With loads of stunning beaches and year-round sunshine, Puerto Rico is a small Caribbean island that draws visitors from far and wide.
But once you look beyond the idyllic tropical setting, you’ll uncover all kinds of surprising and fascinating facts that range from historical moments to quirky details and natural wonders.
Here are 34 fun and interesting facts about Puerto Rico that you might not know.
Where is Puerto Rico?
Puerto Rico is located in the northeastern Caribbean Sea. It is roughly 70 miles 112) east of the Dominican Republic, and 40 miles (64 km) west of the British and the US Virgin Islands.
Even though Puerto Rico has only 5,515 square miles (9,104 sq km), it is home to roughly 3.2 million people, while its capital city of San Juan is home to almost 400,000 people.
To put it in comparison, Puerto Rico is roughly the size of Connecticut. Still, in terms of population, it has the third-highest density in the US, just after Washington DC and New Jersey.
But, different from those states, the year-round temperatures in Puerto Rico vary between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Tropical weather!
Now, let’s take a look at those fun and interesting facts about Puerto Rico:
1. Puerto Rico is not a Country, but Behaves like a Country
Puerto Rico has a strong cultural identity, which is why many people around the world, including in the US, think that Puerto Rico is a country.
But it is not. Puerto Rico is a commonwealth governed by the United States and is therefore not a sovereign state.
For example, the US dollar is the currency used in Puerto Rico, but locals call it a “peso” or “dolar.”
Also, Puerto Rico still competes as an “independent nation” in the Olympics and Miss Universe, as well as in many other international events.
Regarding Miss Universe, Puerto Rico has won the title five times!
And of course, there’s the delicious food that is different from everything else in the US! You must try the Mofongo, which is the unofficial cuisine staple, and the national dish, Arroz con Gandules.
2. Puerto Ricans are US Citizens
The United States gained (or invaded) Puerto Rico during the Spanish-American War in 1898.
Under the Treaty of Paris (1898), Spain ceded Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the US.
Still, it wasn’t until the Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 that Puerto Rico officially became a territory of the United States, granting Puerto Ricans US citizenship.
3. Puerto Ricans can’t Vote in the U.S Presidential Elections
Even though Puerto Rico is a US territory, they can’t vote for the President or Vice President of the United States unless they have moved permanently to a U.S state. Voting for the president is limited to the 50 states.
Also, Puerto Rico does not have a vote in the U.S. Congress.
4. There is a Puerto Rican Citizenship too
Yes, Puerto Ricans can have two citizenships, even though they are citizens of one country. This is due to Puerto Rico’s commonwealth status, where it is neither a state nor an independent country. It is in a weird political and territorial limbo.
In 1997, the Supreme Court of Puerto Rico, through its ruling in Miriam J. Ramirez de Ferrer v. Juan Mari Brás, reaffirmed the standing existence of the Puerto Rican citizenship.
On October 25, 2006, Puerto Rican Socialist Party president Juan Mari Brás became the first person to receive Puerto Rican citizenship.
Since then, the government has granted Puerto Rican citizenship to anyone born in Puerto Rico and to people who have at least one parent who was born in Puerto Rico.
Also applicable are those who have lived at least one year in Puerto Rico and are an American citizen.
5. US Citizens Don’t Need a Passport to Visit
Given that it is a US territory, US citizens don’t need a passport to visit Puerto Rico. All other citizens need to apply for a visa or ESTA just as if visiting any other US state.
For Americans, it’s just one less thing to think about when planning a trip to Puerto Rico!
6. Puerto Rico is Considered the World’s Oldest Colony
Puerto Rico has been a colony since Christopher Columbus “discovered” the island during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. (Using quotes on discovered since the tribe of Taíno Indians already inhabited the island.)
It is interesting to note that Columbus wasn’t enamored with the island. He spent a total of two days here, claimed it as a colony of Spain, and never returned.
Then, during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Spain lost its claim to Puerto Rico, thus becoming a U.S. territory and keeping its colonial status.
To this day, Puerto Rico is the world’s oldest colony, and San Juan is the oldest European city under the American flag.
7. The Island Has Changed its Name Several Times
Before Christopher Columbus set foot on the island, the local Taíno Indians called it Borikén, which means “Land of the Valiant and Noble Lord” in the Taino language. The name also referred to the Great Spirit or Creator.
In 1493, Columbus named the island San Juan Bautista after St. John the Baptist.
Given the value of the gold and all the riches being taken out of the island and exported to Spain in the early 1500s, the Spanish named the first city on the island, Ciudad de Puerto Rico, which means “Rich Port City” – given that the main port was there.
