Although no match for the island's iconic music, Puerto Rico's other arts nevertheless vividly reflect the vibrant culture. Fittingly, Puerto Rico's writers use both Spanish and English to describe local life and issues around poverty, freedom, colonialism and the country's netherworld status within the US. Movies invariably reflect the screen-friendly local colors, as do the energetic visual arts, with galleries illustrating this tiny island's gargantuan artistic output constantly opening. With dance, Puerto Ricans enjoy physically expressing their nuanced musical rhythms.
Puerto Rico’s balmy weather, historic architecture and modern infrastructure attract Hollywood productions. The first truly Puerto Rican movie (ie, with a Puerto Rican cast and crew), Los Peloteros, was made in 1953, and a homegrown industry only started to flourish in the late 1980s, thanks largely to one director: Jacobo Morales. He wrote, directed and starred in Dios los cría (God Created Them). The movie offered a critical look at Puerto Rican society and was lauded by critics and fans. His next offering, Lo que le pasó a Santiago (What Happened to Santiago), won an Academy Award nomination in 1990 for Best Foreign Film (the irony!). Linda Sara (Pretty Sara), his 1994 follow-up, earned him another.
Director Marcos Zurinaga also made a name for himself in the 1980s, first with La gran fiesta (The Big Party) in 1986, which focuses on the last days of San Juan’s biggest casino, and then with the acclaimed Disappearance of Garcia Lorca (1997).
The most widely distributed and successful Puerto Rican film is probably Luis Molina Casanova’s 1993 tragicomedy, La guagua aérea (A Flight of Hope), which explores the reasons behind Puerto Ricans’ emigration in the 1960s. On the artistic front, Mi santa mirada, a 2012 short drama by Alvaro Aponte, follows a Puerto Rican drug dealer who decides to change his life. It was recognized at the Cannes Film Festival.
Puerto Rico on Film
For movies set in Puerto Rico or about Puerto Rican life in the barrios of New York, seek out:
Carlito’s Way Starring Al Pacino and Sean Penn, this popular 1993 drama follows the exploits of Carlito Brigante, a Puerto Rican drug dealer in New York who struggles to go straight after his release from prison.
Rum Diary (Rum Punch) Shot entirely on location in 2011, Johnny Depp plays Hunter S Thompson in his early yet still-dissolute days when he worked as a journalist in San Juan during the early 1960s.
Angel Written and directed by Jacobo Morales (who also stars), this drama follows the story of a corrupt police captain and the man he wrongly imprisoned. It narrowly missed out on a 2008 Academy Award nomination.
GoldenEye The iconic Arecibo radio-telescope provided the backdrop for the famous climactic scenes of 007's 17th screen outing.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides San Juan's dramatic forts made for atmospheric shots during the fourth installment of the film series in 2011 (Johnny Depp presumably spent a lot of time on set in Puerto Rico around this point).
Puerto Rico has sired some renowned actors and actresses over the decades. Some of the most significant:
Benicio del Toro (1967-) Won an Oscar for Traffic; played the lead in Che. Has secured a clutch of roles over the last two decades from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to The Usual Suspects.
Rita Moreno (1931-) One of only a few actresses to win an Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Grammy; major roles in West Side Story and The King and I.
Joaquin Phoenix (1974-) Academy Award-nominated for Best Supporting Actor in Gladiator; other roles include a portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk The Line, as well as Hotel Rwanda and Quills.
José Ferrér (1912-1992) Best known for his performance in Lawrence of Arabia; Peter O' Toole once said he learned more about screen acting from Ferrér than he did from any acting class.
The rolling gait of salsa is inexorably linked with the Puerto Rican identity, and the island’s attitude toward dance often has a refreshing lack of North American reserve.
Over time, many classifiable musical forms – bomba, salsa, plena and danza – have evolved complementary dances based on syncopated rhythms and melodies. An early example was the formal danza, an elegant ballroom dance imported from Cuba. Bomba is another colorful import, with influences brought via African slaves. Boisterously energetic, bomba has spawned a plethora of subgenres such as sica, yuba and holandes, and is both spontaneous and exciting to watch.
Puerto Rico’s signature dance is certainly salsa. With its sensuous moves and strong African rhythmic base, it seems like the perfect expression of Puerto Rico’s cultural DNA – loose-limbed locals make it look as simple as walking.
To see the best free-form Puerto Rican dance, head to San Juan’s steamy nightclubs, where being seen with the best moves is a matter of searing personal pride.
Puerto Rico was without a printing press until 1807, and Spain’s restrictive rule kept literacy rates low for almost 400 years. But indigenous literature developed nonetheless; the 19th and 20th centuries gave rise to writers who penned the island’s identity: Alejandro Tapia y Rivera, Manuel Alonso, Dr Enrique Laguerre and Julia de Burgos.
As more islanders migrated to the US in the 1950s, Puerto Rican ‘exiles,’ known as Nuyoricans, produced powerful fiction. One of the most successful writers was Pedro Juan Soto, whose 1956 collection Spiks (a racial slur aimed at Nuyoricans) depicts life in the New York barrios with biting realism. Miguel Algarín, Miguel Piñero and Pedro Pietri started a Latino beatnik movement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side at the first Nuyorican Poets Café.
Esmeralda Santiago’s 1986 memoir, Cuando era puertorriqueña (When I Was Puerto Rican), became a standard in US schools for its eloquent portrayal of her childhood on the island and how the lessons learned there have shaped her success.
Eduardo Lalo is best known for his Romulo Gallegos Prize–winning novel Simone (2012), which, through an unusual narrative style, sets an almost hypnotic tone for its ramble through the city of San Juan. His first book, En el Burger King de la calle San Francisco (In the San Francisco Street Burger King), is a lyrical exploration of Old San Juan.
Another San Juan writer, Zoé Jiménez Corretjer, has won many awards for her contemporary poetry. Two other poets, Luz María Umpierre-Herrera and Sandra María Esteves, are particularly known for their poetic dialogue in which they each wrote two works to the other debating the roles of women in Puerto Rican society.
Icons of Puerto Rican Literature
- Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (1826–82) The ‘Father of Puerto Rican literature’ wrote poems, stories, essays, novels and plays. Long, allegorical poems include Sataniada, ‘A Grandiose Epic Dedicated to the Prince of Darkness.’
- Manuel Alonso (1822–89) Alonso wrote El gíbaro (1849), a collection of vignettes about cockfights, dancing, weddings, politics, race and the espiritismo (spiritualism) that characterize the island jíbaro (an archetypal witty peasant).
- Dr Enrique Laguerre (1906–2005) Puerto Rico’s first important international novelist. Published in 1935, La llamarada (Blaze of Fire) is set on a sugarcane plantation, based on Laguerre's time spent at Palacete Los Moreau near Isabela, where a young intellectual struggles with US corporate exploitation.
- Julia de Burgos (1914–53) A major female poet, she responded in outrage when the island became US territory. Her work embodies two fundamental elements of Boricua identity: intense, lyrical connection to nature and fiery politics.
- Giannina Braschi (1953–) One of the biggest names among the many Puerto Rican writers living in New York, Braschi writes about the state of freedom in her homeland – or lack thereof. Her three novels, Empire of Dreams (1994), Yo-Yo Boing! (1998) and United States of Banana (2011), have won international acclaim.
- René Marqués (1919–79) An Arecibo-born playwright whose most important work is La Carreta, which follows a Puerto Rican family's journey from the sticks to San Juan and then New York in search of a better life.
Trio of Puerto Rican Folk Art
Search out examples of these folk-art treasures in some of the better shops on the quieter streets of Old San Juan.
Santos Drawing on the artistic traditions of carved Taíno idols called cemíes, these small statues represent religious figures and are enshrined in homes to bring spiritual blessings to their keepers.
