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7 Surprising Facts about Puerto Rico

Image of a Spanish stop sign and building in Ponce, Puerto Rico with text overlay that reads 7 Surprising Facts about Puerto Rico
Image of cemetery near coast line with text overlay that reads 7 Surprising Facts about Puerto Rico
Image of cobbled street in Old San Juan with text overlay that reads 7 Surprising Facts about Puerto Rico

Tropical beach with text overlay that reads 7 Surprisng Facts about Puerto Rico

Still sporting a tan from my Caribbean vacation last week, I’d figure I’d share what might be some surprising facts about Puerto Rico.

It was my first time visiting PR and I shouldn’t have been dumbfounded by some of these facts. I mean, I knew #3 since I’ve always found the Puerto Rican way of speaking fascinating. But if you were ever planning a trip to the popular tropical vacation spot, here are some things you should know.

Where is Puerto Rico?

First, let’s start with some geography. Puerto Rico, or PR, is a US territory located in the Caribbean Sea, to the east of Hispaniola and just over 1,000 miles southeast off the tip of Florida.

Map of Caribbean Sea with point denoting San Juan Puerto Rico

That means that while they use US money and are US citizens, they do not have representation in Congress and therefore do not pay federal income tax. So American citizens traveling there don’t require a passport. It’s just like going to Vegas or Hawaii or Guam.

But just because you are still in the United States while in Puerto Rico doesn’t mean that you won’t be surprised by a few things. Like you’ll have an easier time finding a Burger King than a McDonald’s, for starters. Also:

1. You Should Know Spanish

Stop sign in Ponce, Puerto Rico for for 7 surprising facts about Puerto Rico

A stop sign in Ponce, in Spanish

I must admit I was surprised to find that everything in Puerto Rico was in Spanish. I hadn’t realized that primary school education is taught in Spanish. Even though English and Spanish are both the official languages, only 20% of the population speaks English.

Most service people, including restaurant staff and Uber drivers, speak English, so interacting on a daily basis isn’t difficult for a non-Spanish speaker. But I highly advise knowing a minimum of conversational Spanish if you’re traveling there without a native speaker. There was an amusing incident when my husband tried ordering breakfast without a drink and that tripped up the person behind the counter…they were both so flustered that he didn’t realize when her manager came over, that she was speaking to him in English.

2. You Should ALSO Know The Metric System

Kilometer sign in El Yunque Puerto Rico for 7 surprising facts about Puerto Rico

A kilometer marker along a road in El Yunque, the Puerto Rican rainforest

Distance is measured in kilometers. And your phone’s GPS will auto switch to kilometers from miles, which makes measuring distances awkward if you’re not prepared. You’d better know your metric conversions!

1 kilometer = .62 miles

or

1 mile = 1.61 km

Gasoline is also sold in liters. It was about 76.7 cents per liter when we were there. At 3.79 liters per gallon, that works out to less than $3 per gallon for regular gasoline.

By contrast, gas is nearly $4 at the Shell station down the street from my house.

3. And Know Some Boriqua-isms

Boriqua is another word for Puerto Rican. And boriquas speak a bit differently than other Spanish speakers. This isn’t unusual across different Spanish-speaking countries. For example, if you’ve ever heard a Spaniard or Argentinan speaker, you might have heard a slight lisp. This isn’t present in, say, Mexican Spanish (which I grew up more strongly influenced by, despite having only one Mexican parent).

A typical greeting in Spanish is buenos días. That means hello, and it’s used during the day, before the afternoon. In the afternoon you’d say buenas tardes. In the evening, it becomes buenas noches. Of course, you can always just say hola.

Boriquas can speak Spanish very fast and typically cut off some syllables or drop certain sounds. It’s not unusual to instead hear the phrase buen día. This was used at all times of the day. I liked the efficiency of this.

This video does a great job of breaking down a lot of Boriqua-isms. I like to describe the language as a bit more lyrical. Cubans speak very similarly, too.

4. The Craft Beer Scene is AMAZING

Flight of 5 beers from Ocean Lab

A flight of beers at Ocean Lab Brewery

The American craft beer scene is super hot at the moment. American brewers are less constrained by the traditions of the old countries and love to push boundaries. And Puerto Rican brewers aren’t dawdling behind their mainland brethren. What I was most surprised about in Puerto Rico was the breadth of available local craft beer. Beers exist for every major category: stout, brown, amber, blonde, sour, IPA, etc. There was no pigeon-holing into a single island-style beer here.