In the coming years, traders and other maritime visitors began to refer to the entire island as Puerto Rico since the gold could be found in many of its rivers and streams.
By 1521, the island changed its name to Puerto Rico while the capital city and main trading/shipping port took the name of San Juan.
The island’s name was changed to the anglicized Porto Rico after the United States acquired the island under the Treaty of Paris of 1898.
Then in 1931, the name was changed back to Puerto Rico by a joint resolution in Congress introduced by Félix Córdova Dávila.
And lastly, in 1952, its official name was changed to Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico (“free associated state of Puerto Rico”), while its official English name is Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.
While not an official name, you’ll hear Puerto Ricans call Puerto Rico as Borinquén – a derivation of Borikén. This is why Puerto Ricans are also known as Boricuas!
8. Two of the Oldest Churches in the Americas are in Old San Juan
Old San Juan counts with the second oldest church in the Americas – Iglesia de San José (Church of San Jose), built in 1922.
While San José is the second oldest church structure in existence in the Americas, it is the oldest church in the Americas still in use, and a great example of Spanish Gothic architecture.
Just steps away from San José is its most famous counterpart, the Catedral de San Juan (San Juan Cathedral), which serves as Puerto Rico’s most important religious landmark.
Initially constructed from wood in 1521 -just a year before San José- the original structure fell victim to two hurricanes, lootings, and attacks, prompting the reconstruction of the current structure in 1540.
The cathedral structure has had several redesign interventions, with the latest being in 1917.
San Juan Cathedral also has a few surprising secrets not many know about…
9. Juan Ponce de Leon’s Tomb is in San Juan
The Catedral de San Juan has an interesting tour, which includes the remains of Ponce de León.
The remains were originally at the Iglesia de San José but were relocated to the cathedral in 1908. There you’ll see a wax-covered, glass-encased mummy of a saint.
Juan Ponce de Leon is remembered for being one of the first explorers of the New World.
He discovered Florida and claimed it for Spain while searching for the Fountain of Youth – which is said to restore youth and vitality to those who drink its waters.
He led an expedition to Puerto Rico in 1508, where he discovered gold. Thanks to this discovery, he became one of the richest men in the New World.
Subsequently, the King of Spain made him the first Governor of Puerto Rico.
10. San Juan was Not the First Capital City
Juan Ponce de León established the first European settlement on the island in 1508, on what is known as Caparra – roughly 4 miles (6.4 km) south of Old San Juan.
Back then, Spanish settlers called Caparra, the island’s first capital, La Ciudad de Puerto Rico (the city of Puerto Rico). However, Ponce de León’s grand ambitions for the settlement collapsed due to the capital’s vulnerability to Taino Indian attacks.
Caparra was abandoned between 1519 and 1521, and the capital was moved to what is now Old San Juan.
Still, you can see the ruins of Ponce de León’s house in Caparra (located in Guaynabo county) as well as the small Museum of the Conquest and Colonization of Puerto Rico.
11. Puerto Rico was the Headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition
The Catholic Church played an essential role in the history and development of Puerto Rico since the early 1500s.
In 1519, Pope Leo X declared Puerto Rico the first ecclesiastical headquarters in the New World, thus turning Puerto Rico into the general headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition – one of the most infamous and barbaric events done by the Catholic Church.
12. The Oldest Executive Mansion in Continuous Use in the Americas
San Juan is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, and just like every other capital city, it has its own executive mansion to house the island’s governor – known as La Fortaleza.
To this day, it is the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas.
Also known as Castillo Santa Catalina, La Fortaleza is a small mansion hidden at the end of Fortaleza Street in Old San Juan.
It is famous for its baby blue and white mix of Classical Revival architecture and Spanish Colonial castle.
You can tour La Fortaleza for free with a previous reservation.
13. The Streets of Old San Juan were Paved with Blue Cobblestones
Being the main port in Puerto Rico, San Juan served as the funnel from where all the riches were exported to Spain.
While ships navigated from Puerto Rico to Spain heavy and full of wealth, they often returned to the island mostly empty – thus very unstable in high winds.
But, that changed in the 1700s when Spain started using cobblestones as ballast on their ships coming from Europe. Such cobblestones were used to pave the streets of Old San Juan, beginning in 1784.
You’ll notice, though, that these aren’t typical cobblestones; they are grey-ish blue. These cobblestones were made using iron slag, the waste from smelting iron.
Most of the blue cobblestone streets have been replaced, but you can still see originals on Calle Del Cristo and a few others.
14. The US Almost Purchased Puerto Rico
In 1890, following the suggestion of William H. Seward, the former Secretary of State under presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, the US planned to purchase Puerto Rico and Cuba for a sum of $160 million. However, Spain rejected the offer.