Mundillo Made only in Spain and Puerto Rico, this fine lace was imported with early nuns, who made and sold it in order to finance schools and orphanages. Renewed interest in island folk arts, generated by the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, has revived the process.
Máscaras These frightening and beautiful headpieces are worn at island fiestas, and are popular pieces of folk art. The tradition of masked processions goes back to the Spanish Inquisition, when masqueraders known as vejigantes brandished balloon-like objects (called vejigas; literally, ‘bladders’), terrifying sinners into returning to the church. In Puerto Rico, it merged with masking traditions of African slaves.
San Juan’s Museo de San Juan is a symbol of Puerto Rico’s dedication to the visual arts, which can be traced back to the early days of Spanish colonization. The first great local artist to emerge was self-taught painter José Campeche (1751–1809). Masterpieces such as Dama a caballo (Lady on Horseback) and Gobernador Ustariz (Governor Ustariz) demonstrate Campeche’s mastery of landscape and portrait painting, often inspired by the story of Jesus.
Another master, Francisco Oller (1833–1917) did not gain recognition until the second half of the 19th century. Oller was very different from Campeche; he studied in France under Gustave Courbet and was influenced by acquaintances including Cézanne. Like his mentor Courbet, Oller dedicated a large body of his work to scenes from humble, everyday island life. Bayamón, Oller’s birthplace, maintains a museum to its native son, and many of his works are in San Juan’s Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. Both Oller and Campeche are honored for starting an art movement inspired by Puerto Rican nature and life, and they gave a distinct cultural and artistic identity to the island.
After a storm of poster art that covered the island in visual and verbal images during the 1950s and '60s, serious painters such as Julio Rosado del Valle (1922–2008), Francisco Rodón (b 1934) and Myrna Báez (b 1931) evolved a new aesthetic in Puerto Rican art, in which images rebel against the tyranny of political and jingoistic slogans. Báez is one of a new generation of female artists building on Puerto Rico’s traditions to create exciting installation art. Her work is exhibited in many San Juan galleries.
One of the island’s most famous contemporary artists was actually a Nuyorican – Rafael Tufiño (1922–2008), who was born in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents. Using vivid colors and big canvases, Tufiño was considered the ‘painter of the people’ because of his unflinching depiction of poverty on the island. His work has joined the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Library of Congress.
For eye-popping examples of Puerto Rico's vivid visual art, head to San Juan's Santurce district. Museums, galleries, outdoor art and impromptu graffiti combine for a visual riot as vibrant as the best salsa.
Rita Moreno (born in Humacao, 1931) managed the rare feat of winning an Academy Award (West Side Story), a Grammy (The Electric Company Album), a Tony (The Ritz) and two Emmys (The Muppet Show and The Rockford Files). Only 11 others have won all four.
Better known by the nickname Diplo, Ramón Rivero was the king of Puerto Rican comedy who kept islanders laughing through times of intense economic hardship in the 1940s and '50s. He also starred in one of Puerto Rico’s finest films, Los peloteros (The Baseball Players).
The Museo de Arte de Ponce is one of the Caribbean's greatest art galleries, but a riveting new contemporary art space seemingly opens in Puerto Rico every year: the latest is the fantastic Museo de Arte in Mayagüez.
Life in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican culture is a kaleidoscope with four constantly overlapping elements – Taíno, Spanish, African and American. As such, the dynamic culture is incredibly hard to pin down in words. One side of the street looks like the Bronx, while the other is all Latin America, with bananas sold out of the back of a truck. The Commonwealth exports well over half of its population to the United States, yet expatriates exhibit fierce loyalty to the island they call home.
Most Puerto Ricans live a lifestyle that weaves together two primary elements: the commercial and material values of the United States and the social and traditional values of their ‘enchanted’ island. Because of the strong connection to the mainland United States, Puerto Ricans have espoused many of the same social values as their cousins in New York. Even so, the Puerto Rican flags that fly from the fire escapes of NYC leave no doubt that many Puerto Ricans will never fully lose themselves to mainstream American culture.
Modern practicalities of the island’s political and cultural position have meant that, for three or four generations now, many Puerto Ricans have grown up bouncing between mainland US cities and their native soil. Even those who stay put assimilate by proxy: young people in a wealthy San Juan suburb may wander the mall past American chain stores and chat about Hollywood blockbusters; obversely, their counterparts living in the uniformly Puerto Rican neighborhoods of New York or Chicago may have a day-to-day existence that more closely resembles Latin America. This makes the full scope of their bilingual and multicultural existence difficult to comprehend for outsiders. Many Puerto Ricans are just as comfortable striding down New York’s Fifth Ave for a little shopping during the week as they are visiting the friquitines (roadside kiosks) with their families at Playa Luquillo on the weekend.
Where Puerto Rico and the US most diverge in a practical sense may be in economics. A glance beyond the shiny buildings of San Juan shows the toll taken by worldwide recession coupled with the island's own woes. A large number of manufacturing jobs left the island over the last decade, taking skilled managers with them and leaving factories to rust. With an unemployment rate of 11.9% and average salaries around $28,000 (roughly half the US average), the local aphorism is that if you need a job, fly to Orlando – a journey made easy by their US citizenship.
From Rincón to Vieques, visitors will find Puerto Ricans to be incredibly friendly and open; they like nothing better than to show off their beloved Borikén (the island’s Taíno name). You’ll also note that, despite their obsession with big American cars and big shopping complexes, Puerto Ricans also have their lives defined by some of life's simpler pleasures. A favorite island pastime is to wade into warm ocean waters just before sunset – beer in hand and a few more in the cooler – to shoot the breeze with whoever else is out enjoying the glorious spectacle of changing skies. The next day, there’s a good chance the afternoon will be spent standing around the grill (again, usually with a beer in hand) and savoring the aromas of a favorite family recipe. Bank executive, schoolteacher, fisherman or even visiting gringo – it doesn’t matter who you are, as long as you share an appreciation for how good life can be in Puerto Rico.
Like most Caribbean cultures, Puerto Ricans are genetically an ethnic mix of Native American, European and African. About 80% of the island classifies itself as white (meaning of Spanish origin, primarily), 8% as black, and 12% as other, or mixed, which includes Taíno. Along the coast of Loíza, where African heritage is most prominent, distinct features from the Yoruba people abound, while in the mountains, a handful of people still claim distant Taíno bloodlines. Many of them are right; advanced ethnographic study of Puerto Ricans in recent years uncovered a strong connection to the island’s first settlers.
Puerto Ricans might tell you that ethnic discrimination doesn’t exist on their island, but politically correct Spanish speakers may be aghast at some of the names Puerto Ricans use to refer to each other – words like trigueño (wheat-colored) and jabao (not quite white). It may sound derogatory (and sometimes it is), but it can also simply be a less-than-thoughtful way of identifying someone by a visible physical characteristic, a habit found in much of Latin America. You’ll also hear terms like la blanquita, for a lighter-skinned woman, or el gordo to describe a robust man. Identifying which terms are racial slurs, rather than descriptive facts, will be a hard distinction for non-islanders to make, and it’s wisest to steer clear of all such vernacular. Compared with much of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico is remarkably integrated and even-keeled about ethnicity. This may result from a long history of being a somewhat heterogeneous island with the powers-that-be changing wildly and frequently: even in the island's first census back in 1899, around 62% defined themselves as white, 32% as 'mixed' and 6% as black.
The island’s most important challenge is to correct the historical fact that the poorest islanders – those descended from the slaves and laborers who were kept from owning land until the early 20th century – have been short-changed when it comes to higher education. As in the United States, the issue of racial and economic inequality in Puerto Rico – while still visible – has improved immeasurably in the last 50 years. While urban deprivation and a lack of provision of housing are ongoing issues, the relative economic conditions in modern Puerto Rico are significantly better than in most other countries in the Caribbean.
