My thoughts on Puerto Rico before visiting in February: Small island somewhere in the Caribbean. Spanish-speaking. Poor. Not especially pretty. An American territory, whatever that means. The end.
If this description rings true to you, too, then I suggest you keep reading. I guarantee you will be as surprised as I was. Puerto Rico means "rich port," an apropos descriptor: I found the small island to be bursting at the borders with a diversity of treasures.
But first let me give you some enticing and purely practical reasons for choosing Puerto Rico as your vacation destination.
A street of colorful facades in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, is shown above right, while a Pina Colada awaits consumption at the Hilton Ponce bar in Ponce.
1. Flights are cheap. My round-trip flight from Pittsburgh to San Juan by way of Atlanta was less than $300.
2. Unlike most other tropical locales, you don't need a U.S. passport to get in- a particularly helpful bit of information for would-be travelers who don't already have passports.
3. Again unlike most other Caribbean destinations, Puerto Rico operates on U.S. currency, so you are spared the hassle of exchanging money.
4. It's 82 degrees in February.
My first pleasant surprise came at the airport in San Juan, where I closed down one restaurant and then another during a four-hour stretch waiting for my husband's delayed flight. (My mini-vacation was tacked onto his work trip, so we were on separate flights. That's not the pleasant part, obviously.) At the last bar, I struck up a conversation with a couple of young male servers as they finished their shifts and tallied their tips. They were bilingual - like the majority of people I met - and became quite animated when they learned it was my first trip to "their" island.
As I asked questions, they grabbed a tourist map and began marking it up with don't-miss destinations. One was adamant that I visit a tiny off-the-beaten-path eatery near San Juan called La Casita Blanca for authentic Dominican and Puerto Rican fare. He then extolled the virtues of hiking in the nearby rainforest, pulling up on his smartphone a stunning photo of lush greenery surrounding a bright cerulean pool from an excursion he had taken the week before.
Their helpfulness, I discovered, was not an anomaly. Everywhere we went, the locals wanted us to know how special their home is - and they didn't even know I was going to write about it. To tell the truth, I hadn't planned to, but after my first day there I knew I couldn't keep this little gem to myself.
A little history
First, a little history, because I'm a bit of a buff. I can't really attach myself to a place until I dig into its roots. In 1483, Christopher Columbus claimed for Spain this rectangle island the size of Connecticut, sandwiched between the Dominican Republic and the Virgin Islands; he called it San Juan Bautista. Explorer Juan Ponce de Leon established the city of Puerto Rico in the north in 1509. Later the names were switched: the city is now known as San Juan, and the island is Puerto Rico.
The indigenous people there, the Taino, were nearly wiped out by the Spaniards. The two intermarried, and eventually the Africans, who were brought to the island as slaves, joined the mix. Later, Europeans emigrated to Puerto Rico, wooed by the riches to be had in raising tobacco, sugar cane and coffee. Today's inhabitants hail from these various backgrounds.
The Spanish built huge fortresses to protect against invading fleets from Europe as well as pirates; the largest is the Castillo de San Cristobal in what is now known as Old San Juan. The country came under U.S. control during the Spanish-American War in 1898, just a year after it broke from Spain. In the 1940s, another push for independence led eventually to a the 1952 adoption of a constitution and the vote to become a commonwealth of the U.S. The U.S. government refers to it as a "self-governing unincorporated territory."