The history of this island, the smallest of the Greater Antilles, is marked by an almost constant struggle for independence, yet independence never came. Larger world powers have always controlled the island thus shaping its identity into what is today Puerto Rico: a territory with two flags, two languages, and two cultures strangely intertwined. It reminded us of another such double-language double-flag place back in Canada where the issue of identity and independence still creates controversy.
An important commercial and military port of the Spanish Empire during the conquest and colonization of the New World, Puerto Rico experienced a great economic decline in the last half of the 19th century as the agricultural industry struggled. Commerce with United States and the European colonies in the region was restricted until 1897 when the island, stricken by poverty, was finally granted autonomy from Spain. One year later, as a result of the Spanish-American War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1898, Spain ceded Puerto Rico to the United States in exchange for a few million dollars.
Since then, the island has been a property of the United States with a Commonwealth status. A U.S. military government followed by a civil government built a large infrastructure: roads, ports, bridges, hospitals and schools, and introduced great investments thus reviving the Puerto Rican economy in the 1920s. But this economic growth had a price on the Puerto Rican identity. There was a period when it was a felony to display the Puerto Rican flag in public, sing patriotic songs, and the only official language was English. In the 1930s, the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party struggled in vain for the country’s independence. The majority of people felt more comfortably being a part of the rich powerful United States of America. A referendum held in 1967 affirmed overwhelmingly the continuation of the Commonwealth status with voters for independence gaining merely 0.6%.
Today Puerto Rico is an ‘unincorporated territory’ but not a ‘state’ of the United States of America, has its own Constitution but benefits from all rights and freedoms the American citizens have, including unemployment insurance and welfare.
Quest for Authenticity
Our quest for authenticity in Puerto Rico was somewhat difficult and confused until we realized its unique flavor is precisely this mixture of cultures. Latinos who speak Spanish and listen to salsa yet drive the same cars on the same roads like Americans; who eat mofongo and empanadas but wear the same clothes and shop for the same products in the same stores and shopping centers like Americans. A culture with a deep Spanish root like all other Latin American countries, but Americanized.
If you ask someone Are you a ‘proud American’ or a ‘proud Puerto Rican’? you may get a very interesting answer. Try it!
The Happiest People on Earth
The very first Puerto Ricans we met as we sailed in a small harbor west of Ponce told us they were the happiest people on Earth. Two guys in swim shorts kayaked to our boat to greet us. We discussed many diverse topics, in English, ranging from religion to sailing to economics. They said that Evo looks like Jesus without hair, that if we go to the Bermuda Triangle we will disappear for sure, and that the best beer is the free beer. We agreed with them completely on everything. They also said:
We chill on the beach all day and listen to music. We are all set. We receive welfare each month from the American government so we don’t have to work, it’s enough for the rent and for beer. Life is beautiful. (They tell us that 60% of all Puerto Ricans are unemployed and receive social benefits from the U.S. government. The official unemployment rate is around 14% which is still very high. Their standard of living is much higher than most Latin American countries.)
We spent our time in Puerto Rico shopping: provisioning and upgrading the boat, and visiting some of the island’s most popular points of interest: Old San Juan, El Yunke, Viequez, and Culebra. We learned that the popular places are usually very crowded, especially on the weekends.
Old San Juan
We had the best time in Old San Juan visiting the two big defense forts built in the 16th and 17th century where many epic battles were fought, roaming through the colonial town’s narrow streets, and eating the best frozen yogurt.
Read full article Cats and Ghosts. Battles of San Juan
El Yunke National Park
El Yunke is the most popular tourist destination in Puerto Rico after San Juan. It is a national park with a large territory covered with tropical rainforest, with rivers and waterfalls, and a number of hiking trails. While it is the most beautiful rainforest we have ever seen, our hiking experience there was very disappointing. We went on a Saturday and the place was so packed with tourists, we got stuck in a human traffic jam on the trails.
Read full article El Yunke, Unfortunately
Even though there are not as any sites to visit and things to do on land as in Dominican Republic, cruising around Puerto Rico is much easier and more fun than around the Dominican Republic. On the south side of the island there are many anchorages just a few miles away from one to the next. We would sail for 3-4 hours in the morning and spend the afternoon in a new place each day. Our favorite spot became Tortuga Beach on Culebrita, a beautiful lagoon home of hundreds of sea turtles.
Read full article Culebra and Culebrita
Facts and Useful Information
· Puerto Rico is United States of America – Almost everything is the same, it’s very strange and unexpected.
· Checking in by boat – you have to go through U.S. immigration and customs and agriculture inspection. All you need to pay for is a cruising permit good for 1 year, costs $19 (Canadians don’t need visas, other countries citizens do need to apply for US visas before travelling to Puerto Rico). The officials are extremely nice and it is easy and even pleasant to check in if you don’t bring any foreign garbage. Remember, just don’t bring any garbage.
· Language – Spanish is the local language, but almost everyone speaks English
· Shopping – After the Bahamas and Dominican Republic and before the BVI and the Antilles island chain, you have to stock up in Puerto Rico where you can find everything and it’s cheap. There are Walmart, HomeDepo, and Sam’s Clubs in every big city, and WestMarine in San Juan and Fajardo. Here the motto “The more you spend the more you save” is 100% valid. There isn’t a cheaper place for provisioning until you get to China.
· Fishing – We would catch a mahogany snapper almost every time we trolled, plus a tuna, a few barracudas and a reef shark. We released the barracudas and the shark; ate the snappers.
· Security – Many people told us to be careful and not to trust everyone as the crime rate in Puerto Rico is very high. We never had any problems.
· Transport – There is no public transport between the big cities. (Everyone has a car in Puerto Rico.) The only way to go from Ponce to San Juan for example is to rent a car, take a taxi, or hitch hike. Rental car rates are the same as in USA.
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