21 Surprising Things A Puerto Rican Wants You To Know About the Island

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The government of Puerto Rico may be staring into the abyss as it struggles to pay off its debts, but the island remains a top-notch attraction, with much to discover.

Not even Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose parents are from Puerto Rico, could persuade Congress to take timely action to address that island’s impending economic hurricane. He recently talked about the crisis on the Last Week Tonight with John Oliver show, and although this brought forth more attention, his pleading to politicians still fell short.

On Monday, the 2nd of May, Puerto Rico failed to issue a payment of some $400 million (out of a total debt of $72 billion) to bondholders. These will most likely set their lawsuit artillery on the island to get paid by forcing the government to come to a halt. Expect lawyers to make fortunes.

Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, explained that he unilaterally had to make a choice: pay the creditors or attend to the needs of his people, some 3.5 million citizens of the United States.

He chose the latter.

Although a majority of Puerto Ricans voted in a 2012 local referendum for becoming a full member state of the United States, much of the union still knows very little about this territory that has been a part of the States since 1898. And that is a shame because visitors there can discover a distinct and vibrant Caribbean and Latin culture, rich in music, history, and architecture, and even richer foods, as well as American amenities, without the need of a U.S. passport or visa or currency exchange.

Its beaches, Spanish forts, piña coladas, and salsa may be known the world over, but Puerto Rico has much more to offer to those who are willing to venture outside the proverbial box.

1. More than an Island, Puerto Rico is an Archipelago

Image Source: Annex51

In reality, Puerto Rico (Borikén, as originally called by its first inhabitants, the Taíno people; then San Juan Bautista, after Columbus’ arrival; and finally, Puerto Rico, for being an important seaport) is an archipelago, with over 140 atolls, cays, islets, and islands to its name. Only the main island, Puerto Rico, plus two others that are municipalities, Vieques and Culebra, are inhabited.

Park rangers, researchers, and scientists, however, do reside on Mona Island, which, along with the isles of Monito and Desecheo, is considered to be Puerto Rico’s own version of the famous Galápagos of Ecuador.

2. Mona Island is a Bastion of Caribbean Biodiversity

Image Source: Jerry Valentin

Too bad Charles Darwin never got to Mona Island, situated in the Mona Passage, a rough strait between the Dominican Republic and the western coast of Puerto Rico.

I remember years ago flying to it in a small, small craft, approaching it as if we were on the plane from the famous “Fantasy Island” TV show. It’s mostly a flat terrain with steep reefs that lead to off-the-chart crystalline beaches.

On the island itself, the remnants of a metal lighthouse still stand, while tunnels underneath run into caves where guano (bat excrement used as manure) was once collected. Iguanas, turtles, birds, and other kinds of wildlife – over a hundred endangered species – remind you that this is their home.

3. Gustave Eiffel Allegedly Designed a Lighthouse in Mona Island

Image Source: 15 Faros

One of the most striking sights of Mona Island is its unique steel and iron lighthouse, purported to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel, of the Eiffel Tower fame. The materials allegedly came from France.

Other accounts point to a Spanish engineer, Rafael Ravena, as its designer. But no matter who actually was responsible, it is a mesmerizing structure that has been sadly left to its own devices, slowly being eaten away by the salt, the heat, and the humidity.

Although listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1981, it is considered one of the most endangered sites in the country.

4. ‘Caja de Muertos’ is Perfect for Snorkeling and HikingLa_Guancha


Image Source: J M Peltier

The name of another one of Puerto Rico’s isles, Caja de Muertos, or Coffin Island, should not be a deterrent from visiting it.

A natural reserve that is part of the southern city of Ponce, (Ponce Broadwalk pictured above) this is a place for those seeking relaxation, for beach and nature lovers, especially those fans of birding, hiking, and snorkeling, and even for history buffs, for they will surely find interest in a lighthouse from 1887 at the top of the island. There are restroom facilities, but you must bring your own food.

You can take a ferry from La Guancha Boardwalk in Ponce, and make it a day trip.

5. Over a Thousand Puerto Rican Monkeys live in Cayo Santiago

Image Source: Yale university

Its name is the humdrum Cayo Santiago, or Santiago Island, to the east of the town of Humacao, but its nickname is more mysterious: Isla de los monos, or Monkey Island.

And there’s a good reason for that. Since 1938, it has been the habitat for a free-ranging population of Rhesus monkeys, the offspring of an original group of over 400 imported from India for studies.

Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and the University of Puerto Rico operated it, and today, it is still used as a research facility. Over a thousand monkeys reside there, and they remain off-limits to the population at large. But you can kayak or boat around the island.

6. Gambling is Legal in Puerto Rico

Image Source: Politik 365

Not everyone’s cup of tea, but cockfighting and gambling are legal.