Little did Spain know that it would lose Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines to the US during the Spanish-American War just eight years later and receive only $20 million, according to the Treaty of Paris.
15. Puerto Rico has the Second Largest Single-dish Radio Telescope in the World.
UPDATE: Well, had… Unfortunately, the observatory fell into disrepair, and the main telescope collapsed on December 1st, 2020. There’s a movement to restore it. We’ll see…
For over 50 years, from its completion in 1963 until July 2016, the Arecibo Observatory’s 1,000 feet (305 meters) radio telescope was the world’s largest single-aperture telescope as well as the most sensitive.
It was displaced to its current second place when China’s 1,640 feet (500 meters) Aperture Spherical Telescope was completed in 2016. Still, the Arecibo Observatory is so big that the single dish was designed nestled between the mountains of Arecibo.
This scientific hub and technological marvel is used in three major areas of research: atmospheric science, radio astronomy, and radar astronomy. In other words, it helps monitor asteroids in space to determine if any comes too close to Earth.
While no longer the largest in the world (and it is still being debated whether it will be repaired or dismantled), it has a place in pop culture after being featured in several films like Contact and Goldeneye.
Even though the radiotelescope is currently not operational, the visitor center is still open. You can learn more about it and book tickets on their webpage.
16. The First Nuclear Submarine Voyage Arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico
On January 21, 1954, the USS Nautilus, the world’s first nuclear submarine, slid off a dry dock at General Dynamics in Groton, Connecticut, officially launching the United States Navy into the nuclear era.
After a year of rigorous testing, in May 1955, the Nautilus embarked on its nuclear-powered maiden Naval voyage, traveling from New London, Connecticut, to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Completely submerged for the entire journey, it established the record for the longest time underwater, the longest single submarine trip in history, and the highest sustained speed. These records have been broken since then.
The Nautilus is now a National Historic Landmark and museum in Groton.
Speaking of nuclear energy…
17. Puerto Rico has the First Nuclear Power Plant in the Caribbean
Located in Rincon, the Boiling Nuclear Superheater (BONUS) Reactor Facility, also known as “Domes,” is the first Nuclear Power Plant in the Caribbean.
It served as a nuclear testing facility from 1960 (when it was built) until 1968 – when it was decommissioned. BONUS is considered as the precursor to modern nuclear facilities we still see in use these days.
Today it is the BONUS Technological Museum run by the local power authority. Don’t worry; it is safe to visit! There is no more radiation, and the reactor is entombed in concrete, but visiting it is a hit and miss as the museum opens sporadically.
18. Puerto Rico has Several Uninhabited Islands and its Own “Galapagos Island”
While often referred to as a single island, Puerto Rico is an archipelago. Its main three islands are Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, which are the only inhabited islands.
In addition to those, there are dozens of beautiful uninhabited islands and cays that are perfect for a relaxing day trip.
Among these are Cayo Icacos, Caja de Muertos, Culebrita, Gilligans Island, Cayo Caracoles, Mata la Gata, and Isla Palomino, among many others.
Then there are the islands of Desecheo, Monito, and Mona Island, which are National Wildlife Refuges.
Mona Island is often referred to as the “Galapagos of the Caribbean” thanks to its unspoiled natural beauty and an enormous colony of iguanas, which practically overrun the island.
The iguanas on Mona, known as the Mona Iguana, are a subspecies found nowhere else on earth, adding to the uniqueness of the ecosystem found on the island.
If you’re interested in visiting Mona Island, know that this is not an easy day trip. It takes two to three days to visit it, so you must camp there.
The only way to visit Mona Island is by getting a permit by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources.
19. The Island was Home to a Now-extinct Mute Dog
This image above is from The Natural History of Dogs (1840) by Charles Hamilton-Smith and William Jardine, which depicts the Alco dog (left), a breed of small, barkless dog that lived on the island before the arrival of Columbus.
The Taínos used to hunt conies (guinea pigs) with the help of the Alcos, and it is said that they were the Taínos’ only domesticated animals.
It is said they were excellent companions, and ladies also kept them as lap dogs due to their small size.
The Alco is now extinct, but based on its description, some associate it as the ancestor of the chihuahua. (Only that chihuahuas are definitely NOT mute!)
20. El Yunque is the Only Tropical Rainforest in the US Forest Service
El Yunque Rainforest is one of the most famous sights in Puerto Rico. The 28,000 acres of tropical palms and dense foliage that make El Yunque feel like a primitive landscape that has remained virtually unchanged for millennia.
