Too often, Canadian vacationers overlook Puerto Rico as a sun destination. But this lively island just south of Miami is filled with history, culture, ecotourism, and an incredible food scene. Here are six things you probably didn’t know about Puerto Rico, as well as excellent reasons why you should visit:
It’s Home to a Rare Ecological Wonder
Only a handful of bioluminescent bays exist in the world but Puerto Rico has three. The waters are rich with half-plant, half-animal organisms that light up like stardust whenever activated by movement. At night, the lagoon often glows electric blue from these microscopic organisms in the water. At Laguna Grande, kayak to the lagoon at sunset with a marine biologist, who teaches about tropical plants and sea creatures unique to the area.
It Has Breathtaking Beaches
To escape crowds, take a catamaran or plane to Culebra, a sleepy island located 30 kilometres off the coast of Puerto Rico. Once a hideaway for pirates, this forgotten island now attracts travellers in search of wild sandy beaches, world class diving reefs, and flora and fauna at the national wildlife refuge.
For a nearby but off-the-beaten track beach, there’s Loíza — a small community with an intriguing history. It was settled by African slaves during the 16th century, and today, it’s the heart of the Afro-Puerto Rican community. Few tourists venture this far, but it’s worth the 45 minute trek from San Juan. You’ll be rewarded with a golden strip of beach that’s mostly deserted, except for a few locals (see above photo).
The Food Scene is Incredible
Puerto Rico is a gastronomic hot bed, inspired by its inhabitants over the last few centuries. The island’s cuisine has been heavily influenced by the cooking traditions and practices of the original peoples (the Tainos Indians), Spanish and Asian settlers, and African slaves and their descendants. Expect to taste Creole cooking and some surprising cultural fusions.
Just about every restaurant serves mofongo (below): an Afro-Puerto Rican dish typically made of fried plantain mashed into a bowl with broth and filled with shrimp, pork, fish, or chicken.
San Juan is hopping with celebrity chefs and upscale eateries. When not appearing on Iron Chef, Chef Roberto Treviño cooks up a storm at Budatai, a critically acclaimed restaurant that serves exquisite Asian-inspired Puerto Rican cuisine. The chef’s not lying when he says that “this is the house that dumplings built” (see photo below). For fine dining, enjoy a multi-course French feast at Augusto’s or gourmet steak and seafood at Pikayo.
Chocoholics will love Casa Cortes, an 80-year old family-run café where every dish on the menu has a touch of chocolate. There’s grilled cheese con chocolate, chocolate-stuffed croissants, chocotinis, truffles, chocolate waffles – you name it! To die and go to heaven, order a shot of hot chocolate that’s so rich it’s almost a meal (see below photo). It’s also served the way that rural Puerto Ricans drank it: with a hunk of cheddar cheese melting in the centre.
For a rustic culinary experience, Loíza has a trail of roadside grills that serve African-inspired Puerto Rican cuisine (see photo below). Thick smoke from the fogons (wood-fire barbeque) hits your car’s windshield before the shacks are even visible. Stepping outside, the balmy air wafts of charcoal and smoldering meat. You’re not the only one following your nose: join the line for fritters, chicken and beef kebabs, and root vegetables roasted over the bonfire.
Call it a Piña Colada pilgrimage! Pay homage to this drink at Barrachina, the bar that claims to be the birthplace of this sweet cocktail mixed with pineapple, rum, and coconut cream. A thousand Piña Coladas are served here every day – get comfy at the bar and coax the bartender into telling the cocktail’s creation story as he prepares trays of drinks for thirsty tourists.
You Can Soar Like Superman
Adrenaline junkies get their fix at Toro Verde Ecological Adventure Park, selected by Travel & Leisure as one of the “World’s Coolest Zip Lines.” This park has nine tracks and the second longest zipline ride in the world. It takes about two minutes to zoom across “The Beast’s” 4700 foot long track. If that doesn’t get your heart pumping, this will: it’s done Superman-style, lying face down and front first, and you get to feel what it’s like to fly like a bird.
It’s Gay Friendly
Puerto Rico welcomes LGBT travellers and has a thriving gay community. Same sex relationships are legal and the capital city, San Juan, is a major port of call for Caribbean gay cruises.
“The people make us gay friendly,” says Luis Conti, Board Member and Media & Communications Director for Puerto Rico Pride. “As an island, most of us know each other and celebrate what we are in a safe environment always.”
Puerto Rico Pride is celebrated annually on the first Sunday of June, and is one of the biggest Pride Festivals in the Caribbean.
The writer was a guest of the Puerto Rican Tourist Board. The tourism board did not review or approve this article.