Sun, Sand, & Rum

Old San Juan 1

Mention Puerto Rico and many people think of sun, sand and sipping rum drinks.   But as anyone familiar with the destination knows, there’s more – a lot more – to the tiny island.

A virtual continent worth of diversity is shoe-horned Into an area smaller than Connecticut. Even those whose goal is nothing more than a sandy beach on which to soak up the sun find a virtual A-to-Z list of activities and attractions.

Puerto Rico beach

Begin with the multiplicity of landscapes.   Palm-fringed beaches along the eastern shoreline give way to gentle hills.   Then the terrain rises to form two rugged mountain ranges that dominate the center of the island before falling into the rolling surf that laps beaches on the west.

Even forests in Puerto Rico offer their share of welcome surprises. Best known and most popular is El Yunque National Forest. That 28,000-acre expanse encompasses 240 species of native evergreen trees, giant ferns and multi-hued wild orchids, along with thick hanging vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight. Some of the more than 50 species of birds provide a constant chorus, backed by the splashing of waterfalls cascading down moss-covered cliffs.

El Yunque

In stark contrast to this lush setting is the Guanica Dry Forest Reserve, the largest tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world.   More than 700 species of plants have adapted to this inhospitable desert setting, including 16 which exist nowhere else.

Archaeologists tell us that several Indian groups inhabited Puerto Rico beginning some 4,500 years ago. When Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493 and claimed it for Spain, he encountered the Taino (pronounced Tie-EE-no) Indians. Their name meant “friendship,” and they were peaceful people who farmed and fished.

Old San Juan 2

Reminders of their society abound in place names throughout the island, and also at the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center. This was a gathering place that included plazas, ball courts and burial grounds, all still visible today. Stones that were placed to create a kind of astronomical observatory still are laid out in precise lines, and some of them reveal petroglyph etchings.

Valley in Puerto Rico

The current predominant cultural influences in Puerto Rico are the result of its role over hundreds of years as an outpost of Spain in the New World.   The language, food and many customs persist to this day.   San Juan, Ponce (Pawn-say) and other towns are treasure troves of Spanish architecture.

Traces of Africa also persist, in favorite foods and other ways. Spanish explorers brought slaves from Africa to help with their search for gold. Later, they planted and harvested sugar cane which at one time was the most important cash crop on the island.

San Juan, the capital, melds the bustle of a large American city with the grace of its Spanish heritage and colorful Caribbean touches. It has its share – and more – of shops, restaurants, bars and night clubs. Yet its historic center continues to reflect 500 years of history in the narrow streets, imposing public buildings and pastel-painted houses.

Remnants of the city walls and 16th-century El Moro castle and 17th-century Fort San Cristobal were part of what was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the New World.

Sprinkled around the island outside of San Juan are towns which share such vestiges of their Spanish heritage as a central plaza often overlooked by a church.   At the same time, each village has unique charms and attractions.

Ponce, second in size to San Juan and known as the “Pearl of the South,” was founded in 1692.   The airy main plaza is surrounded by the narrow streets of the historic district which are lined by architecture that evokes Puerto Rico’s colonial past.

Food Stand

Mayaguez boasts a tropical botanical garden and Puerto Rico’s largest zoo.   Rincon is perched on the western-most tip of the island where the mountains run down to the sea. The scenery is spectacular, the nearby beaches are beautiful and surfers find plenty of large waves to ride.

A sometimes overlooked attraction is the collection of outstanding museums around the island.   A personal favorite among the more than three dozen in San Juan is the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. It boasts one of the largest collections in the Caribbean and is housed in a magnificent neoclassical building that itself is worth a look-see.

Highlights in Ponce include the Museo de la Arte, an important center of European art from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and the eclectic Museo de la Historia, which traces the city's history from the time of the Taino Indians to today.

Mealtimes provide added opportunities to experience the intriguing cultural mix that is a vital part of island life. I introduced my taste buds to treats that combine flavors of a variety of cuisines including Taino (cassava, yucca and other root vegetables), Spanish specialties (tapas, ham croquettes) and local favorites like octopus ceviche, tostones (fried plantain slices) and Mofongo (mashed plantain stuffed with chicken, shrimp or other fillings).

Even this description of Puerto Rico’s appeals doesn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities. A brief list suggests the range of other choices.

The Rio Camuy Cave Park is the largest of more than 200 caverns on the island, and contains the third-largest underground river in the world.   In addition to El Yunque and Guanica, Puerto Rico has over 20 other nature preserves including cloud, karst and flood plain forests.   Golfers find a choice of more than two dozen outstanding courses.     The Arecibo Observatory provides an introduction to the second largest radio telescope in the world, and how it is used for radio and radar astronomy and atmospheric science research.

For more information call (800) 866-7827 or log onto seepuertorico.com