7. Little Pink Beach Has the Largest Natural Pool in the Caribbean

Image Source: Islands of Puerto Rico

In Lajas, a town on the island’s southwestern coast, there’s a natural reserve and a village called La Parguera (see the next item), with no beaches, but with a pool built with a bit of help from Mother Nature.

Playita Rosada, or Little Pink Beach, is a section of the ocean that is fenced in, creating a saltwater pool that seems to take its name from the saline deposits that abound in the area, which can turn waters pink.

The pool, some 4 to 5 feet deep, is considered the Caribbean’s largest natural pool. Cooking, food consumption, and trash are not allowed in the immediate zone, but there are BBQ facilities that can be used by prior reservation, gazebos, tables, sanitary facilities, and showers.

8. Going out on a Boat at La Parguera Bay is a Magical Experience

Image Source: Perfect Traveling

No doubt the most famous attraction in Lajas’ coastal village of La Parguera is its endangered bioluminescent or phosphorescent bay (actually, there are two, Bahía Monsio José and Bahía La Parguera, but the latter is better known. There is also one in Vieques).

Going out on a boat at night, or swimming in its waters means being surrounded by sparkling bioluminescent dinoflagellates, or microorganisms that produce and emit light.

Though the roots of the town of Lajas go back to the mid-18th century, La Parguera as a small town emerged in the 1940s. The area is one of great biological diversity and terrific seafood.

9. The Arecibo Astronomical Observatory Has the World’s Largest Single Dish Radio Telescope

Arecibo_Observatory_Aerial_ViewImage Source: Wiki

If you saw the movies Contact, with Jodie Foster, or the James Bond caper GoldenEye, you’ve probably seen the world’s largest single-dish radio telescope, the Arecibo astronomical observatory, built in 1963 in the town of Arecibo.

The Chinese reportedly have been building one of their own that is said to be bigger, it is scheduled to be completed in September 2016. Surely won’t have the tropical mystique that this one has enjoyed over the years.

Want to know if we’ll all be obliterated by an asteroid in the near future? The observatory, which is open to the public, will be the first to find out.

10. Puerto Rico has the World’s Largest Rum Distillery, Ron Bacardi

Image Source: Adwin Times Boutique Hostel

If the thought of an intergalactic boulder bearing down on the planet makes you want to hit the bottle, at least make it a Made-in-Puerto Rico rum bottle.

The island boasts the largest rum distillery in the world, Bacardi (from Cuba’s Bacardi family, which established Bacardi Corporation in San Juan in 1938), producing over 100,000 tons of rum every year. The facilities, opened in 1958, welcome visitors and offer tours with free tastings.

Others prefer the taste of Don Q rums, launched in 1865 by the Serrallés family (their former mansion in Ponce, a palace in the style of Spanish-Moroccan architecture, is now a museum), or Ron del Barrilito, from the oldest rum-producing company (1804) on the island.

11. The Master of Gonzo Journalism Hunter S. Thompson Loved Puerto Rican Rum

Image Source: Book Riot

It’s no wonder American gonzo journalist and writer Hunter S. Thompson got to love Puerto Rican rum. He even wrote about it in his early novel The Rum Diary. The book, begun in 1959, wasn’t published until 1998, thanks to the efforts of his friend, actor Johnny Depp, who later on turned it into a 2011 so-so movie. At least the island looks pretty on screen.

12. Several Hollywood Movies Have Been Filmed in Puerto Rico

Image Source: Pop Sugar

Although Puerto Rico has had a fledging film industry since 1912, it has enjoyed more of a prolific career as a locale that stands in for many other places.

There was a talk of turning the mostly vacant Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in the town of Ceiba into a world-class moviemaking facility, but those plans seem to have gone nowhere.

Hollywood, however, in part enticed by local film incentives, continues to bring its lights, camera, action, there. Recent movies shot on the island include Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (again with Depp), Runner, Runner, with Ben Affleck, and 22 Jump Street with Channing Tatum.

13. ‘The Rum Diary’ Movie Shows Several Touristic Sites

Image Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

Some of the places that appear in The Rum Diary movie or that Hunter S. Thompson knew include: the island of Vieques, now with an ultra-posh W Retreat & Spa; the town of Vega Baja, where the film’s carnival scenes were shot; the must-see El Yunque rainforest, the only tropical forest in the national forest system; and of course, Old San Juan, the colorful and well-preserved historic core of the city of San Juan, the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas. The San Juan Star newspaper, whose staff Thomson befriended and found inspiration in while living on the island, still survives as well.

14. Many Well Renowned Personalities Called Puerto Rico Home

Amelia Earhart-Image Source: Take Part

Thompson is not the only historical figure who visited or once called Puerto Rico home. World-renowned cello player and conductor, Catalonian Pablo Casals, whose mother was Puerto Rican, established himself on the island in 1955 and went on to found the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra (1958), and the Conservatory of Music of Puerto Rico (1959).

