” and one civilian who disobeyed orders and controlled a fire at a US Army gunpowder reserve, avoiding disaster. A 1906 Proclamation of the “Heroes de El Polvorin” was housed in the museum until disappearing during a 1975 restoration. These heroes are also commemorated with an obelisk in the nearby Plaza Federico Degetau, a mausoleum at the Cementerio Civil de Ponce, and the homes of the firefighters (on Calle 25 de Enero) were also painted in red and black.
Featured on cover of La Sonora Ponceña’s album Fuego en el 23!
Casa Serrallés* (1911)
Former home of Don Juan Eugenio Serrallés Pérez, leader of the sugar cane industry and founder of Don Q rum. Features stained-glass windows, hand-painted floor tiles, carved mahogany louvres, 12-foot ceilings, and a large courtyard and Don Q bar.
In 1992, sold to the city after a long period of abandonment. In 1996, restored and converted into the Museum of Puerto Rican Music. In 2012, renamed to honor Ruth Fernández.
The museum displays Taíno, Spanish, and African musical instruments that were the favorite music of 19th-century Puerto Rican high society, as well as the more African-inspired bomba and plena styles. Also houses memorabilia and a huge mural named Los Músicos de Ponce displaying the greatest musical talent from Ponce until that time.
Castillo Serrallés* (1930)
Former mansion and exclusive residence of Don Juan Eugenio Serrallés, a leader in the sugar cane industry during the early part of the 20th century (Don Q rum). Currently a museum, Museo Castillo Serrallés, about the history of sugar cane and rum in Puerto Rico.
Spanning four floors it contains a luxurious hall, library, solarium, two large terraces, interior courtyard, outside fountain, and symmetrical backyard garden overlooking Ponce. Featured in the television series America’s Castles and film Princess Protection Program.
Museo de Arte de Ponce* (1965, founded 1959)
MAP is the finest art museum in Puerto Rico with a collection of 4,000 works — mostly European and local artists.
Highlights include Flaming June (Frederic Leighton); The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon (Sir Edward Burne-Jones); one of the most important Pre-Raphaelite collections in the Western Hemisphere; the 28-foot structure Pinceladas en Vuelo (“Brushstokes in Flight”); and works by Peter Paul Rubens, Lucas Cranach, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Eugène Delacroix, José Campeche, Francisco Oller, and Miguel Pou.
The first museum in Puerto Rico accredited by the American Alliance of Museums. Features 14 galleries, two gardens, amphitheater, educational space, library, archives, conservation laboratory, shop, restaurant, and bifurcated staircase. In 2010, reopened after a two year closure and $30 million expansion.
Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center* (1975)
The oldest Antillean Indian ceremonial (plaza) and sports complex (seven courts) in Puerto Rico, with the largest (186 skeletons) indigenous cemetery. Believed to be the oldest astronomical observatory in the Antilles. Discovered in 1975 in the aftermath of Hurricane Eloise. The museum was established in 1982 and restored in 1991.
Body strength games involved two teams fighting with bows and arrows in defense of their possessions as if enemies, and could result in death! A ball game called “Batey” was played in the ceremonial ball court with a ball called a Batu made of rubber and vegetable leaves. Two teams played against each other, with fathers and sons played on the opposite teams, and the objective was to keep the ball in constant motion using heads, elbows, shoulders and knees. The team would lose a point if the ball stopped moving. The winners were treated like heroes and the losers were sacrificed!
El Vigia Cross (1984)
A 100-foot tall cross-shaped observation tower with a glass elevator located on top of Vigia Hill in Ponce. It is located beside a replica of the original “cross” — a wooden lookout and signal tower (through the use of flags) for arriving ships.
Beside the cross is a Japanese-style garden complete with Koi fish ponds and Bonsai displays.
Iglesia Porta Coeli* (1609)
The “Gateway to Heaven” is one of the oldest churches in the western hemisphere. Restored and now contains the Museo de Arte Religioso, which features 18th and 19th century religious paintings and carvings.
Iglesia San Germán de Auxerre* (1688)
Spanish settlers founded San Germán parish in 1510 and built the first permanent church in 1688. Repaired and reconstructed between 1717 and 1739 after an earthquake. Further repairs between 1834 and 1897, and tower rebuilt in 1920 following another earthquake.
One of the most lavishly decorated church interiors in Puerto Rico, featuring an 1869 marble altar, 17th century metalwork, 18th century wood carvings, and a painting by José Campeche.
Hacienda Lealtad* (1830)
Also known as Hacienda La Lealtad is a historic coffee plantation founded in 1830, by a French immigrant who arrived in Puerto Rico with enslaved people. Become one of the largest coffee plantation in the Lares region with over thirty slaves and hundreds of day laborers working the 69 cuerdas of coffee farm. The first to generate its own electricity using a 17-foot hydraulic wheel.
In 1868, Lares was the site of Grito de Lares, a two-day revolt against the crown of Spain; an eight-year-old child of a slave from Hacienda Lealtad was at the revolt, and spent 6 months in prison! In 1880, workers were paid in hacienda token money, which could only be used to purchase goods from a store at the hacienda itself. After Puerto Rico passed to the US, coffee production fell off and the plantation fell into decline. In 2007, purchased then a multi-million dollar renovation. In 2017, Hurricane Maria destroyed all 60,000 coffee trees.