You can go hiking its many trails, dip in its refreshing waterfalls, enjoy its birds and flora, and get stunning views of the island from its many viewpoints.
You’ll be happy to know that there are no dangerous animals in El Yunque. Yes, no poisonous snakes or any big wildlife.
The rainforest receives over 120 inches of rain every year, and it can rain up to 365 days a year. Yeah, every day!
21. It Rains Frogs in El Yunque
This is technically a hyperbole, but it is based on scientific fact, and it involves Puerto Rico’s indigenous Coquí frog (Eleutherodactylus coqui).
During those times of the year when there’s high humidity, the tiny Coquí frogs tend to climb to the forest canopy – sometimes as high as 100 feet (30 meters).
Predators, like the tarantula, anticipate this behavior and lay in wait for the frogs or climb to their spot.
Once the Coquí sees its predator, instead of returning to the ground on the same path, they launch themselves into the air – bypassing their predators on the way down.
Since the Coquí is so tiny and almost weightless, they float to the floor unharmed.
Now, if you’re sitting under a tree and a tiny frog “rains” on you, don’t be alarmed! The Coquí is cute and harmless.
The coquí is at most an inch long, and at night it makes a unique, high-pitched song: “ko-kee, ko-kee.” (Hence the name)
The frogs are a beloved unofficial symbol of Puerto Rico.
22. It has the Largest Cave Network in the Western Hemisphere
Puerto Rico might be a small island, but a large part of its northern and central regions hide a vast network of over 220 subterranean caves stretching 268 acres.
The Cavernas del Rio Camuy is the third largest cave network in the world designed by water and the largest in the Western Hemisphere.
The Río Camuy, the third-largest underground river in the world, carved these beautiful caves over one million years ago.
You can enjoy over ten miles of mapped trails within the caves, with difficulties ranging from a leisure stroll to challenging hikes.
If you’re into spelunking and more hardcore experiences, there are several tours like this one that will take you to challenging caves, deep canyons, subterranean waterfalls, sinkholes, and elaborate rappels.
Experts believe there are still another 800 caves yet to be explored!
23. Puerto Rico has the Brightest Bioluminescent Bay in the World
Bioluminescence can be found in many places all over the world, but there are only five bioluminescent bays in the world.
Lucky enough, three of them are in Puerto Rico. These are the Fajardo Bioluminescent Bay, La Parguera in Lajas, and Mosquito Bay in Vieques.
A bio bay is a fragile and rare ecosystem that allows tiny dinoflagellates to develop and glow when the water is disturbed. The glow is quite surreal to witness!
The Mosquito Bay bio bay’s brightness is so distinctive that it was officially introduced in the Guinness Book of World Records 2008 as the brightest bioluminescent bay ever recorded.
Don’t miss kayaking there at night, especially on a new moon night. You’ll see how the water magically glows bright blue as you splash your paddle and move around.
24. There are about 270 Miles of Stunning Beaches
Puerto Rico is known for its beautiful beaches, and with 270 miles (434 km) of sandy shores, there’s no shortage on which type of beach you’ll find there.
But, it’s not just the amount of beachfront that makes Puerto Rico a favorite Caribbean destination; it is the quality and variety of them.
From coral-rich shores to white sand, black magnetic sand, red-ish sand, and cave beaches, you’ll find the perfect spot to sunbathe, do watersports, and relax.
Some of these beaches are regarded as the most beautiful beaches in the world. These include Flamenco Bay, which is often in the top 10 beaches in the world list by TripAdvisor.
25. There was a Real Pirate of the Caribbean
The legendary Cofresí Pirate is Puerto Rico’s most famous real-life pirate, as the legend goes.
Cofresí was born in the seaside town of Cabo Rojo, and from a young age, he was encouraged by sailors in town to dream about exploring the sea.
According to folklore, Cofresí would attack boats and share his spoils with the poor, and as a result, people would help him hide from the authorities – sort of like Robin Hood.
Also, legend says that some of his treasures are still hidden in different parts of the island.
Oh, and Cofresí is loosely credited for inventing the precursor of the piña colada back in the 19th century.
He is known for offering his crew a cocktail made with coconuts, pineapple, and rum to boost their morale. But, the recipe was lost after he died in 1825.
Speaking of rum…
26. The World’s Largest Rum Distillery is in Cataño, Puerto Rico
The famous Casa Bacardi is the largest rum distillery in the world. It produces more than 100,000 liters of rum every 24 hours, contributing nearly 85% of Bacardi’s total rum production. Distilleries in Mexico and India produce the other 15%.
