The settlers constructed numerous forts and homes on Puerto Rico, along with a cathedral and a convent. Beautiful Casa Blanca, built in 1521, was intended to be Ponce de León's home, although he never had the opportunity to live there. The explorer died on one of his expeditions in search of the Fountain of Youth.
While the north coast mountains did yield some gold to the fortune-seeking Spaniards, Puerto Rico's importance lay more in its location relative to Spain's New World empire. Although none were ever successful, other European empires consistently sought to strip the island from Spain's grasp. In 1595, even England's Sir Francis Drake failed.
Puerto Rico's economy relied on its sugarcane plantations and the slave labor used to work them. The island colony never flourished under Spanish rule, however: Spain maintained very restrictive trading policies, especially for its colonies.
After centuries of struggle under the Spanish flag, in 1897, Puerto Rico gained independence from Spain. But just one year later, the Spanish-American War brought American troops to the island and in 1899 the Treaty of Paris handed Puerto Rico over to the United States. Only in 1917 did the U.S. Congress extend American citizenship to Puerto Ricans. Then in 1952, Puerto Rico became the United States' only commonwealth, complete with its own constitution and government.
Although there had been a push for statehood, in 1993 Puerto Ricans voted to remain a U.S. commonwealth. As a commonwealth, the island enjoys one major difference with the states: Residents pay no federal income tax on revenue earned in Puerto Rico; they do, however, pay a local income tax.
The city of Old San Juan is steeped in history. The seven-square-mile district, which was named a National Historic Zone in the 1950s, features interesting museums, churches, forts, restored homes, monuments and other attractions.
The city was founded in 1521 by Puerto Rico's first governor, Juan Ponce de León, the Spanish explorer who began permanent settlement of the island in 1508. To protect San Juan from British, French and Dutch adversaries, massive city walls were built and two fortresses were constructed on opposite ends of the city. Narrow cobblestone streets, discreet alleyways, hidden courtyards and a number of public squares, so typical of European cities, are all part of Old San Juan. Enhanced by splendid Spanish architecture, the district still conveys the Old World charm of its beginnings.
Casa Blanca is the oldest building in the historic zone. Built in 1521 as the first governor's residence, Casa Blanca was never inhabited by the legendary seeker of the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de León was killed on an expedition to Florida that same year, and the house reverted to his family, who held it for 250 years. The building sits on well-manicured grounds with graceful fountains; it is furnished with authentic 16th- and 17th-century pieces and contains two museums, the Juan Ponce de León Museum and the Taino Indian Ethno-Historic Museum.
La Fortaleza is another elegantly restored home, the official residence and office of the governor of Puerto Rico. Erected in 1540, it is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the New World and has housed 170 Puerto Rican governors. Several of the palatial elements, such as the mahogany staircase, the grand reception rooms and the chapel, were added in the 19th century.
The Convento Dominicano is a beautiful colonial building constructed in 1523 by the Dominican friars who came to spread the Roman Catholic faith in the New World. The huge white-domed structure is quite striking. It is now a museum that details the importance religion has played in Puerto Rico's history.
Old San Juan's two forts are fine examples of military architecture. With six levels of gun emplacements and heavy walls, El Morro rises 140 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. Built in 1521, it served as a base to fight off invaders; today, the panoramic views and impressive architecture are the main attractions, along with a maze of spooky tunnels.
A strategic masterpiece, Fuerte San Cristobal is notable for its 17th-century military design and intricate network of tunnels. The fort was constructed to ward-off inland attacks.
Visitors walking around Old San Juan will come upon several public squares. The Plaza de Armas is the district's main square. Originally the grounds for training troops (hence the name), the 16th-century plaza would later become the city's principal social gathering spot. The square's four statues, over 100 years old, represent the four seasons. On the north side of the square sits the Alcaldía, San Juan's city hall.
The newest public square is Plaza del Quinto Centenario ("Quincentennial Square"), which was constructed to celebrate Christopher Columbus' discovery of the Americas in 1492, as well as Puerto Rico's discovery by the Great Admiral in 1493. It was unveiled at the New World's 500th birthday celebration. The multilevel plaza features a totemic monument symbolic of the island's 500-year history and two needle-shaped columns pointing to the North Star, a guiding light for explorers.