In 2015, the dress worn by Miss World Beauty contestant represented Hacienda Lealtad coffee. Featured in the film La Cenicienta Boricua (Puerto Rican Cinderella). Features a house, post office, mill, slave quarters, prison cell (for slaves), coffee drying field, cafe and museum. Currently a hotel, coffee producer (brand Café Lealtad), coffee shop and museum. Tours available.
Faro Los Morrillos de Cabo Rojo (1882)
Los Morrillos Light is a historic lighthouse at the southwestern tip of the island and manned by two keepers until 1967; currently automated.
The lighthouse is located over a 200-foot white lime cliff which is surrounded by salt water lagoons and marshes. No barriers to prevent tourists from getting too close to the edge!
Palacete Los Moreau* (1893)
House museum historically known as the Labadie Mansion and inspiration for Enrique Laguerre to write La Llamarada. Restored and renamed in honor of Laguerre’s novel. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Hacienda Iruena Manor House.
In 1860, the property spanned 1,300 acres, of which three quarters were planted with coffee; the other quarter was divided between cane, timber and cattle. Laguerre’s body was cremated and his ashes are interred in a small mausoleum on the grounds of the estate.
El Cemi Museum* (1989)
Small museum dedicated to cemi — a Taíno deity or ancestral spirit housed in a sculptural object possibly inspired by the sacred Tres Picachos (Three Peaks) mountain. The central point represents the home of Yaya, the Creator; the mouth-like point represents Coabey, the land of the dead; and the final point represents the land of the living.
The museum building takes the shape of one of these sacred symbols. Other Taíno artifacts include petroglyphs and a carved wooden tongue depressor that was used in ritual vomiting ceremonies.
Aguadilla, Rincón, Mayagüez, San Germán, Rojo Cabo.
- Eat. AGUADILLA ROOFTOP experience (ARTe), Cosecha (amazing breakfast), Famcoop Rincón/Edward’s Food Market*, Joyuda* (Fresh Seafood), La Cambija*, Poblado de Boquerón*, The Beach House (sunsets), Uma’s (surf beach spot)
- Drink. KAI*, Boxlab Brewing*, El Taller Speakeasy*, Rincón Beer Company, Pura Vida Brewery*, The Copy* (Mojito)
- See. Ceiba de la Libertad (tree planted in 1898 to celebrate autonomy from the Spanish), The Conchshell Bar (Cafeteria Glonilk, decorated in shells), Puma 606 (abandoned plane you can go inside, DJs), Finca El Girasol (sunflower farm), Roberto Cofresí statue* (legendary Puerto Rican pirate, loosely credited with the precursor of the piña colada)
- Do. Rincon Farmer’s Market (arts and crafts), surfing (Rincón Surf School)
- Nature. El tunel de Guajataca (former sugarcane transport tunnel to a beach), Playa Jobos (swimming), Crash Boat Beach (large pier to jump off, popular local spot), Mirador de Guajataca* (lookout), Playa Boqueron (swim), Salinas de Cabo Rojo (Salt Flats), La Parguera (bioluminescent bay), Bosque Estatal de Guánica*, Playa Sucia (pristine beach)
- Stay. A2Tiempos AyS (B&B in a historic house, entertaining host)
- Eat. Café Nativo*, Gustitos Criollos*, Hacienda Tres Ángeles (coffee farm with lunch, nice view), Sandra Farms Coffee (intimate coffee farm, also sells chocolate)
- See. La Piedra Escrita*, Gallera Borinquén* (one of the oldest cockfighting arenas), Parador Bajo las Estrellas (colorful rope bridge)
- Do. Hacienda Buena Vista* (coffee farm), Frutos Del Guacabo (local farm and produce)
- Nature. Cavernas de Camuy, Rio Tanamá* (hidden waterfall), Cueva Ventana (“window cave” with amazing views), Cascada Las Delicias* (waterfall), Chorro de Doña Juana* (waterfall)
- Stay. Hacienda Siesta Alegre (horse farm, beautiful open plan)
- Eat. La Estación*, pork highway (Lechonera El Mojito, Lechonera El Rancho Original)
- Nature*. Charco Azul (local swimming hole), Humacao Nature Preserve, Cayo Santiago (monkey island), Seven Seas Beach, Playa Escondida (secluded, possibly a nude beach), BioBay Fajardo, Las Paylas (natural water slide, through private property)
Snake Island is part of the Spanish Virgin Islands 17 miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland. Originally called Isla del Pasaje and Isla de San Ildefonso, Culebra is also known as Isla Chiquita (“Little Island”), Cuna del Sol Borincano (“Cradle of the Puerto Rican Sun”) and Última Virgen (“Last Virgin” — due to its position at the end of the Virgin Islands archipelago). Residents of the island are known as culebrenses.
