Puerto Rico is rectangular, sandwiched between the bulk of Hispaniola (shared by Dominican Republic and Haiti) and the tiny archipelagos of the US Virgin Islands. The Atlantic Ocean lies to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south. The mainland measures 100mi by 35mi (175km by 56km) , about the size of Corsica, and is roughly bisected by the rugged Cordillera Central, whose high point is the 4400ft (1340m ) Cerro la Punta. The hills drain into Puerto Rico's lush northern coast and the drier southern region. The small islands of Vieques and Culebra (to the east) and Mona (to the west) are also Puerto Rican territory.
What To See
A six-level fort with a gray, castellated lighthouse, El Morro juts aggressively over Old San Juan’s bold headlands, glowering across the Atlantic at would-be conquerors. The 140ft walls (some up to 15ft thick) date back to 1539, and El Morro is said to be the oldest Spanish fort in the New World. It was declared a Unesco World Heritage site in 1983. Displays and videos in Spanish and English document the construction of the fort, which took almost 200 years, as well as El Morro’s role in rebuffing the various attacks on the island by the British and the Dutch, and later the US military. Try to make the climb up the ramparts to the sentries’ walks along the Sta Barbara Bastion and Austria Half-Bastion for the views of the sea, the bay, Old San Juan, modern San Juan, El Yunque and the island’s mountainous spine. On weekends, the fields leading up to the fort are alive with picnickers, lovers and kite flyers. The scene becomes a kind of impromptu festival with food vendors' carts on the perimeter.
Iglesia de San José
What it lacks in grandiosity it makes up for in age; the Iglesia de San José in the Plaza de San José is the second-oldest church in the Americas, after the cathedral in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. Established in 1523 by Dominicans, this church with its vaulted Gothic ceilings still bears the coat of arms of Juan Ponce de León (whose family worshipped here), a striking carving of the Crucifixion and ornate processional floats. For 350 years, the remains of Ponce de León rested in a crypt here before being moved to the city’s cathedral, down the hill.
Plaza Las Delicias
Within this elegant square you’ll discover the heart of the city and two of the city’s landmark buildings, Parque de Bombas and Catedral Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. The smell of panaderías (bakeries) follows churchgoers across the square each morning, children squeal around the majestic fountain under the heat of midday, and lovers stroll under its lights at night.
Bosque Estatal de Guánica
The immense 10,000-acre expanse of the Guánica Biosphere Reserve is one of the island's great natural treasures and a blank slate for the outdoor enthusiast. Trails of various lengths and difficulty make loops from the visitors center, lending themselves to casual hikes, mountain biking, bird-watching and broad views of the Caribbean.
The Puerto Ricans reverently refer to it as 'El Radar.' To everyone else it is simply the largest radio telescope in the world. Resembling an extraterrestrial spaceship grounded in the middle of karst country, the Arecibo Observatory looks like something out of a James Bond movie - probably because it is (007 aficionados will recognize the saucer-shaped dish and craning antennae from the 1995 film Goldeneye).
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 Fiesta de San Juan Bautista (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 Fiesta de Santiago Apostal, which takes place late July and celebrates the town's African heritage with parades, drum ensembles and lots of music and dancing. Old San Juan takes to the streets during the Festival San Sebastian 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. San Juan's Casals Festival honours Pablo Casals, 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 Hatillo Masks Festival 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.