Basic Facts and Falsehoods About the Resilient Islands of Puerto Rico

By Jake SchroederLast Updated Apr 7, 2021 2:59:55 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Ricardo Dominguez/Unsplash

It seems that Puerto Rico is often in the news after experiencing natural disasters and other events, giving people the (false) impression that the islands are unsafe and always suffering. Others hear rumors and wonder about where Puerto Rico fits in the global picture. Is it an independent country or a part of the United States? What is it really like?

We've reviewed these questions (and others) to get to the bottom of the confusion. Come along and take a deeper look at the beautiful, resilient Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico Is Part of America — Sort Of

One of the first questions people have about Puerto Rico is whether or not the islands are a part of America or not. Politically speaking, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (its official name) is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

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Photo Courtesy: Stephanie Klepacki/Unsplash

This means the people of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States, but there are some caveats. Puerto Ricans cannot vote in presidential elections unless they move to mainland U.S.A. But, if they don’t make income outside of Puerto Rico, they also don’t have to file income taxes with the IRS.

Puerto Rico Is Not a Country

If you’re counting up the countries you’ve visited, Puerto Rico may be on the list. But in actuality, the islands aren’t a separate country. They’re a territory of the United States and don’t have the same sovereignty that a separate nation has.

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The islands were admitted into the Union as a U.S. territory in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, and residents were granted American citizenship in 1917. The islands became a United States Commonwealth in 1952, which gave Puerto Rico more autonomy over elections and taxes locally. But it’s still not a separate country.


Puerto Rico Isn’t Just One Single Island

A lot of folks think that Puerto Rico is a single island somewhere vaguely off the coast of mainland America. But, Puerto Rico is a chain of islands with a single main island — the one most of us are familiar with. This main island is 110 miles long and 35 miles wide.

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Photo Courtesy: Wei Zeng/Unsplash

There are several small offshore islands that are also part of the chain, though only two are inhabited year-round: Culebra and Vieques. Culebra is about 7 miles east of the main island, and Vieques is about 9 miles away.


Its Geography Makes It Susceptible to Storms

Puerto Rico is an archipelago, meaning it’s a group of islands. They’re in the Caribbean Sea and a part of the Greater Antilles, which is another group of larger islands in the Caribbean. The location has made this smaller chain of islands important for centuries.

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Photo Courtesy: John Middelkoop/Unsplash

This geography has also made the islands extremely susceptible to hurricanes and other tropical storms. The islands often have difficulty recovering from these storms because of the fact that more nasty weather follows within a short period of time.


San Juan Is the Capital City

Another common question that folks have regarding this beautiful group of islands has to do with the capital. Originally, the capital city San Juan was actually called the City of Puerto Rico and is the oldest city under United States jurisdiction. This city was founded in 1521.

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San Juan wasn’t the original settlement but was settled a year later than Caparra, now known as Pueblo Viejo. Today, this city is known as La Ciudad Amurallada, which means "walled city." It has one of the largest and best harbors in all of the Caribbean.


Americans Can Enter Easily

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, American citizens don’t need visas to visit the islands from the mainland. Your American passport is sufficient for entry. But if you’re not an American citizen, you’ll have to go through the same process to enter the islands as you would mainland America.

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Photo Courtesy: Tatiana Rodriguez/Unsplash

Conveniently, this means that American citizens can come and go fairly easily. If you choose to travel there, make sure that there’s been enough time since any recent natural disasters. Vacationing in Puerto Rico after recovery efforts have started is helpful as it furthers economic recovery.


The Predominant Language Is Spanish

Because Puerto Rico is a part of America, the official language is English, but in reality, this is only on paper. The indomitable spirit of Puerto Ricans has kept the American government from establishing English as the primary language on the islands, despite various attempts.

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Photo Courtesy: Jon Tyson/Unsplash

Puerto Ricans have an independent spirit that has helped to keep them separate, in many ways, from the mainland to which the islands technically belong. It doesn’t hurt that Puerto Rico is considered the largest insular territory of the country, keeping it even more "separate."


