Columbus, accompanied by a young nobleman, Juan Ponce de León, arrived in Puerto Rico on 19 November 1493. Attracted by tales of gold, Ponce obtained permission to colonize Boriquén (or Boriken), as it was called by the natives. Boriquén (later altered to Borinquén in poetry) meant 'land of the great lord' and was called that because of the belief that the god, Juracan, lived on the highest peak and controlled the weather from there. The word 'hurricane' is derived from this god's name.

Because of Puerto Rico's excellent location at the gateway to Latin America, it played an important part in defending the Spanish Empire against attacks from French, English and Dutch. After the Spanish-American war, Spain ceded the island to the United States in 1898. The inhabitants became US citizens in 1917, and in 1948 they elected their own Governor, who is authorized to appoint his Cabinet and members of the island's Supreme Court. In 1952 Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth voluntarily associated with the United States.

The island's status is constantly debated for both political and economic reasons as Puerto Rico is heavily dependent on US funding. The New Progressive Party (NPP) favours Puerto Rico's full accession to the USA as the 51st state. The Popular Democratic Party (PDP) favours enhancement of the existing Commonwealth status. Pro-Independence groups receive less support, the Puerto Rican Independence Party (PIP) struggles to gain seats in Congress. A referendum on Puerto Rico's future status was held in 1991 and 1993.

In December 1998 Puerto Ricans voted again in a referendum on the island's status. 46.5% was in favour of statehood, but 50.2% voted for 'none of the above' options, which were to continue the present Commonwealth status, enter the USA as a state of the union, free association, or become independent, with a 10-year transitional period for any change in status. 'None of the above' was included at the request of the PDP, which supports the present Commonwealth status but objected to the wording.

The presence of the US Navy on Vieques became an issue after a civilian was killed in 1999 during bombing practice. Local people on Vieques and Puerto Rico protested and called for a ban on live ammunition and the return of the land to the people of Vieques. Exercises using live ammunition were suspended in May 1999. Governor Rosselló rejected a US presidential panel's recommendation that exercises should continue for another five years. President Clinton offered to limit operations to 90 days a year instead of the previous 180, and then conceded that live ammunition would no longer be used, while offering US$40 mn in development aid for the island if residents accepted the five-year continuation. His proposals were rejected. A revised proposal from the Pentagon was also rejected and civil disobedience intensified during 2000. In May 2000 US Navy aircraft resumed bombing practice. Dummy ammunition was used.

In November 2000, Sila Calderón, of the PDP, a business executive and former Secretary of State in the previous PDP administration in the 1980s, was elected Governor on an anti-statehood platform. The PDP won the majority of seats in both houses, giving it a clear mandate not to become the 51st state of the union. The victory was also seen as a popular rejection of the agreement with the US administration to delay until 2003 the withdrawal of the Navy from its bombing range on Vieques. The Navy refused to transfer 8,000 acres of land on Vieques to the government, planned for 31 December, until Ms Calderón promised to stand by the agreement. In May 2003, amid general rejoicing, the Navy finally pulled out of Vieques and the land became a national park.

The latest elections, in November 2004 were so close that a recount had to be held for only the second time ever. Victory was given to the PDP, with 48.4% of the vote, led by Aníbal Acevedo Velá, against 48.2% for the NPP led by Pedro Rosselló. Governor Acevedo took office at the beginning of 2005.


Puerto Rico is the smallest of the Greater Antilles. Old volcanic mountains, long inactive, occupy a large part of the interior, with the highest peak, Cerro de Punta, at 1,338 m in the Cordillera Central. North of the Cordillera is the karst country where the limestone has been acted upon by water to produce a series of small steep hills (
) and deep holes, both conical in shape. There is an extensive cave system, much of which is open to the public or can be explored with expert guidance. The mountains are surrounded by a coastal plain with the Atlantic shore beaches cooled all the year round by trade winds. Offshore are the sister islands of Vieques, Culebra and the even smaller Mona Island, where facilities are limited to a camp site.


Puerto Rico is a self-governing Commonwealth in association with the USA (Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico). The chief of state is the President of the United States of America. The head of government is an elected Governor. There are two legislative chambers: the House of Representatives, 51 seats, and the Senate, 27 seats. Two extra seats are granted in each house to the opposition if necessary to limit any party's control to two thirds. Puerto Ricans do not vote in US federal elections, nor do they pay federal taxes, when resident on the island.


