For a small island, Puerto Rico is a big place, with astounding geographic diversity squeezed into its 110*35-mile (177*56km) landmass. Beautiful beaches encircle its coastline, which fronts both the rough Atlantic, making for among the biggest waves in the region, and the tranquil waters of the Caribbean Sea, a sailor's and diver's paradise.
Puerto Ricans are great hosts, eager to entertain and intensely proud of their island's natural beauty, their culture, and their achievements as a people.
The largest and best-preserved complex of Spanish colonial architecture in the Caribbean, Old San Juan (founded in 1521) is the oldest capital city under the U.S. flag. Once a lynchpin of Spanish dominance in the Caribbean, it has three major fortresses, miles of solidly built stone ramparts, a charming collection of antique buildings, and a modern business center. The city's economy is the most stable and solid in all of Latin America.
San Juan is the site of the official home and office of the governor of Puerto Rico (La Fortaleza), the 16th-century residence of Ponce de León's family, and several of the oldest places of Christian worship in the Western Hemisphere. Its bars, restaurants, shops, and nightclubs attract an animated group of fans. In recent years, the old city has become surrounded by densely populated modern buildings, including an ultramodern airport, which makes San Juan one of the most dynamic cities in the West Indies.
The Northwest: Arecibo, Rio Camuy, Rincon & More
A fertile area with many rivers bringing valuable water for irrigation from the high mountains of the Cordillera, the northwest also offers abundant opportunities for sightseeing. The region's districts include the following:
Aguadilla-- Christopher Columbus landed near Aguadilla during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. Today the town has a busy airport, fine beaches, and a growing tourism-based infrastructure. It is also the center of Puerto Rico's lace-making industry, a craft imported here many centuries ago by immigrants from Spain, Holland, and Belgium.
Aricebo -- Located on the northern coastline a 2-hour drive west of San Juan, Arecibo was originally founded in 1556. Although little remains of its original architecture, the town is well known to physicists and astronomers around the world because of the radar/radio-telescope that fills a concave depression between six of the region's hills. Equal in size to 13 football fields and operated jointly by the National Science Foundation and Cornell University, it studies the shape and formation of the galaxies by deciphering radio waves from space.
Rincon -- Named after the 16th-century landowner Don Gonzalo Rincón, who donated its site to the poor of his district, the tiny town of Rincón is famous throughout Puerto Rico for its world-class surfing and beautiful beaches. The lighthouse that warns ships and boats away from dangerous offshore reefs is one of the most powerful on Puerto Rico.
Rio Camuy Cave Park -- Located near Arecibo, this park's greatest attraction is underground, where a network of rivers and caves provides some of the most enjoyable spelunking in the world. At its heart lies one of the largest known underground rivers. Aboveground, the park covers 300 acres (121 hectares).
Utuado -- Small and nestled amid the hills of the interior, Utuado is famous as the center of the hillbilly culture of Puerto Rico. Some of Puerto Rico's finest mountain musicians have come from Utuado and mention the town in many of their ballads. The surrounding landscape is sculpted with caves and lushly covered with a variety of tropical plants and trees.
Dorado & the North Coast
Dorado, directly east of San Juan, is actually a term for a total of six white-sand beaches along the northern coast, reached by a series of winding roads. Dorado is the island's oldest resort town, the center of golf, casinos, and a once-major Hyatt resort that has closed (but on whose grounds two new luxury properties are being developed). Luckily, the Hyatt's golf courses remain open: 72 holes of golf, the greatest concentration in the Caribbean -- all designed by Robert Trent Jones, Sr.
Meanwhile, the Embassy Suites Dorado is another jewel in this town, with its own Chi Chi Rodríguez-designed oceanfront golf course, and a beautiful beachfront location.
Several large hotel resorts have opened along the northwest of San Juan all the way down through Mayagüez. Rincón, Aguada, Aguadilla, and Isabella all have large hotels. The area offers beautiful beaches, natural wonders, and interesting attractions such as the Arecibo Observatory and the Río Camuy Cave Park.
The Northeast: El Yunque, a Nature Reserve & Fajardo
East of San Juan is a beautiful world of rain forest, stunning coastal waters, nature reserves and posh resorts. Several world-class golf courses are located here, and there is ample sailing and watersports activities. It's home to both a rainforest and a bioluminescent bay, not to mention one of the largest leatherback turtle nesting areas on U.S. soil.