Puerto Rico Is Also Part of the Caribbean Islands

All those islands down south of mainland U.S. can be a little confusing. Is Cuba part of the Caribbean? How about the Dominican Republic? What about Puerto Rico? The answer is yes, Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island. This tropical island chain is one of the beautifully temperate islands that stays around 79 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.

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The wet season here runs from May to October — which coincides with hurricane season. Seeing as it's a tropical environment, rain falls year-round. But with the beautiful beaches, lively culture and delicious foods, the rain is hardly something to keep visitors away.


Puerto Rico Was Originally Named San Juan Bautista

This chain of islands was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus in his second infamous journey in 1493. When he first came upon the islands, he named them for the Biblical character John the Baptist, calling the main island San Juan Bautista.

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Photo Courtesy: Dnalor 01/Wikipedia

Soon, gold and other valuable resources were discovered on the islands, so the name became Puerto Rico, which in Spanish means "rich port." The capital wound up taking the original name. Another popular name for the main island in Spanish is La Isla del Encanto, which means "The Island of Enchantment."


It’s One of the Most Densely Populated Islands

The main island of Puerto Rico is one of the most densely populated islands in the world. That means there are more people per square mile on the main island than there are in most other islands in the world. The island's about the size of Connecticut, though, which is the third-smallest U.S. state.

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In total, about 3 million people live in Puerto Rico, which is a larger population than 21 different U.S. states have. Although the population is fairly dense, there’s still plenty of natural space, like that found in the national parks, beaches and other wild locations.


There Are More Than 270 Miles of Beaches

The incredible islands that make up Puerto Rico have a huge number of beaches skirting the coasts. In fact, at last count, there are at least 270 miles of beach around the islands. Visitors and locals alike flock to these white sand beaches to sunbathe, snorkel, swim and enjoy a wide range of other water sports.

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Surrounding these hundreds of beaches are many backdrops, providing new views nearly constantly for anyone visiting the islands for a few weeks. And if you happen to be looking for a party beach, those are all over the islands, too.


The Main Island Was Once an American Naval Base

In former days, about two-thirds of the main island of Puerto Rico was a United States naval base. This lasted for nearly 60 years, with much of the land being used as a testing ground for the military. Many training events took place on the land, as did bomb testing.

Photo Courtesy: Balcer~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons

After the accidental death of a civilian, however, the area was abandoned as a naval base and left to return to nature instead. Now, this same area where the bomb testing was done is a wildlife reserve, and the animal life there is flourishing.


Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon Was Puerto Rico’s First Governor

One of the most famous — or is that infamous? — conquistadors from Spain, Ponce de Leon, was the first appointed governor of Puerto Rico. This is the same explorer and conqueror who named the U.S. state of Florida "la florida" for the beautiful flowers found there (translation: flowery land).

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Photo Courtesy: Bettmann/Getty Images

A thirst for gold and other resources led the Spanish to colonize. Within a year of colonization, de Leon conquered most of the main island and enslaved and killed many of the inhabitants already there. This action was the reason governorship was given to the Spanish leader in 1509.


It Has an Extremely Rainy Climate

Puerto Rico has a very rainy climate. There’s a rainy season during which it rains more heavily, but even in the dry season, rain still falls from the sky. That means that, yes, it rains pretty much every day on these islands.

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The rainy season results in an average of 61 inches of rain on the northern part of the island. The southern part of the island usually gets about 36 inches — nearly half of the rain in the north. Some coastal regions of the islands receive even more with nearly 150 inches of rain each year. The mountains register even more at 200 inches.


The Area Is Quite Seismically Active

Puerto Rico not only has to deal with tons of hurricanes on a consistent basis, but the whole region is also extremely seismically active. There’s an average of five earthquakes with a magnitude of more than 1.5 every single day.

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Photo Courtesy: maryamarce/Wikipedia

The quakes occur because the North American plate is drifting about three-quarters of an inch each year. This results in the uplifting of a tectonic plate, thanks to the shift, which is actually what formed the islands of Puerto Rico. Because of this, the islands are always shifting and changing just a bit.


The Wildlife Is Quite Diverse

The wildlife reserves and parks offer an unusual landscape for a diverse group of animals and plants. In the Guanica Reserve, there are over 700 species of plants alone, with 48 endangered plants that are native to the area. There are over 185 species of birds on the island as well, 16 of which are native to Puerto Rico.

