Puerto Rico: The Caribbean’s Rich Port

Early Taino Indians who inhabited Puerto Rico called it Borinquen, which means “the great land of the valiant and noble lord.” In the late 1400s, when Christopher Columbus claimed the island for Spain, he first named it “San Juan Bautista” in honor of St. John the Baptist. The town was named Puerto Rico, Spanish for “rich port.” Later the names were switched, and the island — now a popular vacation spot rich with natural beauty and pristine diving — came to be known as Puerto Rico.

Rich History, Cultural Mix

Puerto Rico’s rich history has contributed to its unique cultural and racial mix. Early Spanish settlers who came to work the gold mines often took Taino Indian women as brides. African slaves were brought in by the Spanish military to help build the massive garrisons still visited by tourists today. Slave labor was also used to launch the lucrative sugar-cane industry. Coffee, tobacco and other agricultural endeavors provided jobs for Chinese and European immigrants. The islands’ early economic diversity helped create an ethnic blending that is unique to Puerto Rico. The result today is a contemporary blend of many cultures — without racial tension. Spanish and English are the official languages, but Spanish is predominant.

The island — strategically positioned in the trade routes between Europe, North America and South America — was one of the Spanish Crown’s trade and military centers during the 17th and 18th centuries. By the mid-1600s the city of San Juan was a military masterpiece of massive stone walls and fortresses. Spain fought hard to control trade in the region, and to remain in power when attacked by other nations — and local militias.

Although the great fortresses are still standing, years of struggling caused Spain’s rule to crumble; the Spanish ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in 1898 under the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War. Puerto Rico became a commonwealth territory. Puerto Ricans share the rights and duties of U.S. citizens, except that they do not pay federal income taxes and do not vote in presidential elections.

Natural Splendor

Puerto Rico is grouped together with Cuba, Hispaniola and Jamaica, and makes up what is known as the Greater Antilles. The island’s countryside is where you’ll find the wealth of natural attractions. Like many islands in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico was formed by volcanic eruptions that created four distinct geographic zones — The Cordillera Central, The Karst Country, Guanica’s Dry Forest and the Coastal Plains. Each region offers natural wonders. Close to San Juan in the Luquillo Mountains, less than 30 minutes by car, is the Caribbean National Forest. This 28,000-acre rain forest park is more commonly called El Yunque (meaning “the anvil”), named after the mountain that dominates the landscape in this northeast section of the island. El Yunque connects with the Cordillera Central, a steep spine of mountains that cross the island from east to west.

Along the northwest coastal plains, the lower slopes of the Cordillera give way to foothills and hillocks. This region, characterized by haystack hills and giant sinkholes, is Karst Country. Puerto Rico has one of the most extensive cave systems in the Western Hemisphere, where you can visit Rio Camuy Cave Park and the world’s largest radio telescope, built right into a sinkhole at the Arecibo Observatory.

West of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city, the southwest side of the island is characterized by dry yellow foothills sloping to the coast, where the dry forest gives way to mangrove lagoons and the home of La Parguera’s Phosphorescent Bay, or Bioluminescent Bay. The protected water in the bay is heavy with concentrations of microscopic organisms called dinoflagellates, but more commonly known as bioluminescence. Movement in the water, such as swimming or boat wakes, causes the eerie blue-green glow. This natural nighttime light show attracts many visitors to the small tourist community of Parguera.

The Diving

Puerto Rico boasts over 20 miles/32 km of continuous wall diving. Satellite islands, including Desecheo, Mona (said to be the Galapagos of the Caribbean), Vieques and Culebra offer their own unique blend of fanciful marine life and intriguing submarine contours.

For divers, the names Guanica and La Parguera are synonymous with wall diving. Lying 5 to 8 miles/8 to 13 km from shore, stretching over 20 miles/32 km east to west from Guanica to well past Parguera, there is a tumultuous drop-off of continental proportions that resembles the rim of the Grand Canyon. The first drop-off begins at an average depth of 65 feet/20 m and falls away steeply to a broad shelf at a depth of 600 feet/182 m. From here it continues well beyond 2 miles/3 km deep to join the oceanic depths of the Venezuelan basin.

The impressive scale of a drop such as this can be overwhelming. Recreational divers explore only the top of the wall at depths ranging from 60 feet/18 m to 130 feet/40 m.

Boats leaving from the seaside communies of Guanica and Parguera travel on the peaceful water of the inner lagoon, where you see colorfully painted weekend homes. Once outside the barrier reef, the boat will turn south to reach any of the 40 or more already discovered dive sites. Average seas run 3 to 5 feet/1 to 2 m, and 5 miles/8 km out to sea there’s no place to hide, so medication for seasickness prevention is highly recommended.

