November 22, 2017

Beaches, nature and culture abound in Puerto Rico

Observer courtesy photo by Dreamstime.com/Czubar Travelers often think of Puerto Rico’s many beaches when they plan a visit.

Observer courtesy photo by Dreamstime.com/Czubar
Travelers often think of Puerto Rico’s many beaches when they plan a visit.

By Victor Block

Creative News Service

Mention Puerto Rico and many people think of sun, sand and sipping rum drinks. But as anyone familiar with the destination knows, there’s more — a lot more — to the tiny island. A virtual continent’s worth of diversity is shoe-horned Into an area smaller than Connecticut.

Begin with the multiplicity of landscapes. Palm-fringed beaches along the eastern shoreline give way to gentle hills. Then the terrain rises to form two rugged mountain ranges that dominate the center of the island before falling into the rolling surf that laps beaches on the west.

Even forests in Puerto Rico offer their share of welcome surprises. Best known and most popular is El Yunque National Forest. That 28,000-acre expanse encompasses 240 species of native evergreen trees, giant ferns and multihued wild orchids, along with thick hanging vines that would prompt Tarzan to howl with delight. The more than 50 species of birds provide a constant chorus, backed by the splashing of waterfalls cascading down moss-covered cliffs.

In stark contrast to this lush setting is the Guanica Dry Forest Reserve, the largest tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world. More than 700 species of plants have adapted to this inhospitable desert setting, including 16 that exist nowhere else.

Archaeologists tell us that several Indian groups inhabited Puerto Rico, beginning some 4,500 years ago. When Christopher Columbus landed there in 1493 and claimed it for Spain, he encountered the Taino Indians. Their name meant “friendship,” and they were peaceful people who farmed and fished.

Reminders of their society abound in place names throughout the island and also at the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center. This was a gathering place that included plazas, ball courts and burial grounds, all still visible today. Stones that were placed to create a kind of astronomical observatory still are laid out in precise lines, and some of them reveal petroglyph etchings.

The current predominant cultural influences in Puerto Rico are the result of its role over hundreds of years as an outpost of Spain in the New World. The language, food and many customs persist to this day. San Juan, Ponce and other towns are treasure-troves of Spanish architecture.

Traces of Africa also persist in favorite foods and other ways. Spanish explorers brought slaves from Africa to help with their search for gold. Later they planted and harvested sugar cane, which at one time was the most important cash crop on the island.

San Juan, the capital, melds the bustle of a large American city with the grace of its Spanish heritage and colorful Caribbean touches. It has its share – and more – of shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. Yet its historic center continues to reflect 500 years of history in the narrow streets, imposing public buildings and pastel-painted houses.

Observer courtesy photo by Dreamstime.com/Dennis Van De Water A visitor hikes through El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

Observer courtesy photo by Dreamstime.com/Dennis Van De Water
A visitor hikes through El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

Remnants of the city walls and 16th-century El Moro castle and 17th-century Fort San Cristobal were part of what was one of the most impregnable fortresses in the New World.

Sprinkled around the island outside of San Juan are towns that share such vestiges of their Spanish heritage as a central plaza, often overlooked by a church. At the same time, each village has unique charms and attractions.

Ponce, second in size to San Juan and known as the “Pearl of the South,” was founded in 1692. The airy main plaza is surrounded by the narrow streets of the historic district that are lined by architecture that evokes Puerto Rico’s colonial past.

Mayaguez boasts a tropical botanical garden and Puerto Rico’s largest zoo. Rincon is perched on the western-most tip of the island where the mountains run down to the sea. The scenery is spectacular, the nearby beaches are beautiful and surfers find plenty of large waves to ride.

A sometimes overlooked attraction is the collection of outstanding museums around the island. A personal favorite among the more than three dozen in San Juan is the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico. It boasts one of the largest collections in the Caribbean and is housed in a magnificent neoclassical building that itself is worth a look-see.

Highlights in Ponce include the Museo de la Arte, an important center of European art from the Renaissance to the 19th century, and the eclectic Museo de la Historia, which traces the city’s history from the time of the Taino Indians to today.

Mealtimes provide added opportunities to experience the intriguing cultural mix that is a vital part of island life. I introduced my taste buds to treats that combine flavors of a variety of cuisines including Taino (cassava, yucca and other root vegetables), Spanish specialties (tapas, ham croquettes) and local favorites such as octopus ceviche, tostones (fried plantain slices) and mofongo (mashed plantain stuffed with chicken, shrimp or other fillings).

Even this description of Puerto Rico’s appeals doesn’t come close to exhausting the possibilities. A brief list suggests the range of other choices:

The Rio Camuy Cave Park is the largest of more than 200 caverns on the island and contains the third-largest underground river in the world.

In addition to El Yunque and Guanica, Puerto Rico has more than 20 other nature preserves, including cloud, karst and flood-plain forests.

Golfers find a choice of more than two dozen outstanding courses.

The Arecibo Observatory provides an introduction to the second-largest radio telescope in the world and how it is used for radio and radar astronomy and atmospheric science research.

WHEN YOU GO

For more information, call 800-866-7827 or visit puertorico.com.

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