Puerto Rico: Strange Spanish-speaking United States

The United States owns a few strange territories whose status has never been clearly defined. Some call them colonies, and this is indeed what they were initially. Nowadays the formal designation is “unincorporated territory”. As the US formed, there were lots of these – indeed virtually all the states except the original thirteen passed through the various “unincorporated” stages. However eventually most of them reached statehood – although for some it took a long and determined fight, such as for Hawaii, which only became a state in 1959. No new states have been created since then, and so Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa and a few others remained “in the air”.

Puerto Rico is officially referred to as a “commonwealth”. The population of the commonwealth by now exceeds that of many states. To be fair, Puerto Ricans themselves are not decided about what they want to be. The three options being eternally debated are independence, statehood and status quo. Puerto Ricans enjoy most of the rights of US citizens, with the exception of being able to vote for President and to elect Senators. As a candidate, Obama supported the idea of conducting a referendum to set the final status. However in order to approve such a referendum, the agreement of U.S. Congress is necessary – and that’s missing.

Much like Hawaii, Puerto Rico receives large subsidies from the mainland. Its special status also allows it to create a special business and tax regime, and as a result most pharmaceuticals made in USA are produced right here on the island. Obviously lots of American tourists come here as well and support the local economy with their dollars.

Everybody speaks Spanish in San Juan, and so you get a strange feeling of walking around Spanish-speaking United States. I guess in 20 years California and Texas will feel similar (parts of Miami and New York already do). The currency is the dollar and the prices are very American too – feels very different compared to Colombia, where I’d been just prior. On per capita basis, Puerto Rico is poorer than the poorest U.S. state (Mississippi), however it’s richer than any Latin American country.

San Juan from the air. Old San Juan is the peninsula in the centre of the image.

Like a collection of postcards, San Juan is incredibly picturesque.

The Cathedral:

One of the multitudes of felines that participate in the special airs of this city.

The fact that Old San Juan is surrounded by water from every side makes it particularly atmospheric. The Western promenade.

The historical Main Gate of the city – facing West. In the colonial times the prominent visitors would use this very gates to enter the city.

The so-called Paseo de las Princesas:

The North-Western tip of the peninsula that is Old San Juan is occupied by an ancient Spanish fortress. You can see it in the background here.

Separated from the city by green lawns:

Looking back at the city.

The gates of the fortress:

Very impressive:

In colonial times San Juan possessed an enormous strategic importance. For the ships coming from Europe or from Africa, Puerto Rico was the first major island where the reserves of food and water could be replenished. Furthermore San Juan has an excellent deep natural harbour. Hence it was always seen as the key to the whole Caribbean. For the Spanish Empire to defend San Juan was the top strategic priority, whereas the other colonial empires saw it as a desired prize. Various invaders tried to capture it many times. The Dutch came the closest and only by miracle the Spaniards managed to resist their siege. In the end nobody ever took San Juan and the Spanish only lost it in modern times as their empire disintegrated.

The towers of the fortress control the ocean and the straights for many miles in every direction.

Inside the fortress:

As we happened to be in San Juan during Catholic Easter, of course we didn’t miss a chance to see the ceremonies on Easter Sunday:

A very pleasant café by the cruise ship harbour. It was no accident that I came to San Juan. In fact I came up with a somewhat crazy idea to take a cruise around the Caribbean. I’d never been on a cruise before – and to get this kind of a new experience was an added motivation. A cruise also happens to be the most economical way to visit several Caribbean islands in one go – as it is very difficult to hop from one island to the next due to virtually non-existent transport links. So in the end I found a very interesting offer from Royal Caribbean with departure out of San Juan.

But of course since we were in Puerto Rico, we had to see its main attraciton – which is National Park El Yunque, famous for its rainforest.

We went on an organised tour – quite a dissappointment, honestly speaking. The promised trek in the rainforest was ridiculously short. We did get to see a termit mound:

And generally soaked in the rainforest atmosphere:

The key of the program – a visit to a tower commanding the views of the mountains and forests. 98 steps lead up:

Practically half of Puerto Rico can be seen from there:

Finally, the El Yunque waterfall:

All the posts about the cruise in the Caribbean:
Puerto Rico: Strange Spanish-speaking United States
A Denmark in the Antilles: Charlotte-Amalie of the US Virgin Islands
Blotch of Antigua with its 365 beaches of eternal sun
Colourful decay of overseas France: Martinique
Saint Lucia, the most authentic of the Caribbean islands
The last island of the Antilles: Grenada

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