The History of Puerto Rica
Populated for centuries by aboriginal peoples, the island was claimed by the Spanish Crown in 1493 following COLUMBUS’ second voyage to the Americas. In 1898, after 400 years of colonial rule – that saw the indigenous population nearly exterminated and African slave labor introduced – Puerto Rico was ceded to the US as a result of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans were granted US citizenship in 1917. Popularly-elected governors have served since 1948.
In 1952, a constitution was enacted providing for internal self government. In plebiscites held in 1967, 1993, and 1998, voters chose not to alter the existing political status.
Geographically, Puerto Rico is a Caribbean hub, presiding squarely over the waters between Hispaniola and the Virgin Islands.
As a commonwealth of the US, however, it remains a world apart from its island neighbors, over a distance that can be measured not just in kilometers, but in dollars. American influence is strongest in San Juan , where even the ramparts of El Morro – which staved off European aggressors for 500 years – haven’t managed to prevent the influx of big-name American fast-food and retail chains.
However, the capital retains a distinctly Latin character at its core – with Old San Juan hosting a treasure-trove of pastel Spanish colonial architecture on exquisitely restored cobble stoned streets.
Despite the threat of overdevelopment from US dollars, most of the 35-by-100-mile island has managed to elude despoilment. Even in the crowded capital, it’s hard to find a sullied beach. Outside the major cities, nature is largely untouched – especially in the jungle, mountainous interior; on the relatively hidden beaches along the southwest coast; and on the offshore islands.
In fact, the rich natural resources and wide range of hiking, bird watching, diving and cave exploration make Puerto Rico as much a magnet for eco-tourists as for sun-worshippers.
Puerto Rican history tells us that this island has one of the most dynamic economies in the Caribbean region. A diverse industrial sector has far surpassed agriculture as the primary locus of economic activity and income.
Encouraged by duty-free access to the US and by tax incentives, US firms have invested heavily in Puerto Rico since the 1950s. US minimum wage laws apply.
Sugar production has lost out to dairy production and other livestock products as the main source of income in the agricultural sector. Tourism has traditionally been an important source of income, with estimated arrivals of nearly 5 million tourists in 2004.
Growth fell off in 2001-03, largely due to the slowdown in the US economy, and has recovered in 2004-2005.
When To Go:
Puerto Rico’s climate is tropical marine, mild; little seasonal temperature variation. The average year-round temperature is 82º F (28º C), with mild easterly trade winds. A rainier season starts in August and ends in October, but due to the tropical climate you can expect brief rain showers at any time.
Puerto Rico’s pleasant tropical climate is virtually season-less, though temperatures are slightly higher from June to September; note it may be considerably cooler in the mountains. Rainfall varies around the island – heaviest in El Yunque, which receives up to 200 inches a year, and lightest in the southwest desert region, getting only 37 inches a year.
Hurricanes are so common in Puerto Rico that they got their name here; the English word for these storms with winds of over 75mph comes from the name of the Taíno god of malevolence, Jurakán (pronounced hu-ra-kan). Hurricane season runs June through November, when the weather is hottest and wettest, with the risk highest in September.
Food And Drink:
In recent years, Puerto Rico – and San Juan in particular – has commanded a growing reputation as the culinary hot spot of the Caribbean. World-renowned chefs at vanguard restaurants, prepare dynamic Nuevo Latino cuisine – a twist on traditional Criollo cooking, with an emphasis on fish, fruits, tubers and dark rum sauces or marinades with tropical ingredients.
You’ll also find every manner of ethnic food in the capital, including Indian, Thai, French and even Romanian.
Criollo flare, however, is still the staple of the Puerto Rican diet. Meats are mostly served with rice and red beans (habichuelas) or tostones – medallions of mashed, fried plantains. Sofrito – a sauce made from cilantro, onions, garlic and peppers – is used to season many dishes, as is adobo, a mixture of garlic, oregano, paprika, vinegar and oil.
The food is typically tasty but much of it is starchy and fried in animal fat, and pork is far more popular than fish outside of the major cities.
Travelers can fill up at cheap rice-and-beans joints all over the island or seek out savory criollo staples like asopao de pollo (stewed chicken) and plátanos (plantains) or lechón asado (roast pork) and mofongo (a ball of crushed, fried plantains and seasonings). These are sold from trailers or the backs of pickup trucks. Reposterías are also a good bet. Found in San Juan and in strip malls island wide, they have some of the island’s best coffee, along with breakfast postres – slightly sweet pastries filled with meat or cheese; they also sell soups, tortillas, seafood salads and fresh bread.
Coffee or Rum?
Coffee in Puerto Rico is strong, served black or with heated milk (café con leche), and very sweet. Look out for signs for refreshing coco frío – chilled coconuts punctured with drinking straws. While not as common, fresh-fruit drinks made from mangos, papayas and oranges (known as jugo de china ) are also available.
Puerto Rico is the world’s largest producer of rum. Rum, which is a sugarcane-based liquor is the national drink of choice. More than twenty brands are distilled here. The locally brewed beer is Medalla; Presidente, from the Dominican Republic, is also popular.
For the most part, tap water is safe to drink. However, it’s wise to avoid it after storms and instead stick with bottled water, which is widely available. If in doubt, ask the locals.