The 'Operation Bootstrap' industrialization programme, supported by the US and Puerto Rican governments, began in 1948, and manufacturing for export subsequently became the most important sector of the economy. Until 1976, US Corporations were given tax incentives to set up in Puerto Rico and their profits were taxed only if repatriated. Industrial parks were built based on labour intensive industries to take advantage of Puerto Rico's low wages. In the mid-1970s, however, the strategy changed to attract capital intensive companies with the aim of avoiding the low wage trap. The agreement between the USA, Canada and Mexico for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) also had implications for Puerto Rico because of competition for jobs and investment. Although wage levels were lower in Mexico, Section 936 gave companies in Puerto Rico an advantage in pharmaceuticals and hi-tec industries. In low-skill labour-intensive manufacturing, Mexico had the advantage. Puerto Rico currently employs 30,000 in the clothing industry. Dairy and livestock production is one of the leading agricultural activities; others are the cultivation of sugar, tobacco, coffee, pineapples and coconut. Rum has been a major export since the 19th century and the island supplies 83% of all the rum drunk in mainland USA. Tourism is another key element in the economy although it contributes only about 7% to gdp. Over 4 mn people visit Puerto Rico each year and spend about US$1.9 bn. Large construction projects have recently boosted tourism still further, with several 5-star hotels being built around the country and a massive Convention Center with adjacent 850-room hotel at Isla Grande.

Despite the progress made to industrialize the country, the economy has suffered from US budget cuts. Some 30% of all spending on GNP originates in Washington and high unemployment is possible because of food stamps and other US transfers. Migration is a safety valve, and there are more Puerto Ricans living in New York than San Juan. The economy depends heavily on tax incentives given to US mainland companies and on federal transfers.

Culture, Music and dance

One of the oldest musical traditions is that of the 19th-century Danza, associated particularly with the name of Juan Morel Campos and his phenomenal output of 549 compositions. This is European-derived salon music for ballroom dancing, slow, romantic and sentimental. The Institute of Puerto Rican Culture sponsors an annual competition for writers of danzas for the piano during the Puerto Rican Danza Week in May. The peasants of the interior, the Jíbaros, sing and dance the Seis, of Spanish origin, in its many varied forms, such as the Seis Chorreao, Seis Zapateao, Seis Corrido and Seis Bombeao. Other variants are named after places, like the Seis Cagueño and Seis Fajardeño. Favoured instruments are the
and other varieties of the guitar, the
, backed by
(tambourine) and
(drum) to provide rhythm. One uniquely Puerto Rican phenomenon is the singer's 'La-Le-Lo-Lai' introduction to the verses, which are in Spanish 10-line
. The beautiful Aguinaldos are sung at Christmastime, while the words of the Mapeyé express the Jíbaro's somewhat tragic view of life. Many artists have recorded the mountain music, notably
El Gallito de Manatí
Chuito el de Bayamón
Baltazar Carrero
El Jibarito de Lares

Puerto Rico's best-known musical genre is the
, ironically developed by a black couple from Barbados, John Clark and Catherine George, known as 'Los Ingleses', who lived in the La Joya del Castillo neighbourhood of Ponce during the years of the First World War. With a four-line stanza and refrain in call-and-response between the
(soloist) and chorus, the rhythm is distinctly African and the words embody calypso-style commentaries on social affairs and true-life incidents. Accompanying instruments were originally tambourines, then accordions and
, but nowadays include guitars, trumpets and clarinets. The Plena's most celebrated composer and performer was
Manuel A Jiménez
, known as 'Canario'.

The only black music in Puerto Rico is the Bomba, sung by the 'Cantaor' and chorus, accompanied by the drums called
. The Bomba can be seen and heard at its best in the island's only black town of Loiza Aldea at the Feast of Santiago in late July. Rafael Cepeda and his family are the
best known exponents.


is a common figure in Puerto Rican literature. It refers to the
campesino del interior
, a sort of Puerto Rican equivalent to the gaucho, native, but with predominantly hispanic features. The literary Jíbaro first appeared in the 19th century, with
Manuel Alonso Pacheco
El gíbaro
emerging as a cornerstone of the island's literature. Alonso attempted to describe and to interpret Puerto Rican life; he showed a form of rural life about to disappear in the face of bourgeois progress. The book also appeared at a time (1849) when romanticism was gaining popularity. Before this, there had been a definite gulf between the educated letters, chronicles and memoires of the 16th to 18th centuries and the oral traditions of the people. These included
and folk tales. The Jíbaro has survived the various literary trends, from 19th-century romanticism and
realismo costumbrista
(writing about manners and customs), through the change from Spanish to US influence, well into the 20th century.

