The Taíno people have lived on the island of Puerto Rico since around 1200, and they still live there today. They called the island Borikén, which some historians think meant “island of crabs” or perhaps “land of the brave.”
When Christopher Columbus arrived in 1493, he made the island a colony of Spain by royal decree, and he called it San Juan Bautista in honor of John the Baptist, a Christian prophet. Then in 1508, the island’s first governor, Juan Ponce de León, changed the name to Puerto Rico, which means “rich port” in the Spanish language. That’s because gold and treasures from the Americas went through Puerto Rico before sailing to Europe. Around that time, slave traders forced African people to the island to build forts and work on farms.
Puerto Rico came under United States rule after Spain lost the Spanish-American War in 1898. Then in 1917, the island became a U.S. territory and Puerto Ricans were given U.S. citizenship when President Woodrow Wilson signed the Jones-Shafroth Act.
Although Puerto Rico is not a state, residents use the U.S. dollar and services like the U.S. Postal Service. U.S. citizens—including Puerto Ricans—don’t need passports to travel between Puerto Rico and the mainland United States.
It’s often called an island, but Puerto Rico is actually an archipelago, which is a string of islands. Only three are inhabited: the main island of Puerto Rico and two islands named Vieques (pronounced vee-EH-kez) and Culebra (koo-LAY-bra).
The land was created by a now-extinct volcano that began erupting about 190 million years ago. The main island has a mountain range, La Cordillera (koor-day-YEH-rah) Central, that runs east to west. At 4,389 feet (four times the height of the Eiffel Tower), Cerro de Punta in the central town of Jayuya (HA-yuh-yah) is the highest point on the island.
Puerto Rico is a tropical habitat with warm weather year-round and has the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system, El Yunque (YUHN-kay) National Forest. It’s one of the smallest national forests in the United States, but it’s also one of the most diverse, holding 183 animal species and 225 tree species (23 of which are found only in this area). Although the main island is just about 110 miles long and 35 miles wide, it holds a rainforest, a dry forest in Guánica, and hundreds of rivers and waterfalls.
One of the island’s most famous wildlife residents is the coquí (koh-KEE), a dime-size frog thats name comes from the sound it makes. The island also has around 320 bird species, including the emerald hummingbird (which lives nowhere else) and the Puerto Rican parrot.
Coquí frog photography by Neftalí Rios
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Puerto Ricans’ heritage is a mix of Taíno Indian, African, and European (mostly Spanish)—and the island’s food reflects this. The Taíno people farmed yuca (a potato-like vegetable), African people brought plantains (sort of like bananas), and the Spanish brought rice. Popular dishes include lechón (roasted pork, pronounced lay-CHON), rice and beans, mofongo (which is mashed fried plantains), and fried fritters such as empanadas and alcapurrias (al-kah-POO-ree-as). Tropical fruits such a pineapple, guava, mangoes, passion fruit, and tamarind are used in sweet and savory dishes.
The capital of San Juan and its surrounding towns, located on the northern coast, is the most populated area of Puerto Rico. (If Puerto Rico was a state, it would be more populous than 20 other U.S. states, as of 2020 population data.)
Mofongo photograph by Yulia-Bogdanova / Getty Images
Puerto Rico is not a state or a country but an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States. That means it has its own government—Puerto Ricans elect their own governor and members of their Senate and House of Representatives to make laws. But it also means that that not all of the U.S. Constitution automatically applies to Puerto Rico residents. (In 1950 Puerto Rico became a commonwealth, meaning it has its own constitution.) They can’t vote for the president of the United States, but they do vote for a representative called the Resident Commissioner. This person can’t vote on U.S. laws, but instead speaks on behalf of Puerto Rican interests, sponsor bills, and participates in congressional committees.
The Spanish name for the status of Puerto Rico, Estado Libre y Asociado (hes-TA-do LEE-bray ee ah-so-SEE-ah-do), meaning “free and associated state,” represents the relationship with the United States. However, Puerto Ricans have voted six times between 1967 and 2020 on what they want the status of Puerto Rico to be: a U.S. state, an independent nation, or a territory. In 2020 the majority of voters chose to become a state—but the final decision to grant statehood lies with the U.S. Congress.
• Famous Puerto Ricans include singer Ricky Martin, baseball player Roberto Clemente, and actor Benicio del Toro (DJ from Star Wars: The Last Jedi). The creator of the popular musical Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was born to Puerto Rican parents, as was singer Jennifer Lopez.
• La Fortaleza, a fort in Old San Juan (the historic part of the capital), was built in the 1500s to protect the island from foreign invaders such as English and Dutch explorers. Today it’s a tourist attraction and includes a mansion where the governor lives.
• San Juan is the oldest continuously inhabited city in a U.S. territory.
• Puerto Rico has three bioluminescent bays: Cabezas (kah-BEH-zahs) de San Juan, La Parguera (par-GHEH-rah), and Mosquito Bay in Vieques. These rare places have tiny organisms that glow when they move.
• More people of Puerto Rican origin (an estimated 5.6 million) live in the mainland United States than in Puerto Rico.