El Yunque -- The rainforest in the Luquillo Mountains, 25 miles (40km) east of San Juan, El Yunque is a favorite escape from the capital. Teeming with plant and animal life, it is a sprawling tropical forest (actually a national forest) whose ecosystems are strictly protected. Some 100 billion gallons of rainwater fall here each year, allowing about 250 species of trees and flowers to flourish.
Fajardo -- There are still small and sleepy areas of this town, founded as a supply depot for the many pirates who plied the nearby waters, but it has also grown up, home to world-class resorts and attractions. There are several marinas in town, and the waters off its coast are a sailor's paradise, with beautiful offshore cayes and coral reef.
Las Cabezas Nature Reserve -- About an hour's drive from San Juan, this is an important and beautiful coastal natural reserve. Established in 1991 on 316 acres (128 hectares) of forest, it has mangrove swamp, offshore cays, coral reefs, freshwater lagoons and a rare, bioluminescent bay -- a representative sampling of virtually every ecosystem on Puerto Rico. There are a visitor center, a 19th-century lighthouse (El Faro) that still works, and ample opportunity to forget the pressures of urban life.
El Conquistador Resort & Golden Door Spa in Fajardo near Las Croabas, a fishing village on the northeastern tip of Puerto Rico's north coast, has a commanding perch overlooking the place where the Atlantic and Caribbean meet.
It has a water park and private island paradise with sandy beaches and recreational facilities. Challenging El Conquistador are the Rio Mar and Gran Melía properties in Río Grande, which are also top-of-the-line resorts.
The Southwest: Ponce, Mayagüez, San German & More
One of Puerto Rico's most beautiful regions, the southwest is rich in local lore, civic pride, and natural wonders.
Boqueron -- Famous for the beauty of its beach and the abundant birds and wildlife in a nearby forest reserve, this sleepy village is now ripe for large-scale tourism-related development. During the early 19th century, the island's most-feared pirate, Roberto Cofresi, imperiled the residents' lives along the Puerto Rican coastline from a secret lair in a cave nearby.
Cabo Rojo -- Established in 1772, Cabo Rojo reached the peak of its prosperity during the 19th century, when immigrants from around the Mediterranean, fleeing revolutions in their own countries, arrived to establish sugar-cane plantations. Today, cattle graze peacefully on land originally devoted almost exclusively to sugar cane, and the area's many varieties of exotic birds draw bird-watchers from throughout North America. Even the offshore waters are fertile; it's estimated that nearly half of all the fish consumed on Puerto Rico are caught in waters near Cabo Rojo.
La Paraguera -- Named after a breed of snapper (pargos) that abounds in the waters nearby, La Parguera is a quiet coastal town best known for the phosphorescent waters of La Bahía Fosforescente (Phosphorescent Bay). Here, sheltered from the waves of the sea, billions of plankton (luminescent dinoflagellates) glow dimly when they are disturbed by movements of the water. The town comes alive on weekends, when crowds of young people from San Juan arrive to party the nights away. Filling modest rooming houses, they temporarily change the texture of the town as bands produce loud sessions of salsa music.
Mayagüez -- The third-largest city on Puerto Rico, Mayagüez lies on the middle of the west coast, with beautiful beach areas to its north and south. While the city lacks its own beach, it is home to a few top quality hotels and has numerous attractions, including a zoo and botanical garden, so it's a good place to explore the west coast. Its history of disaster -- including a great fire in 1847 and a 1918 tsunami -- has allowed the city to forge a unique architectural identity, a blending of the distinct styles in vogue during the different eras of rebuilding the city has undergone throughout its history. Mayagüez has just undergone another facelift, this time in preparation of the 2010 Central American & Caribbean Games taking place in the summer of 2010, which included new sports facilities, a sprucing up of public areas, and a new waterfront park. The city has a renovated historic district surrounding Plaza Colón, its main square that has a monument to Christopher Columbus. The town is known as the commercial and industrial capital of Puerto Rico's western sector and has a large University of Puerto Rico campus, which also helps spark the local cultural and entertainment scene.
Ponce -- Puerto Rico's second-largest city, Ponce has always prided itself on its independence from the Spanish-derived laws and taxes that governed San Juan and the rest of the island. Long-ago home of some of the island's shrewdest traders, merchants, and smugglers, it is enjoying a renaissance as citizens and visitors rediscover its unique cultural and architectural charms. Located on Puerto Rico's southern coast, about 90 minutes by car from the capital, Ponce contains a handful of superb museums, one of the most charming main squares in the Caribbean, an ancient cathedral, dozens of authentically restored Colonial-era buildings, and a number of outlying mansions and villas that, at the time of their construction, were among the most opulent on the island.