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Photo Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region/Wikimedia Commons

Along with these birds, there are unusual reptiles and amphibians, including the coquí frog. The mammals on the islands are not native, but they do include bats, cats, goats, sheep, the Asian Mongoose and monkeys.


Puerto Rico Isn’t Just Rainforests and Beaches

When you scan photos on Instagram and Facebook, you’ll mostly see images of the amazing beaches and rainforests of the islands. But Puerto Rico has a wider range of terrain than that. In fact, one portion of the main island is almost desert-like.

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Photo Courtesy: DEA / S. AMANTINI/Getty Images

The Guanica Biosphere Reserve and State Forest in the southwestern region of the island only receives about 30 inches of rain each year. The Cordillera Central mountain range nearby blocks out most of the rain systems that hit the rest of the island. This protected land encompasses nearly 10,000 acres.


El Yunque National Forest Is the Only U.S. Protected Rainforest

Because Puerto Rico is a part of the United States, El Yunque National Rainforest falls under the jurisdiction of the Forest Systems of the U.S. This is the only national rainforest that’s protected by the U.S. And, though this rainforest is one of the smallest protected regions, it’s one of the most diverse.

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Photo Courtesy: Wei Zeng/Unsplash

El Yunque sits in the eastern part of the main island as part of the Yunque National Forest. There are no large animals there, but many small critters roam around, including loads of lizards, frogs and birds.


The First Known People of Puerto Rico Were the Taino Tribe

Because many of the residents currently living in Puerto Rico are of Latin descent, many think these folks are the indigenous people of the land. The people of Puerto Rico were actually originally the Taino tribe, who named the island Boriken, which means "land of the brave lord."

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Photo Courtesy: Michal Zalewski/Wikipedia

The Taino people were a subgroup of the Arawak people from South America, originally tracing back to a village in Venezuela. The Taino people were peaceful farmers, fishermen and makers of pottery. They were hospitable and welcomed Columbus and others with open arms.


The Taino Tribe Was Massacred by Colonizers

The population of the Taino in Puerto Rico is estimated to have been around 40,000 when Columbus first landed on the island in 1493. Within 20 years, the population dropped to 4,000 and to about a quarter of that within another 15 years.

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Photo Courtesy: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Many of the Taino were wiped out by European diseases that they had no immunity for. Many of the others were killed by European conquerors as they attempted to defend their land. Others committed suicide rather than be enslaved. Those who survived worked alongside African slaves mining for gold and farming crops for Europeans.


Today’s Puerto Rican Culture Is Blended

Many people think of Puerto Rico as grounded only in its Spanish roots. But the reality is that many cultures have come together to create the wonder that is Puerto Rico, with the original indigenous people — the Taino — contributing much to the history of the land and immigrants adding to that culture.

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Photo Courtesy: Alex George/Unsplash

African slaves were brought over shortly after the islands were conquered by the Spanish, creating a new local culture. Since that time, centuries ago, many more immigrants from the world over have flooded in, bringing aspects of their ethnic groups with them.


Puerto Rican Food Is Also a Blend

Puerto Rican cuisine is referred to as "cocina criolla" locally. This food is a blend of many cultures that have filled the islands with people from the world over. Many dishes have prominent Taino influences, along with Spanish and African cooking styles.

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Photo Courtesy: Jeffrey Bary/Wikipedia

But as more immigrants have come to the islands and called them home, more cultures have blended their way into this delicious food. Chinese immigrants, German immigrants and others have influenced the use of local produce — like yucca root, seafood and tropical fruits — adding more texture and uniqueness than before.


Many Musical Instruments Date Back to the Taino People

When you think of the music of these Caribbean islands, you probably think of salsa and the merengue. And while these forms of music are popular in these beautiful islands, the roots of the musical instruments played here trace back to the Taino.

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Photo Courtesy: Miguel Andrade – Public Domain/Wikipedia

One of the most identifiable instruments from early Puerto Rican music is the guiro, which is a hollowed-out gourd that has notches on one side. People play this instrument by rubbing a stick along the notches. Other instruments were adapted from the guitar brought over by early Spanish settlers.


