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Fodor's Puerto Rico 1ed"Fodor's guides cover culture authoritatively and rarely miss a sight or museum." - National Geographic Traveler
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Destination: Puerto Rico
What makes Puerto Rico distinctive among Caribbean destinations is the sheer breadth of experiences available to you. If you crave a luxury resort, you'll find several world-class options to choose from. If you're a nature lover, you'll find an abundance of wonders to explore. If you're a surfer or an art aficionado, a golfer or a history buff, a deep-sea diver or a gourmet, you'll find satisfaction here. And perhaps foremost, lending a distinctive flavor to any Puerto Rico experience, you'll find a sophisticated, centuries-old culture -- a mix of Native American, Spanish, African, and contemporary U.S. influences that's unique to the island.
Puerto Rico will wow you with its gorgeous beaches and deep blue waters. If all you want is to sit on the sand and enjoy a piña colada, there's no better place to do it. But if you want something more, Puerto Rico is rich with possibilities.
A Puerto Rico visit isn't complete without some time in the sand and sun. By law, all Puerto Rican playas (beaches) are open to the public. The government maintains more than a dozen balnearios (public beaches) around the island, with dressing rooms; lifeguards; parking; and in some cases picnic tables, playgrounds, and camping facilities. Admission is free, parking is $2. Hours vary, but most balnearios are open 9-5 daily in summer and Tuesday-Sunday the rest of the year.
Many Puerto Rican chefs have taken cues from the international set, and "world cuisine" is the buzzword at trend-conscious restaurants. Throughout the island you'll find everything from French haute cuisine to sushi bars, as well as superb local eateries serving comidas criollas, traditional Caribbean-creole meals.
If you're looking for authentic Puerto Rican cuisine, one indication is the mesòn gastronómico label used by the government to recognize restaurants that preserve culinary traditions. There are more than 40 such establishments island-wide, and while not every one is of the highest quality, there are fine restaurants in the system.
Puerto Rico is also known for a number of trademark drinks. The renowned locally grown coffee is excellent served espresso-black or generously cut con leche (with hot milk). Legends trace the birthplace of the piña colada to any number of San Juan establishments, from the Caribe Hilton to Gran Hotel El Convento to a Calle La Fortaleza bar. Puerto Rican rum is popular mixed with cola (known as a cuba libre), soda, tonic, juices, or water, or served on the rocks or even straight up.
The time when one of the main tourism activities in Puerto Rico was gambling has passed, but casinos still draw crowds. Today, rather than high rollers out for a week of intense dice and card games, the casinos tend to be filled with couples looking for fun and a chance to hit the jackpot.
Dress for the larger casinos tends to be on the more formal side, and the atmosphere is refined. The law permits casinos to operate noon-4 [am], but individual casinos set their own hours. The minimum age is 18.
Music is the heart and soul of Puerto Rico. One of the island's first musical forms was bomba y plena, folk music that originated with slave groups on the island and utilizes drums, scratch gourds, and the cuatro, a five-double-string Spanish guitar. The form is still heard at island music and cultural festivals and in the countryside.
The brash Latin sound today is best exemplified by salsa, as interpreted by a flock of internationally known Latin entertainers. Puerto Rico's contributions include pop sensation Ricky Martin and the late, great Tito Puente. Salsa, Spanish for "sauce," meaning the sauce that energizes the party, is a fusion of West African percussion and jazz with a swing beat and is eminently danceable. Other Latin beats heard on the island, with origins in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Spain, are mambo, merengue, flamenco, cha-cha, and rumba. Bands both small in the country tradition and large in the Big Band tradition play at local hotels, casinos, and concert halls throughout the island.
What would a vacation be without a few souvenirs to carry home? You will find unique buys in Puerto Rico. Popular local items include santos, which are small, hand-carved figures of saints or religious scenes used in religious festivals. Hand-rolled cigars are always a good bet, and the craftsmen who create them can be seen at work in several spots. Veijigantes (colorful masks made of papier-mâché and coconut husks and used during Carnival and local festivals) are one-of-a-kind buys, and exquisitely crafted Panama hats are sure to set the tropical mood. Local fine art follows the Puerto Rican tradition of passion and dignity -- and the island has plenty of art galleries.