Puerto Rico’s Beauties
On most progressive issues of gender equality, Puerto Rico can shame other Latin American countries…at least until it’s time to dust off the rhinestone tiara and satin sash and crown a beauty queen. Puerto Rico simply adores the beauty pageant. The island’s near-obsession with pageants has paid off, too. In the big enchilada, the annual Miss Universe, Puerto Ricans are something of a cinch. The island has brought home a stunning five wins in the pageant’s history, the most recent in 2006.
Reading Up On Puerto Rican Culture
From sexual revolution to struggles for the Commonwealth's independence to island-saving eco-activism, start your cultural journey to Puerto Rico in the pages of a book.
Down These Mean Streets (Piri Thomas) Peppered with the street slang of Spanish Harlem, this gritty classic takes a cold and sober look at the challenges of violence, drugs and racism during the first wave of Puerto Rican immigration to New York City.
Boricuas: Influential Puerto Rican Writings – An Anthology (edited by Roberto Santiago) This collection of essays and stories presents an incredibly diverse and wide-ranging insight into Puerto Rican authors, many of whom are scarcely translated into English. If you read one book to sample Puerto Rican writing, this is it.
The Disenchanted Island – Puerto Rico and the United States in the Twentieth Century (Ronaldo Fernández) Required reading for Latin American studies students, this chronicle of the island’s struggle for independence is passionately told, putting the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States under a microscope.
Imposing Decency: The Politics of Sexuality and Race in Puerto Rico, 1870–1920 (Eileen J Suárez Findlay) This brassy, bold historical reading of Puerto Rico feminism is rooted in Puerto Rico’s working-class sexual revolution during the turbulent years of the American colony.
Islands Under Fire: The Improbable Quest to Save the Corals of Puerto Rico (Kevin McCarey) The US Navy was bombing much of Culebra in the 1970s and damage to the coral reefs was becoming too extreme. McCarey joined up with an oddball band of activists to bring the destruction to a halt. It's a romp of a book you'll be unable to put down.
Like many former Spanish colonies, Roman Catholicism is practiced widely, with an estimated 70% of Puerto Ricans identifying as Catholic. But both Catholics and Protestants – the second-largest religious group – have been widely influenced by centuries of indigenous and African folkloric traditions. Slaves brought from West Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries carried with them a system of animistic beliefs that they passed on through generations of their descendants.
The santos (small carved figurines representing saints) that have been staple products of Puerto Rican artists for centuries descend to some degree from Santería beliefs in the powers of the saints (although many Puerto Ricans may not be aware of the sources of this worship). Many Puerto Ricans keep a collection of their favorite santos enshrined in a place of honor in their homes, similar to shrines that West Africa’s Yoruba people keep for their orishas (spirits), like Yemanjá, the goddess of the sea.
Belief in the magical properties of small carved gods also recalls the island’s early inhabitants, the Taíno, who worshipped little stone cemíes (figurines) and believed in jupías, spirits of the dead who roam the island at night to cause mischief.
Tens of thousands of islanders consult with curanderos (healers) when it comes to problems of love, health, employment, finance and revenge. Islanders also spend significant amounts of money in botánicas: shops that sell herbs, plants, charms, holy water and books on performing spirit rituals.
Though the silent, stone-lined Taíno ball courts of Tibes and Caguana pay homage to Puerto Rico’s long dedication to sports, they speak nothing of the ferocious energy that fires the competitive spirit of islanders today. For such a geographically small place, Puerto Rico plays a disproportionately large role in modern sport, especially in boxing and baseball.
Puerto Rico’s official pastime is béisbol (baseball), a modern game that bears a vague resemblance to the ceremonial batú of Taíno ancestors and draws telling parallels with the island’s contemporary economic and cultural relationship with the US. As much as Puerto Rico’s beleaguered economy is reliant on support from the US federal government, the Liga de Béisbol Profesional Roberto Clemente (Professional Baseball League Roberto Clemente; www.ligapr.com) – named after the legendary player of the early 1970s – is bankrolled by America's own Major League Baseball (MLB).
Players with island roots often make their most significant contributions to the Puerto Rican diaspora while working in New York and Chicago. The pros that rise from the island’s stadiums are often celebrated as icons when they make it to the big time in the US.
While the official pastime gets plenty of lip service and Puerto Ricans follow the US Major Leagues avidly, the great passion for baseball is found in school and amateur leagues, although the Puerto Rican pros play a full season, November to January. These winter league games, as they are called, attract diehard fans, and – importantly – scouts from the major league teams in the US. Currently there are six teams in the league. Catching a winter league game can be a terrific cultural experience and it’s dirt cheap by American standards. Tickets are usually around $10 or less and a cold beer will only set you back $3. San Juan's Hiram Bithorn Stadium is a great place to watch a game.
US Major League teams also hold spring training camps in Puerto Rico and regularly use the island’s league as a farm team. Early-season exhibition games are held in spring, including the televised San Juan Series, at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium.
Puerto Rico began competing in the Olympic Games in 1948 and has never taken home a gold medal. But at the 2004 summer games, the island made history when the Puerto Rican men’s basketball team – in its first showing at the Olympics – upset the USA ‘Dream Team’ in their opening game, the first defeat of USA men’s basketball since the Olympic committee allowed professional NBA players to participate. Facing off against the biggest names in the sport, including LeBron James and Allen Iverson, Puerto Rico was led by a pair of players who sported Utah Jazz jerseys in the regular season, Carlos Arroyo and José Ortiz. The team did not win a medal in the games, but became instant national heroes. Visitors can catch basketball almost year-round, watching teams participating in Puerto Rico’s own pro league, the Baloncesto Superior Nacional (www.bsnpr.com) or the international Premiere Basketball League (http://thepbl.com), which has teams from the US and Canada.
Puerto Rico has spawned enough fighters to fill its own boxing Hall of Fame, including the youngest world champion in boxing history and one of the sport’s greatest-ever knockout specialists.
The standard was set in the 1930s when wily bantamweight Sixto Escobar became the first Puerto Rican to win a world championship belt, knocking out Mexican Baby Casanova in Montreal in 1936. In his homeland, Escobar – from Barceloneta on the north coast – became an overnight hero.
The 1970s introduced the two Wilfredos – Benitez and Gómez. Wilfredo Benitez, nicknamed ‘The Radar,’ was a Puerto Rican childhood boxing sensation. Raised in New York City, he became the youngest-ever world champion when he defeated Colombian Antonio Cervantes in a World Junior Welterweight championship bout in San Juan in 1976. Benitez, just 17 at the time, defended his title three times before losing to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1979. Gómez, known affectionately as Bazooka, was a punching phenomenon from San Juan who retains one of the highest knockout ratios, with 42 knockouts in 46 fights. Rated number 13 in Ring magazine’s list of all-time best punchers, Gómez was the subject of the 2003 documentary Bazooka: The Battles of Wilfredo Gómez.
As much a showman as a fighter, Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho was Puerto Rico’s most flamboyant star. Born in Bayamón but raised in New York, Camacho aped the style of Muhammad Ali by leaping into the ring dressed as Captain America before a fight. During a 20-year career he fought everyone from Roberto Duran to Julio César Chávez and tested loyalties in his homeland in an all–Puerto Rican world-title fight against Felix Trinidad.
Trinidad, from Cupey Alto, is another modern boxing legend who won world titles at three different weights, including a 1999 victory over Oscar de la Hoya, after which he received a hero’s welcome at San Juan's airport.
Puerto Ricans continue to score well in boxing. One of the greatest recent stars is Danny García, son of legendary trainer Angelo García. He's been on a roll since he won the world welterweight title in 2010. José Pedraza also achieved fame after winning the super featherweight title in 2011.