San Germán -- Located on the island's southwestern corner, small, sleepy, and historic San Germán was named after the second wife of Ferdinand of Spain, Germaine de Foix, whom he married in 1503. San Germán's central church, Iglesia Porta Coeli, was built in 1606. At one time, much of the populace was engaged in piracy, pillaging the ships that sailed off the nearby coastline. The central area of this village is still sought out for its many reminders of the island's Spanish heritage and colonial charm. With a large university and historic district, and its ideal location, the town is beginning to wake up to its tourism potential after a long sleep. Several fine restaurants have opened recently, and the pace of renovation in the old district is on the rise.
The Southeast: Palmas del Mar & More
Southeastern Puerto Rico has large-scale tourism developments but is also home to the island's wildest and least developed coastline, which runs from Guayama, which has one of the most picturesque town centers on the island, to the steep cliff sides of Yabucoa.
Coamo -- Although today Coamo is a bedroom community for San Juan, originally it was the site of two different Taíno communities. Founded in 1579, it now has a main square draped with bougainvillea and one of the best-known Catholic churches on Puerto Rico. Even more famous, however, are the mineral springs whose therapeutic warm waters helped President Franklin D. Roosevelt during his recovery from polio. The springs were also said to inspire the legend of the Fountain of Youth, which in turn set Ponce de León off on his vain search for them, which led him north to Florida.
Humacao -- Because of its easy access to San Juan, this small, verdant inland town has increasingly become one of the capital's residential suburbs.
Palmas del Mar -- This sprawling vacation and residential resort community outside Humacao has great golf, tennis, and other amenities. The Equestrian Center at Palmas is the finest riding headquarters in Puerto Rico, with trails cutting through an old plantation and jungle along the beach.
Called the "New American Riviera," Palmas del Mar has 3 miles (4.8km) of white-sand beaches and sprawls across 2,800 acres (1,133 hectares) of a former coconut plantation -- now devoted to luxury living and the sporting life. There are several different communities within Palmas, with both luxury homes and townhouses, as well as hotels and time share and vacation club rentals. The resort is ideal for families and has a supervised summer activities program for children ages 5 to 12.
The Offshore Islands: Culebra, Vieques & More
Few norteamericanos realize that Puerto Rico is host to two offshore island towns, which are among the most beautiful and, until recently, undiscovered locations in the Caribbean. Neither Vieques nor Culebra has a traffic light or fast food restaurant, and neither is likely to get either soon, despite the world-class lodging and tourist facilities beginning to appear on both islands, which have become known as the Spanish Virgin Islands.
Puerto Rico also has several islands within its jurisdiction that are intriguing nature reserves.
Culebra & Vieques -- Located off the eastern coast, these two islands are among the most unsullied and untrammeled areas in the West Indies, even though Vieques is being belatedly discovered. Come here for sun, almost no scheduled activities, fresh seafood, clear waters, sandy beaches, and teeming coral reefs. Vieques is especially proud of its phosphorescent bay, Mosquito Bay, among the world's best. Each island town has miles of coastline and sailing and snorkeling offshore. Although the sister Spanish Virgin Islands remain laid back, they have become increasingly sophisticated in lodging and dining options, which today are top-notch.
Mona -- Remote, uninhabited, and teeming with bird life, this barren island off the western coast is ringed by soaring cliffs and finely textured white-sand beaches. The island has almost no facilities, so visitors seldom stay for more than a day of swimming and picnicking. The surrounding waters are legendary for their dangerous eddies, undertows, and sharks.
Much closer to the coast, just off Rincón, is Desecheo, another nature reserve with great beaches and great diving offshore.
Cayo Santiago -- Lying off the southeastern coast is the small island of Cayo Santiago. Home to a group of about two dozen scientists and a community of rhesus monkeys originally imported from India, the island is a medical experimentation center run by the U.S. Public Health Service. Monkeys are studied in a "wild" but controlled environment. They provide scientific researchers both insight into their behavior, as well as a source of experimental animals for medical research into such maladies as diabetes and arthritis. Visitors are barred from Cayo Santiago, but you can often glimpse the resident primates if you're boating offshore.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.