Puerto Rico is the world’s only rum producer to maintain a minimum aging law for its rum. The three main categories of rum you can get are: light, dark, and añejo, or aged.
Don Q Rum and Bacardi are the largest producers of rum on the island, and its production goes back circa 400 years.
While Bacardi was established in 1862 in Cuba, it shifted its production to Puerto Rico in 1936 – a post-prohibition move that allowed Bacardi to sell its rum tariff-free in the United States.
27. Coconuts are not Indigenous to Puerto Rico, or the Americas at all.
Those beautiful coconut palm trees on a Caribbean white sand beach are not indigenous to any American territory.
The coconut was introduced to Puerto Rico in 1542 when the Spanish imported it from the Far East.
Soon after, it became part of their diet, and centuries later, it became part of not only one of the most popular drinks on the island but its national drink too – the Piña Colada.
28. The Piña Colada was Invented in San Juan
I already told you about Cofresí’s precursor to the Piña Colada, but the “official” piña colada we know today was invented in 1954 by Ramón “Monchito” Marrero while working as a bartender at the Caribe Hilton. He settled on a recipe he said captured the true nature and essence of Puerto Rico.
On the other hand, the famous Barrachina restaurant in Old San Juan also claims that their bartender, Don Ramon Portas Mingot, invented the Piña Colada in 1963.
To try to settle the dispute, the governor of Puerto Rico recognized the hotel’s claim in 2004 to commemorate the drink’s 50th anniversary. Still, both locales continue to argue on who’s the real inventor.
29. There’s a Lot of WWII History on the Islands
While WWII didn’t happen actively in Puerto Rico, the U.S. military fortified the island enough to protect it from any potential invasion and to serve as a training ground.
Vieques Island still hides several eerily abandoned bunkers you could visit on your own.
On Culebra Island, you’ll see the rusted military tanks left as a poignant memorial on Flamenco Beach. These tanks are now an icon of one of the most beautiful beaches in the world.
And last but not least, you’ll see WWII military-style modifications made to the historic El Morro Fort and San Cristobal Fort in Old San Juan.
30. Both the Imperial and Metric Systems are Used on the Island.
It can be confusing at first, but Puerto Rico still measures many things in metric, from its days as a Spanish colony, and also measures other things in Imperial, as the US does.
The US never eradicated the metric system from the island, so now it’s just a mess!
For example, when driving, distances are measured in kilometers, while speed is measured in miles per hour.
Land surveys are done in metric, while architectural drawings are measured in feet and inches.
Gas is sold in liters while milk is sold in gallons.
And cooking measures? They are all over the place!
31. Spanish and English are the official languages of Puerto Rico
This is another duality created by the switch of power between Spain and the US.
Spanish has been Puerto Rico’s official language since it was colonized in the 15th century.
On the other hand, English was first introduced as an official language by the end of the 19th century when the United States occupied the island during the Spanish–American War.
Even though English is an official language, Puerto Rico is overwhelmingly Spanish speaking. The US government has failed to establish English as the dominant language despite several efforts.
But, you’ll come across people who speak a mixture of both, also known as “Spanglish.”
32. The Puerto Rico Trench is the Deepest Point in the Atlantic Ocean
The Puerto Rico Trench is located on the northern side of Puerto Rico and extends from Cuba to the lesser Antilles. With a maximum depth of 27,480 ft (8,376 meters) or 5.20 miles, this trench constitutes the single deepest point in the Atlantic Ocean.
33. Puerto Rico Has the Tallest Statue in the Americas
Measuring 360 feet (110m), the statue called “Birth of the New World” holds the record for the tallest statue and sculpture in the Americas since its completion in 2016.
For comparison, it is more than twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty in New York City – which measures 151 feet (46m).
The controversial “Birth of the New World” statue, which has the image of Christopher Columbus and his ships, was originally designed to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the new world.
While there was nowhere to build it on time for the commemoration, it found its home in Arecibo, Puerto Rico some 24 years later.
34. Puerto Rican Coffee is Among the Best in the World
The weather and soil conditions in Puerto Rico are excellent for growing quality coffee. The island has several coffee plantations and haciendas you can visit, with some of them dating back to the early 1800s.
Among the best Puerto Rican coffee you can find today are Alto Grande Premium Coffee, Cafe Yaucono, Volcanica Puerto Rico Coffee, and Cafe Rico, among others.
A few recommended Haciendas to visit are Hacienda Lealtad, Hacienda San Pedro, Hacienda Tres Picachos, and a few more. You can also do a combined day tour of visiting a hacienda and a stunning waterfall in San Lorenzo.
Which of these Puerto Rico facts surprised you?
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