Monica Puig, Puerto Rico's most successful modern-era tennis player, created history in 2016 by becoming the first Latin American woman to win gold at the Olympic Games, and the first to win Olympic gold whilst representing Puerto Rico.
Women in Puerto Rico
Puerto Rican culture, like much of Latin American, is too often stigmatized as a ‘macho’ world where women play traditional roles, bearing children, cooking meals and caring for the home. Stereotypes paint Puerto Rican men in a similarly simplistic light – possessive, jealous and prone to wild acts of desperation when in love. Although many women generally perform all those duties (and more) in the most traditional Puerto Rican family structures, recent history has seen the island break significantly with the punitive gender discrimination that can be common in other Latin American countries and throughout the Caribbean. But a more substantive look at Puerto Rican culture reveals a much greater complexity to the role of women in contemporary Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rican women have excelled at business, trade, sport and, most importantly, politics – often with more measurable achievement than their counterparts in the United States. San Juan elected a female mayor decades before a woman won a comparable office in the US and, in 2000, Sila María Calderón was elected governor of Puerto Rico. She ran on a campaign that promised to end government corruption, and clean house she did. In the US, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is of Puerto Rican descent and has strong ties to the island.
Other women’s issues that tend to be loaded with political and social baggage in the United States have a relatively progressive position in Puerto Rican culture. For instance, abortion is legal in Puerto Rico (although the rest of the Caribbean, outside of Cuba, is uniformly opposed to it). In Puerto Rico, even socially conservative politicians remain acutely aware of the effects of a high birthrate on family living and quality of life.
The effect that the relatively progressive place women have in Puerto Rican society has on travelers is very noticeable for women traveling alone. Although typical safety precautions should be followed, solo women travelers attract much less attention than in other corners of Latin America.
Puerto Rico's intangible folk culture, the esotericism of its myths and cultural peculiarities dating back to Taíno times, were always passed down generation to generation in the island's remoter locales. The first writer to commit those to prose was Cayetano Coll y Toste in his Leyendas y Tradiciones Puertorriqueñas (1925).
In 2015, the statisticians produced one of their most damning stats about Puerto Rico yet: for the first time in history, more Puerto Ricans were living in the continental US (4.9 million) than there were in Puerto Rico (3.5 million).
Practice your Spanish by reading El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s biggest-selling daily newspaper, online at www.elnuevodia.com (it's got an English section, too).
El Boricua is an online monthly bilingual cultural magazine for Puerto Ricans worldwide. It can be found at www.elboricua.com. The word boricua derives from the Taíno borikén, meaning 'land of the great and valiant Lord.'
Legal since the 1930s, peleas de gallos (cockfighting) is a passionate pastime for Puerto Ricans. Abhorred by animal rights groups, the ‘sport’ entails placing specially bred and trained gallos de pelea (fighting cocks) in a pit to battle each other to the death, in fights lasting about 20 minutes.
Puerto Rico’s Landscapes
It is the astonishing beaches that captivate most minds planning a first visit to Puerto Rico. But as seasoned aficionados know, the sand and surf intimate only a part of the full, rich picture of the topography. Shores also yield internationally crucial swathes of mangrove reserve, and behind the beachside hotels the mythical, densely forested contours of the Central Mountains cascade invitingly upwards. The island rears a number of crops: bananas, coffee, yams and citrons are of great importance.
Many organizations working to protect Puerto Rico's environment also offer excellent tours or activities that visitors can join.
Surfrider Foundation (www.surfrider.org) Puerto Rico's beaches get a lot of use, and often they get littered: this organization arranges beach cleanups, and you can get involved, or ask them about their other environmental projects.
Corporación Piñones Se Integra A non-profit that strives to preserve and restore San Juan's urban waterways; you can support them by renting a kayak or bicycle to explore the waterways and other unsung areas of the metro area.
Para la Naturaleza Operates a number of private nature reserves and has many volunteer projects available to participate in on its website.
Puerto Rico has long suffered from a number of serious environmental problems, including population growth and rapid urbanization, deforestation, erosion of soil, water pollution and mangrove destruction. While Puerto Ricans still have a long way to go toward undoing generations of damage and preserving their natural resources, the past few decades have seen an increase in the level of awareness, resources and action dedicated to conservation efforts.
Current Environmental Issues
Current issues include deforestation, heavy-metal pollution, mangrove protection, population growth and water pollution. Also, visitors can be part of the problem of environmental protection as well as part of the solution.
Deforestation & Soil Erosion
Clear-cut logging operations ended in the 20th century, leaving untold acres of rich mountain topsoil plugging the mouths of rivers and streams. In the 1920s and ’30s, conservationists and the US colonial government set aside and reforested an extensive network of wilderness reserves, mostly in karst country and the Central Mountains. Today these reserves are mature forests and cover nearly the entire central part of the island – about one-third of Puerto Rico’s landmass. Meanwhile, the demands of development continue to threaten unprotected natural areas.
Both the land and sea life around Vieques were literally under siege from the US government during the years of naval bombardment. The US Navy left Vieques in 2003 and the island was deemed a Superfund site shortly after the pullout. Though progress has been made, much of the Vieques National Wildlife Refuge is closed to the public until heavy metals, unexploded ordnance and leftover fuels and chemicals can be taken care of.
Widespread economic development after WWII devastated vast mangrove swamps, particularly along the island’s north shore. In the 1990s, progress was made in reversing this damage, including the creation of a 2883-acre nature reserve at Bahía de Jobos on the south coast.
Environmentalists had more reason to celebrate in 2013 with the creation of the Corredor Ecológico del Noreste (Northeast Ecological Corridor), which will protect some 3000 acres of mangroves, beaches and sea-turtle nesting sites on the north coast east of Luquillo.
Population Growth & Urbanization
Population growth and rapid urbanization have long posed the greatest threats to the island’s environment, although this has moderated somewhat, simply because the population is falling as people head to the US mainland looking for work. Still, Puerto Rico currently has a higher population density than any of the 50 US states, with an average of 408 people per sq km. It also supports one of the highest concentrations of roads in the world (certainly the bumpiest).
Unchecked development has long been Puerto Rico’s biggest environmental threat. Big developers and hotel companies regularly eye the country’s lush coastline and pristine beaches in search of their next site. As economically beneficial as tourism might be, its continued expansion could lead to a law of diminishing returns. In their quest to make a livelihood from tourism, some have ended up causing extensive damage, as in the case of the bioluminescent bay at La Parguera, where oil pollution from tourist boats has significantly dimmed the luminescent glow.
Many streams, rivers and estuaries on the coastal plain have been polluted by agricultural runoff, industry and inadequate sewer systems. Environmental groups lobbying for the cleanup of these cesspools have made little headway. Visitors should not be tempted to swim in rivers, streams or estuaries near the coast. On a positive note, efforts are being made to clean up San Juan's urban estuaries.
Territorial Parks & Reserves
Puerto Rico has more than a dozen well-developed and protected wilderness areas, which offer an array of exploration and a few camping opportunities. Most of these protected areas are considered reservas forestales (forest reserves) or bosques estatales (state forests), although these identifiers are often treated interchangeably in government-issued literature and maps. Commonwealth or US federal agencies administer most of the natural reserves on the island, and admission to these areas is generally free.
Private conservation groups own and operate a few of the nature preserves, including Las Cabezas de San Juan and Humacao Nature Reserve in the east. The best time to visit nearly all of the parks is from November to March; however, Bosque Estatal de Guánica is an inviting destination year-round.
Major Parks & Reserves
El Yunque National Forest The emerald 28,000-acre highlight of the island’s parks is this misty, magnificent rainforest. Dotted with idyllic waterfalls and covered in dense flora, it’s home to some of Puerto Rico’s most wild and endangered animals. With the island’s best trails, El Yunque's lush forests and sun-splashed peaks are ideal for hiking and mountain biking.