Claimed that Christopher Columbus was the first European to arrive at the island during his second voyage in 1493. Believed to have been populated by Carib Indians before the Taíno rebellion of 1511, when Taíno Indians from the main island sought refuge on Culebra and allied with Caribs to launch random attacks at the island estates. Abandoned for centuries, it was a refuge for pirates, fishermen and sailors.
In 1871, the man in charge of the island was found viciously hacked apart with his heart and entrails placed in clay pots as an apparent religious ritual to curse his soul; causing an international incident leading to the government of Switzerland withdrawing an expedition to establish a warm-weather sanatorium. In 1880, the first settlement of San Ildefonso. In 1899, population of 704. In 1902, integrated as part of Vieques.
In 1909, bird refuge established. In 1939, US Navy used the site for gun and bombing practice in preparation for World War II. In 1971, Navy-Culebra protests to remove the base, which happened four years later.
Popular weekend destination ($3 ferry, book online), it has many beautiful beaches including Flamenco Beach* (Playa Flamenco, rated one of the best beaches in the world). Two old M4 Sherman tanks used for target practice are still on the beach! Camping is allowed. Other beaches are only accessible by private car or boats. Clear waters are popular with scuba divers. Coffee at Blac Flamingo Coffee*.
Featured in the novel Governor Ramage R.N. and docu-drama The Legend of Cocaine Island.
Culebrita Lighthouse* (1886)
The only remaining Spanish-era structure in the Culebra archipelago, built to secure the Spanish claim. One of the oldest operating lighthouses in the Caribbean until closed in 1975; and replaced the lighthouse with a solar powered light beacon. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused extensive damage, and in 1995 the tower was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn. Presently, the lighthouse is in danger of collapsing.
About 8 miles (13 km) east of the Puerto Rican mainland in the Spanish Virgin Islands. Named after the Spanish for the Taíno word for “small island” and nicknamed Isla Nena (“Little Girl Island”) alluding to its perception as Puerto Rico’s little sister. During the colonial period, the British name was Crab Island.
Inhabited by Native Americans over many centuries, with the Saladoid (or Igneri) people arriving in the region perhaps around 200 BC. These tribes, noted for their pottery, stone carving, and other artifacts, eventually merged with groups from Hispaniola and Cuba to form what is now called the Taíno culture. This culture flourished in the region from around 1000 AD until the arrival of Europeans who sent armed forces and decimated the population (either killed, imprisoned or enslaved). Remained a lawless outpost frequented by pirates for 300 years. Attempts by the French, English and Danish to colonize the island in the 17th and 18th centuries were repulsed by the Spanish.
In 1811, settlement began with large plantations. In 1854, formally annexed to Puerto Rico. In 1816, was briefly visited by Simón Bolívar when his ship ran aground there while fleeing defeat in Venezuela. During the latter 19th century, thousands of black immigrants to work the plantations.
Scotland made numerous attempts to buy the island proved unsuccessful, so in 1698 landed and took short-lived possession of the island island; a Danish ship arrived shortly afterward and claimed the island. From 1689 to 1693 the island was controlled by Brandenburg-Prussia as the “Isle of Crabs.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, the sugar industry declined due to falling prices and industrial unrest forcing many move to move elsewhere. In 1941, the US Navy purchased or seized about two thirds of the island for a base to be a safe haven for the British fleet should they fall to Nazi Germany. After the war, the US Navy continued to use the island for military exercises, and as a firing range and testing ground for munitions.
In 1999, the death of a Navy employee killed by a misfired bomb triggered international mass protests to end military exercises — culminating in the Navy withdrawing in 2003. Currently a wildlife refuge, but some parts are off-limits due to contamination and/or unexploded ordnance.
Some of the most beautiful beaches on the island are on the eastern end of the island (formerly the Marine Base) that the Navy named Red Beach, Blue Beach, etc., now called Playa Caracas, Pata Prieta, Playa La Chiva, and Playa Plata. At the far western tip (formerly the Navy Base) is Punta Arenas, which the Navy named Green Beach. The beaches are commonly listed among the top beaches in the Caribbean for their azure waters and white sands. The island features several eerily abandoned WWII bunkers you can visit!
In the years following Hurricane Maria, the hospital remained closed and expectant mothers had to travel to the main island of Puerto Rico to give birth!
Also the “The Bio Bay” it was declared the “brightest bioluminescent bay” in the world by Guinness World Records in 2006. The Spanish believed that the bioluminescence they encountered there while first exploring the area was the work of the devil and tried to block ocean water from entering the bay by dropping huge boulders in the channel! Kayak tours available.
Fortín Conde de Mirasol* (1845)
Also known as Fuerte de Vieques, is a fort that was restored in 1991 and now houses the Vieques Museum of Art and History and the Vieques Historic Archives.
Puerto Ferro Light* (1896)
Historic lighthouse and one of the last minor or local lights to be built by the Spanish government. Deactivated in 1926 when it was abandoned. Now part of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge. Currently in poor condition and completely sealed in by brick or concrete, but open to the public.
Punta Mulas Light* (1896)
Also known as Faro de Vieques, is a historic lighthouse. Automated in 1949. In 1992, restored in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to America. Contains a maritime museum.