Photo © Don Hebert
UNITED STATES VIRGIN ISLANDS
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A SIDETRIP TO PUERTO RICO
As one of the larger islands in the Caribbean, one day is not enough to see all that Puerto Rico has to offer. However, a visit to one or two of its key attractions makes for a great side trip, and those sailing may want to consider a few extra days of exploration on this fascinating island.
History and Geography
By the time Christopher Columbus landed in 1493, the Taino Indians were well established on the island they called Borinquen, or “Land of the Great Lords.” Realizing its strategic location, the Spanish quickly took over and established it as their key military port in the Caribbean, a status it held for more than 200 years. After the Spanish-American war, it was ceded to the United States and has remained a U.S. territory since 1898.
Today’s inhabitants are a cultural and racial mix, a blend of Taino, Spanish, African, Chinese, Cuban, European and American nationalities. With diverse traditions from each group, every region of Puerto Rico has emerged with its own distinct culture and personality.
Geographically, Puerto Rico is as diverse as its people. The center of the island peaks with a heavily forested mountain terrain, gradually easing outward to rolling hills, grasslands and finally, coastal lowlands and beaches.
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Towards the northeast of the island is the epicenter of activity, San Juan, the oldest city under the U.S. flag. This bustling port has long been the busiest in the Caribbean and is rich in history. Be sure to spend some time strolling along the streets of the Old San Juan Historic District, with restored 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial buildings shadowed by the majestic El Morro Fortress protecting the shoreline. Nearby, past gives way to present in the Condado, a lively area filled with casinos and fast-paced nightlife.
A quick drive from the city, visit the Bacardi Rum Distillery and the nearby Arecibo Observatory, the largest single-unit radio telescope in the world and base for NASA’s SETI program (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence). Also in the area is the Río Camuy Cave Park, featuring the third-largest subterranean river in the world.
On the eastern edge of Puerto Rico is Fajardo, known since 1772 as “La Metropolis del Sol Naciente (the city that guards the sun of the Caribbean). This boaters’ paradise is home to the Puerto del Rey Marina, the largest marine center in the Caribbean. With 750 slips, a massive charter fleet and full array of marine services, it is a stop on every cruiser’s float plan. The largest boat show in the Caribbean is held here, as well as a number of fishing tournaments and sailing regattas.
While on land, visit El Faro, a 19th century working lighthouse and Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve. A short trip inland is the must-see El Yunque rainforest.
The second largest city in Puerto Rico, Ponce was founded in 1692 by Ponce de Leon’s great grandson, and is known for its neoclassical buildings, intricate facades, fountains, plazas and churches. Located on the southern coastal plains, it is a busy trading and seaport, handling tobacco, coffee, rum and sugar cane.
On the west coast, Mayaguez is also of historic note, but is known today as primarily a college town. It is the home of the Juan A. Rivera Zoo, the only zoo on the island, and the Tropical Agricultural Research Station located at the University of Puerto Rico, hosting many species of exotic plants and trees.
The Spanish Virgins
Just a few miles east, between Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a knot of small islands known as the Spanish Virgins, including the tropical getaways of Culebra and Vieques. Although once an active haven for pirates, relaxation is now the main activity here. Both islands are known for their peace and tranquility, along with stunning sandy beaches, clear waters and coral reefs.
On Culebra, known as the “last Spanish Virgin,” Flamenco Beach was named the second most beautiful beach in the world by the Discovery Channel. Its National Wildlife Refuge is one of the oldest bird sanctuaries in the U.S. Vieques, “La Isla Nena,” or “Little Girl Island,” is best known for Mosquito Bay, one of the brightest bioluminescent bays in the world. It is also the site of the largest wildlife preserve in the Caribbean. Just an hour’s ferry ride from Fajardo, it boasts two historical towns, Esperanza and Isabel Segunda. The Fortin Conde de Mirasol Fort & Museum in Isabel Segunda was the last Spanish fort built in the Caribbean and exhibits artifacts from a 4,000-year old culture predating the Tainos.
Visit www.topuertorico.org for more information.
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No passport is required for U.S. citizens traveling to the U.S.V.I., if another proof of citizenship, such as driver’s license or birth certificate with picture ID, is available. Non-U.S. visitors need a valid passport and appropriate visa. No immunizations are necessary.
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