Bosque Estatal de Guánica An immense patch of 10,000 acres on the southwest coast, this huge park is home to a tropical dry-forest ecosystem and a Unesco biosphere forest. Its arid scenery and beautiful birds make it good for hiking, swimming, biking and birdwatching.
Reserva Forestal Toro Negro This ruggedly beautiful and central mountainous park has landscapes that are as spectacular as El Yunque’s, but with none of the infrastructure. If you want to get off the map (literally), this is the place.
Las Cabezas de San Juan This notable 316-acre coastal preserve is at the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. El Faro (the lighthouse) stands guard over the offshore cays. Its paved trails and interpretive centers make this a fine place for families, and it's a great spot to view the Laguna Grande bioluminescent bay.
Bosque Estatal de Río Abajo Densely forested and dotted with development, this state forest covers 5000 acres in karst country near the Observatorio de Arecibo. It has hiking trails and an aviary, where the Department of Natural Resources is working to reintroduce the Puerto Rican parrot and other endangered species.
Isla Mona The most isolated of Puerto Rico’s nature sanctuaries lies about 50 miles west of Mayagüez, across the often-turbulent waters of Pasaje de la Mona. This tabletop island is sometimes called Puerto Rico’s Galápagos or Jurassic Park because of its isolation. It’s a tag made all the more eerie by the island’s 200ft limestone cliffs, honeycomb caves and giant iguanas. Come here for solitude, hiking and caving.
Vieques National Wildlife Refuge Glimmering to the east are the ‘Spanish Virgin Islands,' Culebra and Vieques, both of which have large tracts of land designated as National Wildlife Refuges under the control of the US Fish & Wildlife Service. At 18,000 acres, the Vieques refuge is the largest protected natural reserve in Puerto Rico and home to wild turtles and iguanas. It has some of the Caribbean's best beaches; activities include snorkeling, swimming, hiking and cycling.
Puerto Rico is grouped with the Caribbean’s three largest islands – Cuba, Jamaica and Hispaniola – in the Greater Antilles, the most substantial of a series of islands that dot the waters of the Caribbean and North Atlantic. But at 178km by 65km, Puerto Rico is quite clearly the Greater Antilles’ lesser sidekick, even with its four principal satellite islands – Mona and Desecheo to the west, Culebra and Vieques to the east – and a host of cays hugging its shores.
Like almost all of the islands that sprang from the Caribbean Basin, Puerto Rico owes its existence to a series of volcanic events. These eruptions built up layers of lava and igneous rock and created an island with four distinct geographical zones: the central mountains, karst country, the coastal plain and the coastal dry forest. At the heart of the island, running east to west, stands a spine of steep, wooded mountains called the Central Mountains. The lower slopes of the cordillera give way to foothills, comprising a region on the island’s north coast known as ‘karst country.’ In this part of the island, erosion has worn away the limestone, leaving a karstic terrain of dramatic sinkholes, hillocks and caves.
Forty-five non-navigable rivers and streams rush from the mountains and through the foothills to carve the coastal valleys, particularly on the east and west ends of Puerto Rico, where sugarcane, coconuts and a variety of fruits are cultivated. The island’s longest river is the Río Grande de Loíza (64km), which flows north to the coast.
The San Fermin earthquake that hit western Puerto Rico in October 1918 measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and triggered a 20ft tsunami. The event caused more than $4 million worth of damage to the cities of Mayagüez and Aguadilla. It killed 116 people.
The National Astronomy & Ionosphere Center (www.naic.edu) website has information about the Observatorio de Arecibo and about the heavens for the general public as well as for academic types.
Puerto Rico – mainland and islands – claims almost 8900 sq km of land, making the Commonwealth about twice the size of the Mediterranean island of Corsica and a little over half the size of the US state of Connecticut.
Puerto Rico's highest point is Cerro de Punta (4389 ft/1338m) in the Central Mountains but, offshore to the north, its lows are of greater significance. The Puerto Rico Trench is the deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean, reaching a murky extent of 28,374 ft/8648m.
The Sounds of Puerto Rico
The music of Puerto Rico is a sonic reflection of the destination itself, a sound shaped by a dynamic history of revolution, colonialism and the cultural crosscurrents that blow between the island, New York City, Spain and Africa.The sound synonymous with Puerto Rico is certainly salsa, but that which pounds from the open doorways of most of the island’s nightspots these days is usually reggaetón, a blazing blend of hip-hop and thudding Caribbean syncopations.
Popular Music & its Roots
To cram for your history lesson on Puerto Rican music in under four minutes, cue up ‘Tradicional A Lo Bravo,’ a hugely popular single from Puerto Rican reggaetón hitmaker Tego Calderon. Calderon’s rapid-fire lyrical delivery and the pounding syncopated bass line is emblematic of the reggaetón movement, but the song also borrows a little something from the important musical traditions of the island. The brassy horns pay homage to salsa bands from the 1960s. The nylon string guitar nods to colonial traditions and jíbaro (rural troubador) music. The loping syncopation of the hand drums reference African-rooted Puerto Rican bomba. Somewhere, hidden among Calderon’s potent swagger, you’ll even hear the grinding scrape of a güiro, a percussion instrument made from a notched, hollowed gourd, which was a part of the musical battery of indigenous Taíno tribes.
From the lilt of precolonial folk music to the macho assault of reggaetón, Puerto Rican music has been an evolving part of, not a departure from, past traditions. Puerto Rico has also always been a musical melting pot and remains so today. The island’s musical genres can shift as quickly as they are defined, shaped by strong influences from the US, Europe and across Latin America. These dynamic hybrids, whether present in reggaetón or contemporary rock, are a fundamental quality of the music. Then and now, these traditions often place as much importance on dancefloor expressions as on the sound itself.
Bomba y Plena
The bewildering conflux of traditions that collide in Puerto Rican music can be seen in the earliest popular music on the island, bomba y plena, two distinct yet often associated types of folk music. With origins in European, African and native Caribbean cultures, this is the basis for many of the sounds still associated with Puerto Rico and, like salsa, a musical form inexorably tied with dance.
The most directly African in origin is the bomba, a music developed by West- and Central-African slaves who worked on sugar plantations. A typical bomba ensemble included drums made from rum barrels and goatskin, palitos or cuás (wooden sticks that are hit together or on other wooden surfaces), maracas and sometimes a güiro. In the oldest forms (documented as early as the 1680s), dancers led the band, furiously competing with each other and the percussionists in an increasingly frenzied physical and rhythmic display. The tunes ended when either dancer or drummer became too exhausted to continue. Loíza Aldea, on the northeast coast, claims bomba as its invention, and the streets rumble with it throughout summer, particularly during the Fiesta de Santiago, which begins during the last week of July.
Plena, which originated in the more urban region around Ponce, is also drum-based but with lighter textures and a less forceful beat. Introduced by cocolocos, slaves who migrated north from islands south of Puerto Rico, plena uses an assortment of handheld percussion instruments. Locals once referred to the form as el periodico cantado (the sung newspaper), because the songs typically recounted, and often satirized, current events. The plena beat has strongly syncopated African roots and is a close cousin to calypso, soca and dancehall music from Trinidad and Jamaica.
Bomba y plena developed side by side on the coastal lowlands, and inventive musicians eventually realized the call-and-response of bomba would work well with plena’s satirical lyrical nature, which is why the forms are often played back-to-back by ensembles. If you catch bomba y plena today, a historically accurate performance will be rare; in the 1950s a modernization of the sound paved the way for salsa by often adding horns and other European instruments, pan-Caribbean rhythmic elements and the clatter of Cuban percussion.
