Of the four largest Caribbean islands, Puerto Rico is the only one under US jurisdiction. Nevertheless, Puerto Rico is more Caribbean, Spanish, Latino, tropical and colourful than anything Stateside. The island's Spanish heritage rings especially loud and clear in the seven blocks of restored San Juan Viejo - Old San Juan.
As befits a Catholic country, the island has quite a selection of monasteries, convents and shrines where the Virgin Mary is said to have made appearances before the faithful. Head for the centuries-old San Juan convent authorized by Spain's King Philip V. During the building's long history, it has gone from nunnery to ruin to grand hotel and even a short-lived casino. The ex-convent's neighbour is San Juan Cathedral, dating to 1521 and therefore the Western Hemisphere's oldest such structure. Nearby is the New World's oldest continually occupied governor's mansion, and the home of first governor Juan Ponce de Leon. A popular myth has it that Ponce de Leon set out to find the legendary Fountain of Youth and "discovered" Florida instead. Actually, the old man needed gold, not youth. He had a passel of unwed daughters in need of dowries so that they could marry well.
The crown jewel of Puerto Rican eco-tourism treasures is El Yunque Rainforest. El Yunque - the Anvil, in English - is a movie-set jungle ensconced in mist and rain over trees as high as 100 feet. You will hear many a squawk of the indigenous Puerto Rican Parrot, along with the croaks of millions of coqui, tiny tree frogs that are a national symbol. Some drink from the forest's two waterfalls, but you are advised to stick with the purified and bottled stuff, just to be on the safe side.
The dry southwestern corner of the island is noted for its beaches and picturesque fishing villages with easy-going attitude. Here you can savour fresh clams and oysters in between sips of coconut water and the enchanting company of sea, sun and sand.
The island's second city, Ponce, may have been named for the aforementioned Ponce de Leon. Local residents call their city La Perla del Su - the Pearl of the South. It resembles provincial Spain in the daytime when locals gather in the cool shade of the Plaza Central. During the evenings, people re-group to socialize.
Delightful country inns known as paradores are a little-known aspect of Puerto Rican tourism. These government-promoted inns, patterned after those of Spain, are ideal for inexpensive family vacations, usually in a rustic setting.
The foodie in Puerto Rico can choose from a wide range of culinary delights, be they local, Spanish, Chinese, Creole, Japanese, seafood, nouvelle, or just plain American. Expect faster, more professional service than in many other islands of the Caribbean.
And, oh my, the nightlife! San Juan bars and clubs are patronized during the day by the zillions of cruise passengers. In the evenings, a more local crowd makes merry into the wee hours. More than any other Caribbean hot spot, San Juan is gay-friendly.
Since the US military stopped using the out island of Vieques for target practice, the island is fast developing into one of the world's newest and best travel and beach meccas. The main town and ferry point is Isabel Segunda, boasting a bust of South American Liberator Simon Bolivar, one of the island's first tourists, having come to the island in 1816.
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