It’s graced by fabulous beaches, year-round sun and numerous opportunities for deep-sea fishing, diving and surfing, but there’s far more to Puerto Rico than suntans and snorkelling. Beyond the glitzy veneer of San Juan the coast remains incredibly raw and unspoiled, lined with miles of glittering white sands. Dig deeper and you’ll see the influence of the island’s rich stew of cultures – African, European and Taíno – in an exuberant array of festivals, tantalizing criollo food, gracious colonial towns, world-class rum and a dynamic musical tradition that gave birth to salsa. The scenery is similar but this is not the West Indies (think baseball not cricket), and despite its links with the US, Puerto Rican identity – like Cuba – remains proudly Latino.
The island boasts an astounding diversity of landscapes, from the misty rainforests of El Yunque and the crumbling outcrops of karst country, to reef-encrusted desert islands and the withering dry forests of the southwest. And in several places, impenetrable mangrove swamps cradle one of nature’s most mind-boggling spectacles, the glowing waters of bioluminescent bays. Rent a car and it’s easy to escape the tourist areas, and you can zip between cool mountain forests and sun-bleached beaches in minutes. The island is remarkably safe, and though it can be tough for budget travellers, Puerto Rico compares favourably with other islands in the region.
Beaches understandably remain one of the biggest draws here. Thanks in part to a small but vigorous coalition of environmental groups, property development has been confined to small clusters, with low-key resorts such as Rincón successfully holding back the tide of condo and hotel building, at least for now. Occupied by the United States Navy until relatively recently, Vieques and Culebra in particular offer some of the most idyllic coastlines in the Caribbean, the military having ensured that both islands were spared the excesses of tourism.
The island’s mountainous interior is just as enticing, a land of torpid Spanish hill towns and gourmet coffee plantations. Ranches still raise Paso Fino horses, the finest in the Americas, and state forests preserve lush, jungle-covered peaks, fish-filled lakes and gurgling waterfalls. Yet it’s the juxtaposition of old and new, rather than a nostalgic throwback frozen in time, that makes Puerto Rico such a beguiling destination. The old Puerto Rico of suntanned jíbaros and horsedrawn carts has largely disappeared, and instead you’ll find towns where bareback horse riders use mobile phones, and beautifully preserved colonial architecture coexists with modern shopping malls and speeding SUVs.
Despite all this, the perception of Puerto Rico is inextricably shaped by its sometimes bewildering relationship with the US. Not a state, nor independent, Puerto Rico has been a “commonwealth” since 1952, making it especially attractive to Americans looking for a passport- and hassle-free holiday in the sun, but creating the misconception elsewhere that the island is simply an extension of the US in the Caribbean – quite untrue. While it lacks the revolutionary chic of other Latin American nations, Puerto Ricans have created one of the region’s most vibrant cultural identities; they may be divided over their political future, but their sense of cultural pride in Boricua – the indigenous name for the island and its people – unites them.