Puerto Rico Playlist
It’s nearly a crime to distil three generations of Puerto Rico’s vibrant club music into an iPod playlist, but the following romp includes singles spanning half a century, from classic salsa to contemporary reggaetón. If nothing else, use this as a starter to discover the diverse and unexpected charms of Puerto Rican music.
Tito Puente ‘Ran Kan Kan,’ Babarabatiri (1951)
Cortijo Y Su Combo ‘El Bombon De Elena,’ …Invites You to Dance (1957)
Celia Cruz ‘Chango Ta Vani,’ La Incomparable (1958)
Willie Colón ‘Te Conozco,’ Cosa Nuestra (1969)
El Gran Combo De Puerto Rico ‘No Hay Cama Pa’ Tanta Gente,’ Nuestra Musica (1971)
Ismael Marinda ‘Se Casa La Rumba,’ Abran Paso! (1972)
Eddie Palmieri ‘Nunca Contigo,’ The Sun of Latin Music (1973)
Fania All-Stars ‘Ella Fue (She Was the One),’ Rhythm Machine (1977)
Frankie Ruiz ‘Me Dejó,’ Mas Grande Que Nunca (1989)
Marvin Santiago ‘Fuego A La Jicotea,’ Fuego A La Jicotea (1991)
Vico C ‘Calla,’ Aquel Que Había Muerto (1998)
Yuri Buenaventura ‘Salsa,’Yo Soy (2000)
Tego Calderon ‘Guasa, Guasa’ from Abayarde (2003)
Daddy Yankee ‘Plane to PR,’ El Cartel: The Big Boss (2007)
Tito el Bambino ‘El Tra,’ It’s My Time (2007)
Don Chezina ‘Songorocosongo,’ Tributo Urbano A Hector Lavoe (2008)
Calle 13 ‘No Hay Nadie Como Tú,’ Los de Atrás Vienen Conmigo (2009)
Kany Garcia ‘Feliz,’ Boleto De Entrada (2009)
Cultura Profética ‘Baja La Tension,’ La Dulzura (2010)
Marlow Rosado y La Riqueña 'No Me Digan Que Es Muy Tarde Ya,' Retro (2012)
Los Wálters 'Porsche,' Verano Panorámico (2014)
The raucous bastard-child of reggae, salsa and hip-hop is reggaetón, a rough-and-tumble urban sound that took over the unpaved streets of Loíza Aldea, the Caribbean’s answer to the ethos of American thug life. On a trip to a Puerto Rican nightclub, reggaetón dominates the turntables, and you’ll likely wake up the next morning with your ears ringing.
As the name suggests, it draws heavily on reggae, though the simplest reduction of its sound is a Spanish-language hip-hop driven by the crushing bass of Jamaican raga, a bossy, electro-infused spin on reggae. An aggressive strain of reggaetón developed in urban areas of Puerto Rico in the 1980s, circulated underground on self-released mix tapes. In the 1990s it incorporated thunderous elements of Jamaican raga and came unto its own. Toss in the thud of a drum machine and some X-rated lyrics and you have yourself a bona fide musical revolution.
Unlike most traditionally postured Puerto Rican music/dance combos, reggaetón dancefloors feature a deliriously oversexed free-for-all, with its most popular move known as perreo, or dog dance – which leaves little to the imagination. Reggaetón stars such as Tego Calderon, Daddy Yankee, Don Omar and Ivy Queen have hit the mainstream.
For most gringos, salsa’s definition as a catch-all term for the interconnected jumble of Latin and Afro-Caribbean dances and sounds isn’t easy to get a handle on, but for those who live in its areas of origin – Puerto Rico, Cuba and New York City – it’s as much a lifestyle as a genre, with cultural complexities that go well beyond the ‘spicy’ jargon that’s often bandied about.
Salsa tunes might sound vastly different from one another. They can be slow or brisk, flippant or heartrending. Salsa was born in the nightclubs of New York City in the 1960s and remains an iconic sound today.
Though salsa’s faithful took plenty of solace in Fania records from the '80s, it wasn’t until the 1990s that a modern Nuyorican – salsa crooner Marc Anthony, aka ex-Mr JLo – brought salsa back from the brink of obscurity and into a blinding popular spotlight, braiding its traditional elements with those of sleek and shiny modern Latino pop.
Although Anthony and Lopez remain salsa’s premier couple, American audiences have also had fleeting infatuations with another Puerto Rican, Ricky Martin (Mr La Vida Loca). More recent Puerto Rican pop stars, such as the smart, jazz-fused group Cultura Profética, pick and choose the elements of the island’s traditional sound to weave into contemporary records.
But the neo-traditionalist salsa from Bronx-born Puerto Rican singer India and heartthrob crooner Manny Manuel carry the torch from the graying generation who invented it. There are a number of new ensembles who keep turning out the salsa hits in rotation on Puerto Rican radio, though most of them hail from New York City. Watch for the superb El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico, a large group of masters who've packed festivals in the US and on the island for over 50 years. Also pretty cutting edge is Grammy winner Marlow Rosado y La Riqueña, fronted by the namesake composer/producer who mixes salsa, reggaetón, rock and more. And Marc Anthony continues to release chart-topping albums, most recently 3.0, a salsa album featuring 'Vivir Mi Vida.'
The Birth & Near-Death of Salsa
It's wonderfully appropriate that salsa is called just that, given the number of sound styles that melded in Puerto Rico to produce the sound that was then exported to the world.
In 1964, Johnny Pacheco, a visionary producer, created Fania Records, a label that helped make salsa a wildly popular commercial success. Scores of Puerto Rican, Cuban and Nuyorican singers became household names in the '60s, and when Carlos Santana’s now-ubiquitous rock song ‘Oye Como Va’ hit the music stores in 1969, it may have marked the crest of the Latin wave.
Though the craze left a mark on American pop and jazz traditions, the crowds dwindled in subsequent decades as musical tastes shifted radically in the late 1970s. While Puerto Rican youth turned to rock-and-roll imports from the US through the '80s, traditionalists celebrated the sappy salsa romantica typified by crooners such as José Alberto.
The Source of the Sauce
In addition to the mishmash of African traditions that spread through the islands via the slave trade, Cuba’s son – a traditional style that was widely reintroduced to global audiences in the '90s through Buena Vista Social Club – is a crucial ingredient in salsa. Originating in eastern Cuba, son first became popular in the 1850s, mixing guitar-based Spanish cancións and Afro-Cuban percussion, a fundamental formula that still makes the foundation of many salsa songs. Variations include the rumba, mambo and cha-cha.
Another element of salsa is merengue, which took root in Puerto Rico’s neighboring island, the Dominican Republic, where it is the national dance. With its even-paced steps and a signature roll of the hips, it’s probably the easiest Latin dance for beginners. Compared with salsa, the rhythmic underpinning has a more rigid structure, and though the music can gallop along at a wild pace, dancers keep their upper body in a graceful, poised stance.
Of all the variations that helped bring salsa into being, none is more important than the mambo – a flamboyant style of music and dance that marries elements of swinging American jazz with son. Again, the musical dialogue of the Caribbean islands is evident right down to the style’s name; mambo is a Haitian word for a vodou priestess. It started in Cuba in the 1930s and soon spread to Puerto Rico and the US, where mambo became a cross-over fad.
The ‘Bridge’ of Tito Puente
Puerto Ricans and Cubans jovially argue over who invented salsa, but the truth is neither island can claim to be the commercial center of salsa success. That honor belongs to the offshore colony known as El Barrio: the Latin Quarter, Spanish Harlem, New York City. In the euphoria following the end of WWII, New York’s nightclub scene boomed as dancers came in droves to bump and grind to the sound of mambo bands. At the time, the music carried a basic Latin syncopated beat, punctuated by horn sections that were typical of the great swing bands of Stan Kenton and Count Basie.