Spanish poet, writer, and Pulitzer Prize-winner Juan Ramón Jiménez moved to Puerto Rico in 1946, following an exile that began after the Spanish Civil War. Samuel Morse, the telegraph and Morse Code inventor, lived in the town of Arroyo for a few months between 1858 and 1859; and legendary aviator Amelia Earhart, with friends on the island, made one more stop there during her fateful 1937 trip.

15. The Infamous Nathan Leopold Exiled in Puerto Rico

Image Source: Ed Maloney

One of the strangest relocations to Puerto Rico was that of Nathan Leopold, of Leopold and Loeb fame, the infamous duo of wealthy students who in May 1924 kidnapped and murdered 14-year-old Robert Franks in Chicago.

Loeb died while in prison at age 30, but Leopold, after serving his sentence, moved to Puerto Rico to start anew. There, he married a widow, joined a religious community, and launched the second act as an X-ray and lab assistant, a professor, a researcher of leprosy, and an author and expert on the area’s birds, publishing the book Checklist of Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in 1963.

16. The ‘Normandie’ Hotel Was a Magnet for Hollywood and Latino Movie Stars

Image Source: Wikipedia

Another foreigner who found a new life in Puerto Rico was a French singer by the name of Lucienne Suzanne Dhotelle, nicknamed “La Môme Moineau,” or the young sparrow.

While traveling aboard the luxury liner SS Normandie, she met Puerto Rican businessman and engineer Félix Benítez Rexach. So in love was he with Moineau, that he built the enthralling Normandie Hotel, at the junction of Old San Juan and new San Juan, for her. The hotel opened in 1942 and was an immediate magnet for Hollywood and Latin American movie stars. Sadly, the structure closed in 2008 and has since sunk into much disrepair. Its famous name sign atop the structure was removed this past April.

17. Puerto Rico Has Very Cool Hotels

Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton-Image Source: Robb Report

With tourism as a crucial lifeline, Puerto Rico’s history of development and modernization is heavily tied into hotels. Still occupying a privileged place is the tropical modern-styled Caribe Hilton hotel (1949), the first facility Hilton Hotels operated outside the mainland USA.

An even more impressive example of tropical modernist architecture is La Concha Renaissance San Juan Resort (1958), a boutique resort that narrowly escaped the wrecking ball and that reopened in 2008; 1919’s Condado Vanderbilt Hotel, built by the famous Vanderbilt family, was included in the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2008; and Laurance S. Rockefeller’s, and my childhood vacation destination, Dorado Beach Hotel, has found new life today as the super posh Dorado Beach Ritz-Carlton Reserve.

18. Puerto Rico Manufactured China of the Highest Quality

Image Source: Juan Carlos Perez Duthie

For decades, a factory in Puerto Rico produced the china used in some of the best-known hotels in the U.S. and in other markets. Labeled Caribe China, it was not the only Puerto Rican pottery manufacturer, but it was the one that, like coffee, sugar, tobacco, and rum, put Puerto Rico’s name in high places.

An example of modernist pottery, some of its clients included the United Nations, Braniff Air Lines, and Howard Johnson. The history of Caribe china is documented in the 2008 book by José Luis Colón-González, Caribe China – A Window to Modernity (EMS Editores). The factory no longer exists, but the pottery is quite collectible.

19. Puerto Rico Has Superb Samples of Modernist Architecture

El Conquistador Hotel-Image Source: Edsaplan

If you are into modernism, Puerto Rico has stunning examples of the genre with a purely tropical twist. Of course, you’ll also find art deco, art moderne, streamline, and other styles of the 20th century, all mixed together.

German architect Henry Klumb applied his talents to public housing, public schools, and health centers, as well as the Hotel La Rada and a department store. His Czech colleague Antonin Nechodoma brought the Frank Lloyd Wright style to his local creations; and Morris Lapidus, who put 1950s Miami Beach on the map with his Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels, excelled with the imposing El Conquistador Hotel in Fajardo, today a Waldorf Astoria resort.

20. As Most Nations, Puerto Rico isn’t Short of Historical Trivia

Image Source: Nvision

Some trivia, according to a best-selling book on the island, ¡Qué le parece… boricua!, by Papá Lino (Publicaciones Puertorriqueñas): Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev’s pacemaker was made by a medical company in the town of Villalba; silent movie star Clara Bow’s personal seamstress, Felisa Rincón de Gautier, would, later on, become the first woman to be elected as the mayor of a capital city in the Americas, San Juan. 

And there is more! The caves of the Camuy River Cave Park are not only coveted by spelunkers, but the sound of the bats there communicating was used in the movie Batman Forever.

21. Puerto Rico Has the Most Exquisite Art Work in Central America and the Caribbean

Flaming JuneImage Source: Wiki

The Ponce Art Museum is considered the best in Central America and the Caribbean. One of its masterpieces you probably know from key chains and posters everywhere: Sir Frederic Leighton’s Flaming June.

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