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Puerto Rico Tuesday, July 20   
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About Puerto Rico

Beneath a leafy canopy in El Yunque National Forest, we paused to listen for the croaks of Puerto Rico’s tiny tree frogs. Then a gaggle of children in matching uniforms rushed past us, giggling and shouting. As remote as this Caribbean rain forest may seem, it’s close enough to San Juan for school field trips.

One of the largest islands in the region, Puerto Rico’s landscape encompasses mountains, underground caves, coral reefs, white-sand beaches and a rain forest big enough to supply water to most of the island. But it’s also heavily developed—San Juan is a big city with a bustling business district, glitzy resorts and casinos as well as one of the most stunning colonial zones in Latin America.

This mix of urban and natural attractions is just one of the reasons Puerto Rico is such an appealing destination. Another is the fact that the island, which is a self-governing commonwealth of the U.S., exists in two worlds. Most islanders have either lived in the U.S. or have relatives there. Yet they still hold on to island traditions—you’ll see whole extended families on outings, and men playing dominoes at well-worn outdoor tables. U.S.-style fast-food restaurants abound in Puerto Rico, but so do brightly painted roadside stands selling rice and beans. Even the language reflects the island’s easy biculturalism: English and Spanish are both official languages, although Spanish is most commonly used.

Of course, having close ties with the U.S. and being a hub of the Caribbean has its drawbacks, too. Crime troubles parts of San Juan, although patrols in the tourist areas have recently been stepped up and reports indicate crime rates are down. Air pollution and water shortages are ongoing concerns. And the popularity of San Juan, particularly in the winter months, can mean long lines at historic sites and restaurants.

Puerto Rico was a sparsely inhabited island when Christopher Columbus sighted it in 1493. Fifteen years later, Spain chose Ponce de Leon, the seeker of the Fountain of Youth, to be the island’s first governor. The original settlers, the Taino Indians, rebelled against the Spanish, but their uprising only resulted in their decimation. For four centuries, Spain used the island as its gateway to the New World, defending it against assaults from the English, the French and the Dutch. (It was the last stop for treasure ships bound for Spain.) In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, the Spanish met their match: The U.S. Army landed on the southern side of the island. Shortly afterward, Spain handed Puerto Rico over to the U.S.

Puerto Rico became a commonwealth and its residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. However, residents don’t have every right enjoyed by their mainland cousins. For instance, they can’t cast ballots in U.S. presidential elections and their resident commissioner—their elected representative to the U.S. House—can sit on congressional committees but cannot vote. (On the other side of the coin, Puerto Ricans pay no U.S. federal income tax.) Puerto Ricans remain fiercely divided on whether their island should become the 51st U.S. state. In late 1998, a slim majority of residents chose “none of the above” when asked in an island-wide plebiscite to vote on statehood, commonwealth, free association or independence. Though statehood was favored over the other options, exactly what the future holds for Puerto Rico remains clouded.

Agriculture was the island’s mainstay in the early years—coffee and tropical fruit plantations dotted the countryside and vast fields were planted with sugarcane, which was processed into some of the world’s best rum. Some coffee, sugarcane and fruit plantations remain but they, and other farming, now account for only 3% of employment and 1% of the island’s income. In fact, so much farmland has been turned over to residential and commercial development in recent decades that a lot of the sugarcane needed for rum production is imported from neighboring Dominican Republic. Hurricane Georges dealt another blow to crops and livestock when it hit the island in late 1998. Parts of San Juan and El Yunque Forest were also hit hard by the worst hurricane to strike the island in 70 years. Repairs have been made quickly in the tourist areas, but much work remains to be done.

In the place of farming, industrial growth—led by manufacturing—now dominates the island’s economy, a legacy born of the U.S. government’s Operation Bootstrap program in the 1940s. Exports include chemicals, pharmaceuticals and health-care products, apparel and footwear, rubber and plastic goods, rum and coffee. Tourism also is important to the island’s economy—more than 2 million people visit the island each year. Although poor compared with U.S. states, Puerto Rico has one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean.

Travelers Advisory: Like most big cities, San Juan has crime problems. But law enforcement officials have been working hard recently—and with measurable success—to chip away at violent-crime rates. In Old San Juan, a visible police presence has made crime far less of a concern than it once was. Still, take the same precautions you would in any large city: Use common sense, and be aware of your surroundings at all times. Ask your hotel’s concierge or at the front desk about a neighborhood’s safety before you go exploring. Don’t walk on the beach at night, don’t go out alone on foot after dark and don’t leave valuables unattended at the beach or in a rental car.

Drivers face a special problem: Carjackings and car thefts are common. For this reason, don’t stop at red lights after midnight. Just slow down, look carefully and keep moving. Crime rates are generally lower outside San Juan.

Copyright © 1998 by Reed Travel Groups. All rights reserved.
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