Then young Puerto Rican drummer Tito Puente came into the picture. After serving three years in the US Navy during the war and attending New York’s Juilliard School of Music, Puente began playing and composing for Cuban bands in New York City. He gained notoriety for spicing up the music with a host of rhythms with roots in Puerto Rican bomba.
Puente became a star and the face of the salsa boom, bridging cultural divides with his music decades before multiculturalism was even considered a real word. Shortly after the legendary five-time Grammy winner's death in 2000, at the age of 77, a stretch of road in Harlem – East 112th St at Lexington Ave – was renamed Tito Puente Way.
Puerto Rican Folk
The earliest folk music on the island started with the percussion and wind instruments of the Taíno, and grew to incorporate elements as disparate as the island’s ethnic composition: Spanish guitars, European parlor music and drums, and rhythms from West Africa. Indigenous instruments include at least half a dozen guitar-like string instruments that are native to the island, such as the aptly named four-string guitar-like cuatro.
In the mountains, sentimental and twangy folk music was played on cuatros by rural troubadours, called jíbaros, whose costume often includes a ragged straw hat. A number of traditional jíbaro songs – mostly rooted in some kind of Western European parlor music – are still popular at island weddings and family gatherings. An aguinaldo is sung by groups of wandering carolers at Christmastime, with lyrics that often explain the traditions of the holiday (perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the most famous ones include singing about pork).
Perhaps the most structurally complex of the island’s folk music, danza is considered Puerto Rico’s classical music. Danza’s exact lineage is unknown, but it’s generally considered to be modeled after contradanza, a social music and dance from Europe. Danza popularity blossomed in 1840 when it incorporated new music and dance steps called habaneras (another export of Cuba).
Puerto Rican Music: Alive & Kicking
Through slush and snow, you’ve been daydreaming all winter about that idyllic Puerto Rican night on the town, when rum flows like water, the band is hot as a tin roof and the likelihood of dislocating something on the dancefloor is high. Catching live traditional music isn’t as easy as you might hope, but the following San Juan nightspots are known for salsa.
- Nuyorican Café San Juan’s coziest dancefloor hosts live combos playing traditional favorites.
- Club Brava In a resort but known for its mix of house, reggaetón and salsa.
- La Placita de Santurce The infamous Friday-night street party that attracts salsa bands.
- El San Juan Hotel Lobby Live salsa and meringue bands belie the seemingly staid surrounds.
The Puerto Rican Cuatro Project (www.cuatro-pr.org) is a nonprofit organization that has adopted the island’s national instrument as a means of keeping its cultural memories alive. Its website is a must for those seeking to learn about Puerto Rican musical traditions.
Menudo was one of the original boy bands conceived by producer Edgardo Díaz in 1977. It went on to record phenomenal worldwide success with a brand of light teen pop music and celebrated former members such as Ricky Martin.
- Willie Colón and Ruben Blades: Siembra (1978) – An essential in any salsa collection.
- Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco: Celia & Johnny (1974) – Deliriously sassy and brassy.
- Ismael Miranda: Asi Se Compone Un Son (1973) – A romp through salsa standards.
Puerto Rico’s national anthem, ‘La Borinqueña,’ is actually a danza that was later subtly altered in order to make it sound more grandiose and anthem-like.
José Feliciano, a six-time Grammy award winner, taught himself to play guitar despite being born blind. He remains one of Puerto Rico’s most successful crossover pop stars.
Puerto Rican music started garnering big attention outside the Spanish-speaking world with the success of San Juan–born Enrique Martín Morales (better known to the planet as Ricky Martin). Martin's 1999 single 'Livin' La Vida Loca' plonked Puerto Rican pop on the planet's music map.
The most comprehensive online resource about Puerto Rican music is Music of Puerto Rico (www.musicofpuertorico.com).
Wildlife of Puerto Rico
Seeking out the wildlife of Puerto Rico can be very rewarding. The island’s jungle-clad mountains and surreal variety of terrain – including some of the wettest and driest forests in the subtropical climate – have a bit of everything (albeit no huge beasts or flocks of colorful birds). The island’s most famous creature is the humble common coqui. The nocturnal serenade of this small endemic frog is the poignant soundtrack of the island, an ever-present reminder of Puerto Rico’s precious natural environment.
Amphibians & Reptiles
Puerto Rico's long coastline is one of its most inviting environments to both human and animal visitors. Despite heavy development, a handful of the island’s beaches are still nesting sites for two of the world’s most critically endangered turtles, the hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles. An excellent place to view the nesting process is on the isolated northern beaches of the island of Culebra.
The hawksbill and leatherback sea turtles are among the 61 species of reptiles and 25 species of amphibians on the island – one of the most diverse collections of such animals in the world. Certainly the most famous amphibian is the tiny but highly vocal coquí frog (its distinctive nighttime croak has been measured at 10 decibels), which has been adopted as a national symbol. But it's not the only frog on the show. The sapo concho, the Commonwealth's only endemic toad, has done something the coqui never could: close roads. Parts of Hwy 333 along the south coast of Bosque Estatal de Guánica have been fenced off to help protect this endangered creature's breeding grounds, and results have paid off: toad numbers are jumping up again.
Iguanas are often kept as semiwild pets and pose unlikely obstacles on numerous Puerto Rican golf courses. The most notable wild species is the Mona ground iguana, which still survives in large numbers on the western island of Mona – often dubbed the Galápagos of the Caribbean because of its unique biological diversity. You’ll find other iguanas lazily eyeing your lunch at outdoor restaurants island-wide, domesticated to the point where French fries from tourists seem to comprise most of their diet (although human food can be deadly).
Though not native to the island, spectacled caimans have become somewhat of a pest in the areas around Laguna Tortuguero on the north coast. Introduced as a macho pet in the 1990s, many of these minicrocs were abandoned by their owners and dumped in the vicinity of Puerto Rico’s only freshwater lake, where they have played havoc with the fragile ecosystem.
Puerto Rico boasts 11 varieties of snake, none of which are poisonous. The most impressive is the Puerto Rican boa, which averages 7ft in length; it is also endangered, but hikers may spot one in the karst region of the northwestern state forests and in El Yunque.
Birds & Bugs
With more than 250 species spread over 3500 sq miles, Puerto Rico is an excellent place to dust off your binoculars and engage in a bit of tropical birdwatching. The Commonwealth’s most famous bird is also one of its rarest: the elusive Puerto Rican parrot (aka the Puerto Rican Amazon). Numbers of the bright-green bird were down in the mid teens during the 1970s, but thanks to concerted conservation efforts the wild population has recovered to a still-precarious 60 to 80. The parrots exist in the wild in the El Yunque and Río Abajo forest reserves, although seeing one is akin to winning a lottery ticket.
Among the 17 endemic birds is the Puerto Rican tody, a small green, yellow and red creature that frequents the moist mountains of the Cordillera Central and the dense thickets of the south coast where it feeds on insects.
The coastal dry forest of Guánica might be the biggest draw for serious birdwatchers looking to whittle down their life list. It features more than 130 bird species, comprising largely of songbirds. Some of these are migratory birds, such as the prairie warbler and the northern parula. Many are nonmigratory species, including the lizard cuckoo and the critically endangered Puerto Rican nightjar.
Along the coast, one of the joys of winter beachcombing is watching the aerial acrobatics of brown pelicans as they hunt for fish. Stray out along the salt flats and far-flung headlands of Cabo Rojo, a migratory ground for 25 bird species, and you may glimpse another of the island's endemic feathered friends, the yellow-shouldered blackbird.
