Puerto Rico​—Riches in the Sun

ON November 19, 1493, Christopher Columbus, with a flotilla of Spanish ships, arrived in the bay of a lush Caribbean island. While there, he named the island San Juan Bautista (St. John the Baptist). After briefly replenishing his supplies, he sailed away and continued his second voyage of discovery.

Golden, palm-fringed beaches and exuberant tropical vegetation held little attraction for this explorer. Columbus had his sights set on larger islands and the riches he was determined to discover.

Ponce de León, a Spaniard who some say accompanied Columbus on that voyage, resolved to go back to the island, which was known by its natives as Boriquén. Having heard reports of gold ornaments owned by the natives, he believed the island’s hills harbored gold. Fifteen years later he returned to stake his claim. In 1521 the Spaniards established their principal settlement on the northern coast of the island. Ponce de León called the new town Puerto Rico, meaning “Rich Port,” in anticipation of a rich bounty. *

Ponce de León’s optimism proved unfounded. The small amount of gold to be found in Puerto Rico was quickly exhausted, and political problems multiplied. Finally, Ponce de León left for what is today the state of Florida, U.S.A.

Though the island itself held little mineral wealth, the Spanish soon recognized that Puerto Rico’s main harbor was a valuable asset. During the 16th century, they converted the island’s capital into a secure port for protecting the galleons that carried bullion from the Americas to Spain. Before long, San Juan became known as “the strongest foothold of Spain in America.”

Stout walls, 42 feet [13 m] high and up to 20 feet [6 m] thick​—as well as two massive fortresses—​testify to the extraordinary effort made by the people of San Juan to protect their city. Today, San Juan is still one of the Caribbean’s favorite ports of call. Visitors can imagine life in colonial times as they walk alongside the city walls and explore the ancient buildings.

A Visit to Old San Juan

The walled city, known as Old San Juan, contrasts with the bustling modern metropolis that surrounds it. Old San Juan looks like a ship afloat in the ocean. Practically surrounded by the sea, its headland, or “prow,” juts out defiantly into the Atlantic. On this strategic wedge lies El Morro, the Spanish fort that protected the harbor entrance. Behind El Morro walled ramparts line both coastlines of the narrow isthmus, which is shaped somewhat like the bow of a ship. A mile to the east stands another huge fortress called San Cristóbal, which served to defend the “stern” against any possible attack by land. Sandwiched between these two forts lies Old San Juan, designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1983.

The old city has been carefully restored. Residents paint their houses with lively pastel colors, drape their wrought-iron balconies  with colorful flowers, and fill their courtyards with tropical plants. The bluish-gray cobblestones that were used to pave San Juan’s narrow streets originated in the iron mines of Spain. Slag from the mines was formed into cobblestones and used as ballast by Spanish ships traveling to Puerto Rico.

On the ramparts of San Cristóbal, ancient Spanish cannons still stand vigil over the harbor. Instead of Spanish galleons laden with gold, giant cruise ships loaded with tourists now frequent the port. The relaxed atmosphere and the friendliness of the island’s inhabitants add to the city’s popularity as a tourist destination. Pedestrians still have the right of way in the old city, so easygoing drivers often wait patiently while photographers on the street take vacation snapshots.

Four Precious Ecosystems Worth Protecting

Although a third of the island’s population lives in the San Juan area, Puerto Rico has many other attractions. The island may be relatively small, but its varied climate and topography make it a haven for flora and fauna. The following  are just four of the unique ecosystems that the authorities in Puerto Rico are striving to conserve.

El Yunque National Forest is a reserve protecting one of the few tropical rain forests left in the Caribbean. Waterfalls decorate its slopes. Orange bromeliad blooms brighten the green vegetation of its cloud forest, while huge tree ferns vie for space with lianas and palm trees. Though endangered, the Puerto Rican parrot clings to survival in this haven, and the coquí​—Puerto Rico’s emblematic tiny tree frog—​brings rhythm to the forest with its insistent, musical calls.

From a distance, El Yunque’s slopes seem to wear a silver veil. The color is from the leaves of the yagrumo tree, a species that proliferated after the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo several years ago. The new growth is a good sign. “The forest can recover from natural disasters without much help,” explained a park biologist. “The real danger is human encroachment.” The park hosts some 225 species of trees, 100 species of ferns, and 50 species of orchids. Because of its rich variety of flora, it has been classified as a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.

Guánica Biosphere Reserve. Possibly as little as 1 percent of the world’s tropical dry forest still remains. There is a prime example, however, just a few hours’ drive from El Yunque. Some botanists describe Guánica as “perhaps the best example of subtropical dry forest vegetation in the world.” It is home to most of Puerto Rico’s endemic birds, as well as 750 species of plants, 7 percent of which are endangered. The unusual flowers  attract hummingbirds and a host of butterflies. Bordering the dry forest is a stretch of unspoiled coastline, where green turtles and leatherback turtles come to lay their eggs.

Mangroves and Coral Reefs. The Guánica reserve also includes a strip of mangrove forest along the coast. “Our reserve helps keep the mangroves healthy, since there is no industrial or agricultural runoff,” explained one of the park rangers. “And the mangroves provide an ideal breeding area for many fish that populate the coral reefs.” Other unique tourist attractions that depend on pristine mangroves are the luminescent bays, several of which can be found in Puerto Rico.​—See  the box below.

The offshore coral reefs have escaped intensive fishing, and several cays and underwater reefs have been set aside as national parks. These underwater gardens provide a wonderful spectacle for divers, who can come face-to-face with turtles and manatees as well as a great variety of colorful fish.

Although Puerto Rico failed to impress Columbus and disappointed the wealth-seeking conquistadores, it delights modern visitors. To them, Puerto Rico is brimming with natural riches.


^ par. 4 Soon thereafter, a misunderstanding among cartographers led to the name of the island being confused with its principal settlement. Ever since, the island​—rather than the capital, San Juan—​has been known as Puerto Rico.

[Box/​Picture on page 16]


Worthy of a visit is the Arecibo Observatory, about 50 miles [80 km] west of San Juan. It boasts the world’s largest radio telescope, with a dish, or bowl-shaped reflector, that is 1,000 feet [305 m] in diameter. The size of this telescope allows astronomers to observe objects that cannot be detected by other telescopes.

[Credit Line]

Courtesy Arecibo Observatory/​David Parker/​Science Photo Library

[Box/​Picture on page 17]


On the island of Vieques​—just off the coast of Puerto Rico—​is a small inlet known as Bioluminescent Bay. The bay earns its name because it has what is reputedly the highest concentration of phosphorescent aquatic organisms in the world. Whenever these tiny creatures​—known as dinoflagellates—​get disturbed, they glow a greenish-blue. This characteristic creates one of the most unusual spectacles of nature.

Visitors who come to the lagoon at night first notice the luminescence when startled fish shoot away from their boat. The trails of the fish light up in the dark waters like green shooting stars. When swimmers take to the water, every movement they make can be seen in the dark. When they lift their arms out of the water, droplets fall off them like twinkling stars. “The experience is like bathing in stars!” exclaimed one visitor.

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El Morro

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A view of the old city from San Cristóbal

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Old San Juan

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A tree fern in El Yunque rain forest

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The coastline in Guánica

[Credit Line]

© Heeb Christian/​age fotostock

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Puerto Rican parrots

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A coral reef

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Passport Stock/​age fotostock

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All photos: Passport Stock/​age fotostock

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Parrots: U.S. Geological Survey/​Photo by James W. Wiley; reef: © Stuart Westmorland 2005; swimmer: Steve Simonsen