All of the area’s deep wall dives share the same characteristics. The reef top leading to the drop-off is carved with canyons that slice deep ravines through densely packed hard corals and lead directly to the wall. These canyons are spaced about 15 to 30 yards/16 to 32 m apart along the wall, and in some places the canyons themselves are the crux of the dive.

Many of the wall’s most dramatic features are located just below a depth of 100 feet/30 m. For this reason, much of the diving in the southwest region of Puerto Rico can be considered intermediate to advanced. Dive computers are recommended. Underwater visibility ranges from 60 feet to 80 feet/24 m or better most of the time.

Puerto Rico’s west coast, blessed with calm seas and gentle breezes near shore, also offers high-voltage diving adventure in the form of an offshore island named Desecheo. The west coast runs north to south for 35 miles/56 km. The two major cities are Mayaguez and Aguadilla, each with its own airport offering easy connections to San Juan International Airport. The two smaller communities of Boqueron and Rincon best exemplify life along the west coast — friendly and laid-back.

Maps of the sea floor indicate the second deepest place in the entire world is located just north of Puerto Rico in the Puerto Rican Trench. The trench spans more than 500 miles/805 km from east to west. There is a submarine canyon that climbs up nearly 30,000 feet/9,150 m. Situated at the top of this canyon is the uninhabited island of Desecheo. This accounts for the overwhelming abundance of colorful marine organisms that crowd every available spot on the rocks and reef that surround the island.

While there are numerous excellent dives around Desecheo, the side farthest from Puerto Rico offers calm surface conditions. Visibility surrounding Desecheo is generally excellent — 100 feet or better. The most impressive aspect of the reef is the extra-healthy appearance of the castle-shaped boulder corals, as well as the giant sea fans, colonies of flower coral, endless sprawling sheet and lettuce coral, and fantastically colorful sponges.

To the north of Desecheo, closest to the colossal depths of the ocean trench, there is a mighty mountain of rock that juts up from the surrounding sea floor. It is riddled with caves and decorated in a profusion of yellow, orange and golden sponges.

The island of Desecheo lies roughly 15 miles/24 km west of Rincon and is reached by boat departing from Rincon or Cabo Rojo further to the south. Diving depths are similar to Parguera, averaging 60 to 100 feet or better. Shallow sites are also available in this area. The trip out to Desecheo can be eventful, with regular sightings of spinner dolphins and even humpback whales during the winter months.

Other satellite islands around Puerto Rico offer good diving. Culebra, for example, is definitely the fishiest spot in all of Puerto Rico. Easily reached from the eastern side of the island near Fajardo, regular ferry service and a small airport connect travelers with Culebra, also called the Spanish Virgin Islands.

Mona, on the other hand, is way out west 50 miles/81 km offshore and is uninhabited except for a small group of scientists. Mona is said to be the “Galapagos of the Caribbean.” Because the entire island is a nature refuge, permits are required for visiting and camping. Day trips for diving leave from Boqueron or Rincon, but schedules are continuously changing, so it is best to inquire upon arrival. Excursions to Mona require seamanship and an appreciation for roughing it.

Topside Treasures

Instead of wooden sailing ships routed by consistent trade winds, modern mega-cruise liners transport passengers back in time by docking near the historical walled fortress of Old San Juan. Here blue cobblestone streets guide sightseers past restored 16th-century buildings, museums and art galleries right alongside sophisticated duty- free shops — all of this located within a 7-square-block area alive with street fairs, strolling musicians and vendors selling flavored shaved ice and refreshments.

For most people, Puerto Rico conjures up images of sprawling urban high-rises, and glittering beachside resorts with Vegas-style shows and casinos. While the capital city of San Juan offers plenty of nightlife and entertainment, modern highways allow you convenient access to Puerto Rico’s countryside.

Puerto Rico’s land-based activities are varied. The Caribbean National Forest’s waterfalls, numerous hiking trails and an estimated 50 species of colorful tropical birds make El Yunque a top attraction for naturalists. Spelunkers will enjoy a trip to the Rio Camuy Cave Park, while the less adventurous might enjoy a game of golf or tennis, or simply choose to lounge on one of Puerto Rico’s beautiful white-sand beaches.

Puerto Rican cocina criolla — creole cooking — represents a fusion of Spanish, Arawak and Taino Indian, and African recipes. The mingling of flavors and ingredients from around the world is what created today’s flavorful and exotic Puerto Rican cuisine. Be sure to sample some local empanadillas, spicy crescent-shaped turnovers filled with lobster, conch or beef.

Regardless of how you plan to enjoy the island, you’ll soon realize that Puerto Rico’s greatest natural resource is its people. They are incredibly proud of their island. You will be greeted with genuine smiles, handshakes and an eagerness to help you discover the many rich treasures of their homeland.

Story and photos by Steve Simonsen