The island also has a supply of unusual flying and crawling insects, including a large tropical relative of the firefly called the cucubano, and a centipede measuring more than 6in in length with a sting that can kill. Much to the chagrin of generations of foreign visitors there are also zillions of blood-hungry mosquitoes.
Hiking for the Birds
Exotic birdlife is the wildlife of choice to spot on nature hikes. The most obvious destination for budding ornithologists is El Yunque National Forest, situated close to the capital. The El Portal Visitors Center on Hwy 191 has good, basic information on the local birdlife. Another choice is Bosque Estatal de Guánica, where the solitude of the trails may help facilitate spying some of the 130-odd bird species found there.
The island’s richest species diversity can be spied in the Cabo Rojo area, particularly around Las Salinas salt flats, where migratory birds from as far away as Canada populate a unique and highly varied ecosystem. Call in at the Centro Interpretativos Las Salinas de Cabo Rojo to speak with informed local experts.
Bright Lights, Black Water
There are seven known regions worldwide that are phosphorescent – meaning they glow in the dark thanks to micro-organisms called dynoflagellates living in the water – but Puerto Rico’s are considered among the brightest and the best.
There are three places on the island to see this psychedelic phenomenon: Bahía Mosquito in Vieques, Laguna Grande north of Fajardo and Bahía de Fosforescente at La Parguera. The most abundant of the many organisms in Puerto Rico’s ‘phosphorous’ bays is Pirodinium bahamense. The term ‘Pirodinium’ comes from ‘pyro,’ meaning fire, and ‘dirium,’ meaning rotate.
When movement disturbs these creatures, a chemical reaction takes place in their little bodies that makes a flash. Scientists speculate that dynoflagellates have developed this ability to ward off predators.
You can see these micro-organisms flashing like tiny stars in Atlantic waters as far north as New England in summer, but never in the brilliant concentrations appearing in Puerto Rico. Enclosed mangrove bays, where narrow canals limit the exchange of water with the open sea, are the places that let the dynoflagellates breed and concentrate. In a sense, the bay is a big trap and vitamins produced along the shore provide food for the corralled micro-organisms.
Not surprisingly, bioluminescent bays support precarious ecosystems. To avoid damaging them, only book tours with operators who use kayaks or electric motors. Island Adventures is on Vieques, which has the best bay of the three. Kayaking Puerto Rico covers the Fajardo bay, which is the second-best option.
In La Parguera, home to the third bay, most tour operators only use motorized engines and are not recommended. The bioluminescence has been greatly reduced as a consequence. If you’re offered a ride, check that it will be in a boat that’s safe for the environment, or in a kayak with an operator like Aleli Tours.
Puerto Rico’s tropical climate and unique rain patterns create a veritable greenhouse for a huge variety of plant life, which thrives on tropical heat, tons of rain and lots of moisture in the air. As soon as you leave San Juan’s urban zone and head into the mountains, you’ll see green everywhere.
Mangrove swamps and coconut groves dominate the north coast, while the El Yunque rainforest, at the east end of the island, supports mahogany trees and more than 50 varieties of wild orchid. Giant ferns thrive in the rainforest as well as in the foothills of karst country, while cacti, mesquite forest and bunchgrass reign on the dry southwest tip of the island, resembling the look of the African savanna. The dry forests near Guánica grow a variety of cacti, thorny scrub brush and plants equipped for harsh, dry conditions.
The hills of the Cordillera Central are densely forested and flowering trees punctuate the landscape. Look for the butterfly tree, with its light-pink flower resembling an orchid, the bright orange exclamation of the African tulip and the deep red of the royal poinciana, which are cultivated near the Christmas season.
Exotic shade trees have long been valued in this sunny climate, and most of the island’s municipal plazas sit beneath canopies of magnificent ceibas or kapoks (silk-cotton trees), the flamboyán (poinciana), with its flame-red blossoms, and the African tulip tree.
Islanders often adorn their homes with a profusion of flowers, such as orchids, bougainvillea and poinsettias, and tend lovingly to fruit trees that bear bananas, papaya, uva caleta (sea grape), carambola (star fruit), panapen (breadfruit) and plátano (plantain). Never do the floral hues of Puerto Rico come together on song more than at Aibonito's Festival de Flores in June.
Of course, sugarcane dominates the plantations of the coastal lowlands, while farmers raise coffee on the steep slopes of the Cordillera Central.
Very few of the land mammals that make their home in Puerto Rico are native to the island; most mammal species – from rats to cows – have been accidentally or intentionally introduced to the island over the centuries.
Bats are the only native terrestrial mammal in Puerto Rico. They exist in large numbers in the caves of karst country, but most travelers will only catch glimpses at dusk while visiting Bosque Estatal de Cambalache or the Cavernas del Río Camuy.
Puerto Rico is also home to the distinctive Paso Fino horse, a small-boned, easy-gaited variety. The Paso Finos have been raised in Puerto Rico since the time of the Spanish conquest, when they were introduced to the New World to supply the conquistadores on their expeditions throughout Mexico and the rest of the Americas. The horses are most dramatic on the island of Vieques, where they roam in semiwild herds across the landscape, although the animals are also celebrated in a festival in the south coast town of Guayama.
Other mammals of interest to travelers are two small colonies of monkeys, both introduced by scientists. The first lives on the 39-acre Cayo Santiago where a group of rhesus monkeys arrived for scientific study in 1938. Today they’ve burgeoned into a community of more than 900 primates and can be spotted from snorkeling tour boats. The second scientific monkey colony that grew out of control is on Isla de Monos off La Parguera, which is a standard part of the tour of the mangrove canals.
Spending time in the water off Puerto Rico’s shores at the right time of year can reveal excellent marine life. Pods of humpback whales breed in the island’s warm waters in winter. In the late winter of 2010, southern shores off the island also saw more orca (killer whales) than ever before recorded. Local fishermen attribute this to the relatively warm waters of the Caribbean bringing more dolphins for the orca to eat. Most whale-watching tour operators leave from Rincón, with the tour season usually beginning in early December and ending in March.
Though looking for whales may be a hit with tourists, the Antillean manatee (the town of Manatí, on the north coast, is named after the mammal) is more dear to Puerto Ricans. These so-called sea cows inhabit shallow coastal areas to forage on sea grasses and plants. Manatee numbers have dropped in recent decades due to habitat loss, poaching and entanglement with fishing nets, but they are generally thought to be coming back. To see a manatee, rent a kayak and float along the mangrove-lined shores in the southeast of the island, around the Bahía de Jobos.
Of course, the majority of travelers are captivated by seeing the tropical fish and coral off the island’s shores. The continental shelf surrounds Puerto Rico on three sides and blesses the island with warm water and excellent coral reefs, seawalls and underwater features for diving and snorkeling. Especially off the west coast, the water is clear and filled with fish, including parrot fish, eels and sea horses. An abundant supply of sea grass is home to crabs, octopus, starfish and more.
Puerto Rico's biggest snake, the Puerto Rican boa, can reach 7ft in length. Found mainly in the remote northern karst forests, it's not a threat to humans.
Learn all about the coqui frog and other animals that inhabit Puerto Rico in Natural Puerto Rico by Alfonso Silva Lee, an exhaustive but entertaining book on island wildlife.
There are seven known regions worldwide that are phosphorescent – meaning they glow in the dark thanks to micro-organisms called dinoflagellates living in the water – but Puerto Rico’s are considered among the brightest and the best. Head to Bioluminescent Bay (Bahía Mosquito) in Vieques, Bahía de Fosforescente at La Parguera and Laguna Grande north of Fajardo.
For birdwatchers heading to Puerto Rico or the Caribbean, A Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands by Herbert Raffaele is a must-have. If you don't luck out and spot a wild Puerto Rican parrot, one of the 10 most endangered species in the world, there are over 300 in captivity in various zoos and sanctuaries.