Liquor Laws – The legal drinking age is 18. Alcohol consumption in the streets of Old San Juan has been forbidden by law.
Money And Cost:
Puerto Rico uses US currency , which generally comes in bills of US$1, $5, $10, $20, $50 and $100; the dollar (sometimes referred to as a peso) is made up of 100 cents in coins of 1¢ (penny), 5¢ (nickel), 10¢ (dime), 25¢ (quarter) and 50¢ (half-dollar).
Major credit cards are widely accepted at hotels and restaurants.
Although Puerto Rico’s GNP is lower than that of any of the fifty states, prices are not drastically cheaper than on the mainland. In San Juan, the least you can expect to pay for accommodation, without sharing a bath, is US$65 for a double room; an average lunch at a modest establishment runs US$5 to $12, with comparable dinners from US$10 to $20.
ATMs – called ATHs (“a todas horas”, or “at any hour”) – are abundant in cities; you’ll find them in banks, supermarkets, casinos and most of the larger hotels. In smaller towns and rural areas, you’ll have to look a little harder. ATMs located around Puerto Rico are linked to banking networks throughout the world. If you’re at a loss, ask for directions to the local Banco Popular. Regular banking hours are Monday to Friday from 8.30am to 2.30pm.
Currency Exchange – There are several institutions in Puerto Rico offering currency exchange services as well as branches of major banks from the USA, Canada and Europe.
Credit Cards – They are accepted at most places and travelers checks by some.
Travelers Checks – They come in the following denominations: $20, $50, $100, $500 and $1,000.
Wire Transfers – If you need money wired to you quickly, it is advisable to use Moneygrams. With this service money can be transferred to you from anywhere in the world in just 10 minutes.
Tipping: A 15% to 20% tip is customary. Some hotels and restaurants add a 10% to 17% service charge to the total bill.
Taxes: There is no sales tax in Puerto Rico. There’s an 11% tax on room charges in hotels with casinos, 9% tax on hotels without casinos and 7% on small inns. Meeting, convention, or trade show materials are exempt if planners follow a simple procedure through the Puerto Rico Convention Bureau.
Phones, Postal Service And Email:
Phone System – The phone system is the same as in the U.S. (Sprint, Cingular, MCI, etc.) The Island’s area codes are 787 and 939. You need to dial the area code before placing a call anywhere within Puerto Rico and the U.S. For international calls, international codes apply. Calling cards used in the U.S. can be used in Puerto Rico as well.
Postal And Mail Services – The U.S. Postal Service provides the same reliable service as in the U.S. and all major courier services, such as FedEx, DHL, Eagle, UPS among others service Puerto Rico.
Time -The clock in Puerto Rico is never reset because we are on Atlantic Standard Time. For the current time of day call (787) 728-9595.
Email- Check with your hotel. A lot of hotels offer high speed or wireless Internet Access for minimal fees.
Crime And Safety:
Puerto Rico is hardly crime-free, but most violent crime is confined to poor urban areas. Tourist spots are, for the most part, safe, and conspicuously guarded by police. Nevertheless, pick-pocketing occurs; guard your cash and valuables in a safe place and be alert. Try to avoid walking alone on deserted beaches, hiking alone and traveling around alone at night.
If you ask a Puerto Rican for directions, more often than not you’ll be told, “Follow me.” Most people have only the best intentions. Be aware that car-jackings occur with some regularity.
Avoid asking complete strangers for directions if you can, especially at night, and particularly if you’re a woman traveling alone. Be sure to park in well-lit areas and don’t leave valuables exposed in your vehicle, even during the day.
In case of an emergency , dial 911.
Information Websites And Maps:
Puerto Rico Hotel and Tourism Association – www.prhta.org
Puerto Rico’s official languages are Spanish and English. Spanish is by far the most widely spoken language in Puerto Rico and visitors to the country who speak the language are more readily accepted. Approximately a quarter of Puerto Rico’s population can communicate in English, but not very well. English is mostly spoken in the major tourist sections of Puerto Rico.
Spanish spoken in Puerto Rico is not pure. Puerto Rican History shows that the language is spattered with English words (e.g. el coat), Taíno words (e.g. yuca) and African words (e.g. guarapo). Creole or Criollo speech of the Jíbaro has had a great influence on the Spanish language in Puerto Rico. The Jíbaro were farmers from a blend of mestizo, black and white backgrounds.
As Puerto Ricans tend to be friendlier to those who can speak a few words of their language and as English is not often spoken, it will be of great benefit to learn a few important Spanish phrases. You may also find it helpful to purchase a Spanish phrasebook to take along with you on your journeys. Puerto Rican translation services can also be located online.
Below are a few hints on Spanish pronunciation and some useful phrases which can be used during your journey to Puerto Rico:
“S” sounds are often not pronounced. For example ‘los’ would be pronounced loh and ‘gracias’, graciah. Words ending with ‘ado’ tend to be pronounced with a silent ‘d’.
Hello – Hóla
Good day – Buenos diás
Good bye – Adiós
Yes – Sí
No – No
Please – Por favor
Thank you – Gracias
Excuse me – Perdón
My name is … – Me llamo (pronounced may yah-moh)
Where is …? – Dónde está