Puerto Rico

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Introduction to Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is where four centuries of Spanish Caribbean culture comes face to face with the American convenience store. This leads to some strange juxtapositions - parking lots and plazas, freeways and fountains, skyscrapers and shanties - but it's all apiece with the Caribbean's hybrid history.

Travellers who venture into the island's mountainous interior or explore its undeveloped coasts come across stately hill towns where the locals in the plaza seem to have been feeding the same pigeons for decades, and reefs where divers can see 30 species of fish in as many seconds.

Add to this a spirited capital that blends mod cons with unabashed beach bumming and a perplexing culture that is proud of its past yet unable to seize its independence and you have the ingredients for an intriguing adventure.

Full country name: Commonwealth of Puerto Rico

Area: 9,100 sq km

Population: 3.91 million

Capital City: San Juan

People: Hispanic 88.5%, Amerindian 0.4%, Asian 0.2%, mixed and other 10.9%

Language: Spanish; Castilian, English

Religion: Roman Catholic (85%), Protestant

Government: commonwealth associated with the United States

Head of State: President George W Bush

Head of Government: Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá

GDP: US$35 billion

GDP per capita: US$9,000

Inflation: 5.7%

Major Industries: pharmaceuticals, clothing, food products, electronics, tourism

Major Trading Partners: USA, Netherlands Antilles, Trinidad & Tobago

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Traveler Facts

Visas: US & Canadian citizens do not require visas or passports but must have valid ID. Citizens of many western European countries, Australia, New Zealand and Japan can take advantage of a US reciprocal visa waiver program if they intend to stay less than 90 days. Citizens of all other countries require a US visa.

Health risks: sunburn (You can get sunburned quickly and seriously, even through clouds. Use a strong sunscreen, hat and barrier cream for your nose and lips. Calamine lotion and aloe vera are good for mild sunburn. Protect your eyes with good-quality sunglasses), hepatitis (Several different viruses cause hepatitis; they differ in the way that they are transmitted. The symptoms in all forms of the illness include fever, chills, headache, fatigue, feelings of weakness and aches and pains, followed by loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, dark urine, light-coloured faeces, jaundiced (yellow) skin and yellowing of the whites of the eyes. Hepatitis A is transmitted by contaminated food and drinking water. Seek medical advice, but there is not much you can do apart from resting, drinking lots of fluids, eating lightly and avoiding fatty foods. Hepatitis E is transmitted in the same way as hepatitis A; it can be particularly serious in pregnant women. Hepatitis B is spread through contact with infected blood, blood products or body fluids, for example through sexual contact, unsterilised needles (and shaving equipment) and blood transfusions, or contact with blood via small breaks in the skin. The symptoms of hepatitis B may be more severe than type A and the disease can lead to long-term problems such as chronic liver damage, liver cancer or a long-term carrier state. Hepatitis C and D are spread in the same way as hepatitis B and can also lead to long-term complications. There are vaccines against hepatitis A and B, but there are currently no vaccines against the other types. Following the basic rules about food and water (hepatitis A and E) and avoiding risk situations (hepatitis B, C and D) are important preventative measures), schistosomiasis (bilharzia) (Also known as bilharzia, this disease is carried in freshwater by tiny worms that enter through the skin and attach themselves to the intestines or bladder. The first symptom may be tingling and sometimes a light rash around the area where the worm entered. Weeks later, a high fever may develop. A general unwell feeling may be the first symptom, or there may be no symptoms. Once the disease is established, abdominal pain and blood in the urine are other signs. The infection often causes no symptoms until the disease is well established (several months to years after exposure), and damage to internal organs is irreversible. Avoid swimming or bathing in freshwater where bilharzia is present. Even deep water can be infected. If you do get wet, dry off quickly and dry your clothes as well. A blood test is the most reliable test, but it will not show positive until a number of weeks after exposure)

Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4

Dialling Code: 787

Electricity: 120V ,60Hz

Weights & measures: Metric



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Events

Every Puerto Rican town celebrates its saint's day, often with a mixture of pagan and Catholic iconography and Indian, African and Spanish traditions. There are solemn religious aspects and plenty of feasting, music, dancing and colourful costumed processions. One of the best is the Festival of St John the Baptist in San Juan in late June, which wonderfully fuses the religious and the secular. The highlight of the parade is a communal luck-enhancing midnight walk backwards into the sea. Worth a detour are Mayagúez's twinkling La Virgen de la Candelaria in early February and Loíza's jubilant St James Festival, which takes place late July and celebrates the town's multicultural heritage.

Old San Juan takes to the streets during the Saint Sebastian Street Festival in the third week in January. Ponce, where revellers dress up in horned masks for dancing and parades, is the best place to celebrate Carnival in February. In June San Juan's Casals Festival honours the famous cellist who came to call Puerto Rico home. It attracts classical musicians of international repute and is one of the Caribbean's major cultural events. Puerto Ricans get baseball fever when the season starts in November, reaching its climax in February.

