American state in all but name – and Pina Colada

PUERTO RICO: This Caribbean Island is home of Piña Colada, palm-fringed beaches and green sea. Puerto Rico is suddenly much more reachable with direct flights from Europe. Its time to take off with the factor 50. Whatever the calendar says, the hottest days of the year are still to come.

Puerto Rico is the 51st American state in all but name – and with a tropical twist. Knowing most of the Caribbean Islands, no one or nothing had prepared me for what it’s really like. I guess most of the travel blogs and other online tourist information is written by Americans or people living on the island, and for them it’s not a surprise that this is actually a part of USA, for good and for bad. You find it all, the familiar fast-food chains, all the big supermarkets and malls, big American cars and an impressive highway system.

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Highways. Except for the biggest cities, there is a total lack of public transportation. To get around you’ll need a car and it looks like everybody have one. Even the poorest people own some old wreck, and where it’s a house, there is a car or three. The highway system is impressive, with four lane highways connecting all the major cities, and crisscrossing the whole island are paved roads of a generally good standard.

San Juan. Arriving in the capital San Juan, you’ll find a pleasant city with a lot of greenery and with Old Sand Juan as the gemstone. Founded in 1493, its one of the oldest cities in the new world, and most important due to it’s excellent harbour. From here Spain could control the shipment of the South American riches. Building several fortresses, Spain was able to withstand any invasion until it was lost to USA in a war in 1898. Since then the people of Puerto Rico are US citizens, with some limitations. They can travel and work freely in USA, but they cannot participate in any elections. With designer outlets, historic places, museums, open-air cafés, restaurants, gracious homes, tree-shaded plazas, and its old beauty and colonial architectural, Old San Juan is a main spot for tourists and you can easily walk around the whole city.

In Condado all the upscale hotel chains are located, with restaurants, shops and nightclubs. Most of the beaches are for the hotel guests, but you’ll find a small public beach just after crossing the bridge to Condado.
Backpackers will find their budget a little strained in Puerto Rico, due to the total lack of public transportation, and the hotel prices are quite steep. Anyway, as a backpacker you’ll find that Puerto Rico is a good steppingstone for visiting the rest of the Caribbean, as San Juan airport is serving most of the other islands with direct flights.

Police. Renting a car is straight forward, but be prepared to pay around US 100 per day including insurance. The roads are in good standard, and the traffic is very organised. Be prepared to spend quite some time in traffic jams, and count on more driving time than expected. A peculiar thing is that the speed limits are in miles per hour, but the distances are in kilometres. Do not speed, as the highway police quite frequently are out with their laser guns.

Megaresorts. The north coast of Puerto Rico has been colonised by megaresorts, and it’s the rarely visited south where the island’s soul resides. As in the whole Caribbean, the northern and eastern part of the islands is the windy and rugged areas due to the prevailing trade winds. The inland is very beautiful with mountains and lush tropical vegetation, and should not be missed.
You’ll probably want to visit some beaches, and the best is to head to the north-west part of the island. Rincon and the surrounding area is a good place to have as a base. This is the surfer’s paradise in Puerto Rico, but you’ll also find calm beaches for swimming and snorkeling.

Closer to San Juan you’ll find the islands of Culebra and Vieques, which is said to have the best beaches and snorkeling in Puerto Rico. Drive to Fajardo and take the ferry out to the island of your choice. Fajardo is one of the most originally beautiful spots on the island’s shores. Located in the east region of the island, bordering the Atlantic Ocean, north of Ceiba and east of Luquillo.

Local Food. The most famous dish is Mofongo, which is fried and mashed plantain, shaped as a small bowl and filled with your choice of fried pork, chicken or fish. Beside fast-food chains and local restaurants you’ll find plenty of roadside stalls offering a wide selection of foods.

Facts. Puerto Rico is 9,104 km2 and has about 3.5 million inhabitants. The official language is Spanish, but English is readily spoken by the younger generation throughout the island. It’s a United States territory under US federal law. The head of state is the US president, but they have their own elected governor.

What to do. Puerto Rico offers an amazing variety of experiences. Tourist attractions to suit many tastes, from beautiful beaches to natural rain forests. But there is also a richness of history and culture to be found nowhere else. Puerto Rico is packed with enough unique attractions and fascinating sights to keep you occupied for weeks.

Make it Happen!

Touch Down: Norwegian has launched direct flights from London and the airline’s fares start at an astoundingly reasonable 300 Euro. Three-hours flight from New York. Luis Muñoz Marín is 15km northeast of San Juan, the largest airport in the Caribbean and has direct flights from destinations in the US. Serves most of the other Caribbean islands.

Stay: The 28-room Gallery Inn, in San Juan, is like the tropical home of an eccentric aunt: exotic, homely and full of cockatoos, at least one of which can play the piano. Doubles from £116

Eat: Puerto Rican cuisine is a unique tasty blend of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American influences. They call it "cocina criolla", a mingling of flavours and ingredients passed from generation to generation.

Play: Piña coladas; this guilty pleasure of a cocktail was first mixed on the island, so it’s not tacky, but as much a part of the heritage as the architecture around Catedral de San Juan Bautista. For piña coladas, head to La Barrachina, where the cocktail was invented in 1963 (barrachina.com). Address: 104 Fortaleza St. Old San Juan. More than 70% of the rum sold in the U.S. comes from Puerto Rico. Sample local brands and enjoy a tour of rum distilleries.

Mini Guide: Tipping is much the same as in the States. In hotels, major restaurants and nightclubs services charges are usually included. However, many inexpensive restaurants do not add service charge. If it isn't, tip between 15% and 20%. Each town celebrates patron saint festivals (fiestas patronales) in honour of the town's patron saint. The festivities include religious processions since they were originated as a Catholic tradition, but also pride and joy, featuring parades, games, regional food, and live entertainment. San Juan is the capital with a population of two million. Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico. The climate is Tropical Marine with year round summer temperatures, an average annual temperature of 80°F (26°C).

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