The Art Scene Is Varied and Blended, Too

One of the most rewarding experiences any visitor can have in a new region of the world is visiting art galleries and public art sites. In Puerto Rico, this experience again reveals heavy influence from Taino art, which includes jewelry made from seashells, gold and stones. Taino people also made pottery and baskets.

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Photo Courtesy: Dodo – Public Domain/Wikipedia

Santos — religious figures — are also a common part of the art of Puerto Rico. These statues are molded from clay and gold or carved from wood or stone. Before the Spanish introduced these to the local culture, the Taino highly revered "cemi" and placed them prominently around villages. These were sculptures that were believed to house ancestral spirits.


Puerto Rico Has Some Interesting National Symbols

Even though Puerto Rico isn’t technically a country, Puerto Ricans still have plenty of national pride. Reflecting this pride is a series of national symbols that Puerto Rico has claimed as its own. Those symbols include the national bird, "reina mora," which is also known as the stripe-headed tanager.

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Photo Courtesy: Cathybwl/Wikipedia

The national flower is the beautiful "flor de maga," or the Puerto Rican hibiscus. The national tree is the silk-cotton tree, or ceiba. And the national symbol is the coquí frog. These tiny amphibians are found throughout the rainforest — and in plenty of non-living forms like artwork and souvenirs.


The Pharmaceutical Industry Is Prominent in Puerto Rico

It might surprise you to learn that Puerto Rico is home to one of the largest pharmaceutical complexes in the entire world. The Barceloneta municipality supports 14 different industries this way, but the reason why it’s located here might be even more surprising.

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Photo Courtesy: The Eloquent Peasant/Wikipedia

The water in Barceloneta is incredibly pure — so pure, in fact, that it requires almost zero treatment for use in the manufacturing of pharmaceutical products. Employment through these companies and an extremely well-developed urban plan have made this town well worth a visit, with amazing restaurants, shopping and entertainment.


The Main Crops Are Cassava, Coffee, Sugarcane and Tropical Fruits

If you wander the street markets and vendors of Puerto Rico, you’ll find some of the most amazing fresh produce in the world. This, of course, only makes the local cuisine all the more delicious. You’ll also encounter many crops that you’d find in your own grocery stores back in the mainland U.S., too.

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Photo Courtesy: Suniltg/Wikipedia

The island territory never frosts over, so the weather is particularly great for tropical fruits. Some of the primary types of produce grown here are pineapples, cassava (yucca), bananas, mangoes, coffee, sugarcane, plantains, tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers and yams.


Puerto Rico Is Home to a Massive Telescope

Another intriguing thing about Puerto Rico is that a massive single-aperture telescope is located there. The Arecibo Observatory houses the telescope, which has 40,000 aluminum panels. Each panel measures a whopping 3 feet by 6 feet. The radio telescope is operated by the University of Central Florida.

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Photo Courtesy: KTLips/TripAdvisor

The Arecibo Observatory is used in three fields of study, including radio astronomy, radar astronomy and atmospheric science. If the telescope looks familiar, you’ve probably seen it before. Several Hollywood films have been made here.


The Islands Are Full of Caves

The rivers that flow through Puerto Rico give way to the amazing cave system on the islands: the Camuy system. The cave system is famous the world over, at least with folks who are into caving and spelunking. The system has more than 10 miles of caverns, 220 caves and 17 entrances.

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Photo Courtesy: Wild Horizon/Getty Images

Experts believe that at least another 800 caves have yet to be found and explored. But for now, there’s a 268-acre park that’s built around the system, allowing tourists the opportunity to explore this incredible place.


Puerto Rican Citizenship Is a Fairly Recent Thing

Although Puerto Ricans gained American citizenship in the early part of the 20th century, there was no such thing as Puerto Rican citizenship until recently. The first official citizen of Puerto Rico was Juan Mari Bras, who received the certificate from the Puerto Rico Department of State in 2006.

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Photo Courtesy: Ricardo Dominguez/Unsplash

Since that date, the government has been granting citizenship to other Puerto Ricans who were born on the islands or folks who have at least one parent who was born there and who have lived at least one year in Puerto Rico while holding American citizenship.