Las Navidades between 15 December and 6 January is the peak period of socialising and religious observation, though many of the celebrations take place at family homes. Not so the riotous Festival of Innocents in Hatillo on 28 December, when masked and costumed participants chase kids through the streets in memory of Herod's bid to wipe out baby Jesus. Look out for parrandas, wandering bands of minstrels and revellers, around Christmas time.

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Best time to Visit

The peak tourist season is between December and April, but this has more to do with the climate in North America than anything else. During these months the island is swamped by visitors, prices are highest and accommodations can be hard to find. Obviously its much less crowded during the official hurricane season (May through November). Although hurricanes are rare, they're able to do more than merely put a dampener on your holiday. Definitely keep an eye on weather reports if you're in Puerto Rico at this time. If you intend to travel inland bring a sweater for the evenings regardless of when you visit - it's much cooler in them thar hills.



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Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending

Currency: US Dollar

Meals

Budget: US$5-15

Mid-range: US$15-25

High: US$25-35

Deluxe: US$35+

Lodging

Budget: US$40-75

Mid-range: US$75-150

High: US$150-300

Deluxe: US$300+

Puerto Rico is one of the Caribbean's cheaper destinations, but there's no limit to what you can spend if you're in a party mood or on a gambling binge. It's possible to travel very comfortably on around US$250 a day, staying in ritzier hotels and eating three meals a day in decent restaurants. A moderate guesthouse-and-diner budget would slip somewhere between US$150 and US$200, while budget travelers can get by on less than US$100 a day by bunking up in no-frills hotels, eating at local food stands and taking public transport in preference to hiring a car. Note that accommodations are cheaper in the May through November low season.

All major credit cards and traveler's checks are widely accepted and there are plenty of ATMs should you prefer to access your home bank account directly. Once you leave the cities and touristed areas, it's best to carry cash. The US dollar is sometimes referred to as the peso.

Tipping follows North American rules. Restaurants usually include the service charge in the bill, but if they don't a 15% tip is expected. Some hotels add a 10% service charge, otherwise an equivalent tip is expected. There's a government tax of 7-10% on hotel rooms and some hotels charge an energy surcharge of around 3%. These extras can really add up - find out what you're in for when you make your booking to save a nasty surprise at settle-up time. Bargaining isn't common except in artisan markets where you can probably wrangle a discount.

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Attractions

San Juan

San Juan is a spirited modern city with high-rise beach strips and a justly famous colonial core. Founded in the 16th century, it's the second-oldest city in the Americas; today it's the engine of the island's economic and political life and the cultural beachhead for US influence in the Caribbean.

Many Caribbean adventurers never make it past Puerto Rico's seductive capital: there's a lot to be said for being able to lay a towel down on an pristine white Caribbean beach while having the culture and quaintness of a historic city and the convenience of a modern metropolis just minutes away.

El Yunque

The Taínos believed the god of happiness hung out on El Yunque, which is no doubt why hiking through the rainforest to this 1065m (3500ft) peak leaves travellers basking in the glow of well being, personal achievement, sore muscles and callused feet.

The mountain is part of the Luquillo range and gives its name to the surrounding forest reserve, otherwise ostentatiously named the Caribbean National Forest. Tourist authorities are fond of promoting the reserve as the only tropical forest in the US national park system.

Ponce

Nearly half a billion dollars have been spent preserving the colonial core of Puerto Rico's second city, and it's not only architecture buffs who declare the money well spent. The heart of Ponce dates from the late 17th century and has been declared a national treasure.

It consists of plazas and churches and highly decorative colonial homes, some glorious fountains and what may well be the funkiest fire station in the world. One of the reasons Ponce is so easy on the eye is that an early city regulation required that street corners be chamfered (curved).

Río Camuy Cave Park

This jagged karst region in the northeast of Puerto Rico is littered with sinkholes and surreal limestone formations, making it prime spelunking territory. Over 200 caves have been discovered in the region, some capable of swallowing skyscrapers.

The Camuy River is one of the largest subterranean rivers in the world. Experienced cavers can get dirty and wet by climbing, scrambling, abseiling and swimming through the underground river system, but some experience is required to contemplate entering this dangerous terrain.

San Germán

This picturesque town set in the southwestern foothills of the Cordillera Central looks like it was lifted lock stock and barrel from Mediterranean Spain. It's Puerto Rico's oldest settlement outside San Juan, and it wears its flaky plaster heritage with charm and aplomb.

There's nothing more taxing to do here than take a stroll through the town's two plazas, admire the courtly townhouses graced with gingerbread trim and poke your nose in the Church of Porta Coeli ('Gate of Heaven'). The latter was built by Dominican monks in 1606 and did a stint as the town jail.

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Sources: CIA FactBook, World FactBooks and numerous Travel and Destinations Guides.

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