Puerto Rico lies 995 mi/1,600 km southeast of Miami. It’s actually several islands. The largest, also named Puerto Rico, is rectangular in shape and about 95 mi/153 km long by 36 mi/58 km wide. Its terrain is among the most varied in the region – rugged mountains rise in the middle, quiet beaches edge the northern and eastern shores (which are lapped by the Atlantic Ocean) while in parts of the southwest, beaches give way to steep cliffs that plummet into the Caribbean Sea.
Christopher Columbus sighted Puerto Rico in 1493. Fifteen years later, Spain chose Ponce de Leon, the seeker of the Fountain of Youth, to be the island’s first governor. The original inhabitants, the Taino Indians, rebelled against the Spanish, but their uprising only resulted in the decimation of their population. For four centuries, Spain used the island as its gateway to the New World, defending it against assaults from the English, the French and the Dutch. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, they met their match: The U.S. Army landed on the southern side of the island. Puerto Rico was formally awarded to the U.S.
Puerto Rico was declared a commonwealth and its residents granted U.S. citizenship in 1917. However, residents don’t have every right enjoyed by their mainland cousins. For instance, they don’t get to vote in U.S. presidential elections. And they remain divided about whether they want Puerto Rico to become the 51st state.
Industrial development, initiated as part of the U.S. government’s Operation Bootstrap program in the 1940s, has brought pharmaceutical and high-tech companies – as well as prosperity – to Puerto Rico. It now has one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. Of course, progress has had its downside, particularly in San Juan: more traffic, more pollution, more crime – all the problems common to urban areas.