El Yunqueis the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Park system. Its 28,000-acres are blanketed with thick green vegetation that extends upward, covering mountains and peaks. Encompassing four distinct forest types, El Yunque is home to 240 different species of tropical trees, flowers and wildlife. More than 20 kinds of orchids and 50 varieties of ferns share the varied habitat with millions of tiny tree frogs. Another exotic inhabitant is the Puerto Rican parrot, once nearly extinct.
El Portal del Yunque, "the Gateway to El Yunque," is an interpretive visitor center. There, tourists can learn about the management and conservation of tropical forests.
Popular walking and hiking trails in El Yunque include the rugged El Toro. It passes through the four different forest systems and travels upward to the 3,523-foot-high Pico El Toro, the highest point in the forest. Other trails lead to cascading waterfalls.
Puerto Rico has several other reserves and forests which visitors can explore on their own or with a guide. Carite Forest Reserve has more than 6,000 acres of protected lands; the park's highest point is Cerro La Santa, at 3,000 feet. Also within the park is Nuestra Madre, a Catholic spiritual meditation center with lovely gardens. The Guanica Forest features a diverse bird population and a lignum vitae tree that is more than 1,000 years old. At the Río Abajo Forest Preserve, 70 walking trails and dirt roads criss-cross 5,780 acres. There are 223 plant and 175 wildlife species within the preserve, as well as wood plantations where teak and mahogany trees grow.
Puerto Rico is an island of many contrasts. After a climb to the summit of El Toro in the northeast of the island, nature-lovers can travel to the northwest and experience the cool subterranean splendor of the Río Camuy Cave Park. One of the largest cave systems in the western world, the Río Camuy caves are actually a series of limestone sinkholes connected by the Camuy River, which ranks among the world's largest underground water flows. In October 1989, the park opened the newly developed Tres Pueblos Sinkholes, measuring 650 feet in diameter with a depth of 400 feet. Tres Pueblos is one of two sinkholes in the cave system adapted for visitors; the other is Cueva Clara de Empalme. The giant stalagmites and stalactites that have developed over the centuries are awe-inspiring.
Visitors will also want to discover Puerto Rico's second city. The city of Ponce, fondly referred to by natives as the Pearl of the South, has a completely different personality than the capital. Founded in 1692, it was the intellectual center of the island--home to many poets, painters and politicians who flocked there to participate in the cultural ferment. It is the island's second-largest city. Ponce's distinctive architecture is a disarming blend of neoclassical, Art Deco and Creole; it dates from the mid-1800s to the 1930s, when the city prospered from the sugarcane, rum and shipping industries. Today, its lively art galleries, museums and theaters attract visitors.
Among the city's highlights are the Ponce Art Museum, which holds more than 1,000 paintings and 400 sculptures and is noted for its late-Renaissance and Baroque works; and the pre-Columbian Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, the oldest Indian burial ground in the Antilles. Nearby is Hacienda Buena Vista, a restored 19th-century plantation and grain mill that is now a museum.
Puerto Rico has grand beaches for sunning and clear waters for swimming. Along the island's 272 miles of coastline, there are beaches dotted with swaying palm trees and sandy coves that offer lots of privacy. There are two bioluminescent bays, one off the southwest coast and one off the island of Vieques. The best way to see the luminescent microscopic creatures that populate these bays is to take a boat ride on a moonless night.
There are 13 public beaches on Puerto Rico and most have facilities that include lockers, showers and picnic tables.
On the southwest coast of the island is Boqueron Beach, fringed with coconut palms. The beach has extensive facilities, including rentals for scuba diving and snorkeling.
Near San Juan is Isla Verde, a popular beach with a lively atmosphere. Not far from there is Luquillo Beach, which is crescent-shaped and has a lagoon protected by coral reefs. The crystalline waters make it ideal for swimming and snorkeling. Nearby is Condado Beach, where many hotels front the shore.
Seven Seas beach is a long stretch of sand with facilities for snorkeling, scuba diving and boat rentals.
The island of Vieques is home to Sun Bay, a beautiful, white-sand beach. There are picnic tables and camping sites as well as facilities for several water sports.