One reason for this tenacity is the continual search for a Puerto Rican identity. When, in 1898, Spain relinquished power to the USA, many Puerto Ricans sought full Independence. Among the writers of this time were
José de Diego
Manuel Zeno Gandía
. The latter's series of four novels,
Crónicas de un mundo enfermo
, 1896;
La charca
, 1898;
El negocio
, 1922;
, 1925), contain a strong element of social protest. For a variety of domestic reasons, many fled the island to seek adventures, happiness and wealth in the United States. While some writers and artists in the 1930s and 1940s tried to build a kind of nationalism around a mythical, rural past, others still favoured a separation from the colonialism which had characterized Puerto Rico's history. For a while, the former trend dominated, but by the 1960s the emigré culture had created a different set of themes against the search for the Puerto Rican secure in his/her national identity. These included the social problems of the islander in New York, shown in some of the novels of
Enrique A Laguerre
Trópico en Manhattan
Guillermo Cotto Thorner
, or stories such as
Pedro Juan Soto
, or plays like
René Marqués
La carreta
. There is also the Americanization of the island, the figure of the 'piti-yanqui' (the native Puerto Rican who admires his North American neighbour) and the subordination of the agricultural to a US-based, industrial economy. Writers after 1965 who have documented this change include
Rosario Ferré
and the novelist and playwright,
Luis Rafael Sánchez
. The latter's
La guaracha del Macho Camacho
(1976) revolves around a traffic jam in a San Juan taken over by a popular song,
La vida es una cosa fenomenal
, a far cry from the Jíbaro's world.

Flora and fauna

Although less than 1% of the island is virgin forest, there are several forest reserves designed to protect plants and wildlife. At the highest altitude you find dwarf cloud forest, with palms, ferns and epiphytes. On exposed ridges it has a windswept appearance. Below the dwarf forest is the rainforest and below that the subtropical wet forest, with open-crowned trees and canopy trees such as
Cyrilla racemiflora
, which is large with reddish bark. Classifications below this include the lower wet forest (Tabanuco) and the subtropical moist forest zone, which covers most of Puerto Rico, and dry forest, found along the south coast and the eastern tip of the island.

El Yunque Tropical Rain Forest
The Caribbean National Forest
) there are an estimated 240 types of tree (26 indigenous), and many other plants, such as tiny wild orchids, bamboo trees and giant ferns. The total area is 11,270 ha and 75% of Puerto Rico's virgin forest is here. Several marked paths (quite easy, you could walk two or three in a day, no guide needed), recreational areas and information areas have been set up. It is also home to the Puerto Rican parrot, but there are only 30 left. The whole forest is a bird sanctuary. (
Las aves de Puerto Rico
, by Virgilio Biaggi, University of Puerto Rico, 1983, and Herbert Raffaele's
Guide to the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
is recommended.)

Mangroves are protected in
Aguirre Forest
, on the south coast near Salinas, at the
Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve
, at the west end of Jobos Bay from Aguirre, and at Piñones Forest, east of San Juan. Unlike the north coast mangroves, those on the south coast tend to die behind the outer fringe because not enough water is received to wash away the salt. This leaves areas of mud and skeletal trees which, at times of spring tide, flood and are home to many birds. In winter, many ducks stop on their migration routes at Jobos. Also at
Jobos Bay
, manatees and turtles can be seen. A short boardwalk runs into the mangroves at Jobos, while at Aguirre a man runs catamaran trips to the offshore cays, and there are some good fish restaurants; take Route 7710. For Jobos Bay take Route 703, to Las Mareas de Salinas (marked Mar Negro on some maps). Before going to Jobos, contact the office at Jobos.

The largest number of bird species can be found at the 655-ha
Guánica Forest
, west of Ponce, which is home to 700 plant species of which 48 are endangered and 16 exist nowhere else. Guánica's dry forest vegetation is unique and the forest has been declared an International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO. There are 10 marked trails through the forest, but contact the wardens for directions before wandering off. It can be hot in the middle of the day so don't be too ambitious in which trail you choose. The Ballena Trail is quite short and you will see lizards, snakes, birds and a 700-year old
tree, very gnarled and not as big as you might expect. If you want to head for the beach, Playa de Ventanas is within the Reserve. The
Punta Ballena Reserve
is next to the Guánica Forest and included in the Biosphere Reserve because of coastal ecosystem. It contains mangrove forest, manatees, nesting sites for hawksbill turtles, and crested toads. Beach access off Route 333.

Other forest reserves, some of which are mentioned above are
 Casa Pueblo Forest
in the northeast,
Mona Island
Río Abajo
Toro Negro
. These can also be contacted through the Central Office in San Juan, or at

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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