I even spotted some distinct German and Belgian influences on the menu at La Taberna Lúpulo in Old San Juan. Their entire beer list rivals some of the best taprooms across the US. And the options from local microbreweries were reminiscent of our beer honeymoon (#beerymoon2016) in Europe. Our favorites were Ocean Lab, Zurc Bräuhaus, and Dragonstone Abbey.

The only problem is we were there in the summer. That equated with drinking in high heat and humidity, meaning beers warmed up right quick. You gotta drink fast under those conditions. Which means you won’t drink much unless you have an unusually high tolerance.

Zurc Bräuhaus is based in Coamo, which is where my father was born. We tried to visit since we took a day trip to the city, not even sure they’d have a taproom. Unfortunately, they were not open.

Bearded man in blue shirt and baseball hat standing in front of a closed breweryi

El Hubo very disappointed that Zurc Bräuhouse was closed

5. Don’t be Surprised by Public Toilets

For those that use women’s restrooms: there are no seat covers. Anywhere. Airports, bars, restaurants (even the really nice ones), nada. Nowhere.

Empty bathroom stall

I think I remember seeing this elsewhere in my travels around the US…maybe in Texas? Texans can correct me about this below, but I’m sure Puerto Rico isn’t unique in this respect. I was merely surprised by it.

6. Got TSA Pre-Check?

No one cares.

Headless man in a suit holding a bin with his dress shoes while in an airport security line

SJU, the international airport in San Juan, is small. There are only 36 gates among 4 terminals. If you’re flying JetBlue, you’ll have a separate line for TSA Pre-Check, but that feeds to the very same line with someone who has to take their shoes off and their laptop out and forgot that their cellphone was in their pocket. Oh, and they’re wearing a belt!

So plan ahead and don’t think you’re going to waltz through security at SJU just cuz you paid the extra travel fees.

You will be given a card so you can bypass those extra steps, but you still have to wait for Joe Traveler(s) in front of you to get his/their act(s) together. Give yourself plenty of time.

Bonus airport tip: you cannot get an Uber pickup at the airport (they can drop you off though). Make sure to have cash on hand because not all taxis have credit card machines. And as of August 2019, Lyft does not operate on the island. It’s Uber only!

7. There is Still Much Rebuilding After Maria

One of our Uber drivers said that not all of the street signs were back up after the hurricane. It was true, the first time we walked to where my parents were staying, we couldn’t find the sign for their block. Luckily the GPS did work and we relied on that to help us out.

It’s also difficult to determine what is being rebuilt and what is simply continuing on as is. The stark contrast between homes on the same block was jarring. On one side of the street was a lovely home behind a security gate, while across the street was a graffitied home without windows. This very picture is from a house that was around the corner from a gated community. Hard to say if they’re in the process of renovating or if it’s simply abandoned to squatters.

Home covered in muralistic graffiti

One of many apparently abandoned homes in San Juan

On one drive out to the historic fort in Old San Juan, we passed what had appeared to once be a beautiful large building. It was now covered with the style of graffiti you see in the picture above. Almost like murals. I asked the driver if it had always been that way and he told me no. That had been a hotel known to host visiting politicians and dignitaries.

It’s been nearly 2 full years since Hurricane Maria. It’s no wonder they ousted their governor last week if the mere progress to rebuild landmarks has been this slow. I can’t imagine what more vital systems they’re holding up…


Visiting Puerto Rico brought with it a mix of emotions. Seeing the hurricane’s lasting wreckage, the rallying of the people, hearing the language, seeing my family, walking the neighborhoods where they were born, getting sunburned, trying to think in metric Spanish…it was overwhelming at times and magical at others. I’m glad I got to experience it as I did.

5 siblings ages 74-86 laughing against a turquoise wall in Puerto Rico

My father and his 4 sisters, the OG Boriquas

The next time we go back it will probably be just the two of us, me and El Hubo. But I won’t wait another 40 years! Or for another hurricane.

And it probably will be in the winter. The summer heat and humidity are NO JOKE.

Do you like to travel? What’s your favorite place to visit? Let me know in the comments where you like to go and what you’ve seen. Has it changed you?

 

 

 

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Kirsten Spreitzer
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Kirsten Spreitzer

Great information! And what a beautiful picture of your dad and his sisters.

M.L. James
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Paulette, Your dad and aunts look like a fun-loving bunch! Great picture and I love the way you wrote about Puerto Rico. It makes me want to go. My brother’s been and he really enjoyed his stay, but that was before Maria. I would love to travel but that won’t happen until I start making money. The couple of times I’ve gotten to travel to California and Santa Fe, I really loved it. I’ve walked across into Mexico. That was a million years ago. I understand that it’s much more difficult to do that now. Soooo…I think if I had… Read more »

Fancy
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Really interesting! Love the family pic too.

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