Puerto Rico 2016 - Ponce - Carnival 091
Puerto Rico 2016 - Ponce - Carnival 091 by Aaron Fellmeth Photography (CC BY-NC-ND)

30 Things You Didn't Know About Puerto Rico

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Puerto Rico 2016 - Ponce - Carnival 091
Puerto Rico 2016 - Ponce - Carnival 091 by Aaron Fellmeth Photography (CC BY-NC-ND)

Treasure Island

Though Puerto Rico has been in the news plenty in recent years because of devastation from Hurricane Maria and some political turmoil, many people still know little about the longtime U.S. territory or its rich geographic and cultural diversity. With input from tourism officials at Discover Puerto Rico, here's a closer look at some unique or little-known aspects of the island's history, culture, gastronomy, and more.

Related: 12 Things You Didn't Know About Puerto Rican Food Culture

You Don't Need a Passport to Go
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You Don't Need a Passport to Go

Since Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, U.S. travelers are able to visit the island without having to carry a passport. As a bonus, there's no need for international calling plans for phones brought to the island.

It Has the Only Rainforest in the U.S. Forest System
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It Has the Only Tropical Rainforest in the U.S. Forest System

There's only one tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System: El Yunque in Puerto Rico. The forest gets more than 120 inches of rain every year.

It's the Birthplace of the Piña Colada
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It's the Birthplace of the Piña Colada

Do you love piña coladas? We have Puerto Rico to thank for this sweet mix of coconut cream, pineapple juice, white rum, and ice. The identity of its actual creator continues to be an unresolved controversy — three different bartenders apparently lay claim to the invention — but it was named Puerto Rico's national drink in 1978.

Related: 18 Rums That Will Spice Up Your Cocktails for Less Than $35

It's the Rum Capital of the World
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It's the Rum Capital of the World

Puerto Rico is also known as the rum capital of the world, and for good reason. Casa Bacardi in Cataño is the largest rum distillery in the world, producing about 85% of the Bacardi brand, and the island is responsible for more than 70% of rums sold in the United States, making it Puerto Rico's top export. Distilleries on the island make more than 80 types of rum.

It Has One of the Top 50 Bars in the World
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It Has One of the Top 50 Bars in the World

Puerto Rico, and San Juan in particular, is rapidly becoming known for its mixology scene. An up-and-coming generation of bartenders is transforming the local industry; La Factoria in Old San Juan has been voted one of the top 50 bars in the world four years in a row, making it a must-visit for cocktail aficionados everywhere.

It's Home to Serious Coffee Culture
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It's Home to Serious Coffee Culture

Puerto Rico's climate, topography, and hydrology, soil diversity, and geology make it the ideal place for diverse agriculture. But one of the best examples of how agriculture has shaped the the island is coffee production: Visitors can see the process of harvesting, roasting, and grinding world-renowned coffee firsthand at many haciendas on the island, some dating back to the 1800s.

It's Pretty Small
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It's Pretty Small

Puerto Rico is a very small island — only 100 miles long by 35 miles wide, making it the smallest island of the Greater Antilles.

There's More Than One Island
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There's More Than One Island

Many people don't know that this U.S. territory is actually an archipelago that includes the main island of Puerto Rico, several smaller islands such as Vieques and Culebra, and several uninhabited islands including Isla de Mona and Caja de Muertos (in English, this is Coffin Island, also known as the "Dead Man's Chest," where the history reads like a pirate adventure tale).

Mosquito bay, Bioluminescent bay, Vieques
Mosquito bay, Bioluminescent bay, Vieques by Edgar Torres (CC BY)

It Has Three of the World's Five Bioluminescent Bays

Three of the world's five bioluminescent bays are here. These rare ecosystems result from microscopic, single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates that grow in quantities big enough to produce a "glow-in-the-dark" effect when stimulated by movement. In other words, when you paddle or splash, the organisms light up a neon blue-green. The bays are in La Parguera, Fajardo, and Vieques.

It Has Its Own Flag
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It Has Its Own Flag

Although Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, the island also has its own flag — not based on the U.S. flag, despite widespread misconceptions. Rather, the flag is a representation of the island's close ties with Cuba during the 19th century; Puerto Rico's flag is the Cuban flag's colors, reversed. Do you see a black-and-white version? That's the Resistance flag, a symbol of protest and call for political respect.

San Juan Turns 500 Years Old This Year
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San Juan Turns 500 Years Old This Year

The island kick off celebrations in September for the 500th anniversary of its capital, San Juan. The festivities are set to begin Sept. 12 to celebrate when occupation of the isle was authorized back in 1519, and they end Dec. 31, 2021, commemorating the official 1521 founding date.

It's Unofficial National Symbol Is the Coquí Frog
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Its Unofficial National Symbol Is the Coquí Frog

Puerto Ricans on the Island often fall asleep to the sound of coquí frogs (named after the sound they make), which are native to the Island and often considered its unofficial national symbol.

It Has a Rich Salsa Heritage
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It Has a Rich Salsa Heritage

Salsa music is a big part of Puerto Rico's vibrant culture. One of the hottest genres in the world, as well as a style of dance most associated with the island, its stars include performers and composers from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent, including Tite Curet Alonso, Ray Barretto, Hector Lavoe, Cheo Feliciano, Willie Colón, Gilbert Santa Rosa, and Ismael Rivera.

Lechonera los Pinos
Lechonera los Pinos by Matt (CC BY-NC)

There's a Pork Highway

For the meat lovers of the world, here's a tidbit that stands out even among a generally mouthwatering food culture: Puerto Rico is home to a legendary road across Guavate in south central Puerto Rico known as La Ruta del Lechón. Translation: the Pork Highway. Along the road, you'll find several lechoneras, or outdoor restaurants specializing in seasoned whole pigs slow-roasted over open fires, as well as specialties such as mofongo (which uses a plantain base), arroz con gandules (rice, pigeon peas, and pork) and pasteles (a tamale-like dish filled with pork and wrapped in banana leaves).

It Has Beaches, Beaches and more beaches
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It Has Beaches, Beaches and More Beaches

There's almost 300 miles of coastline and, as it turns out, almost the same number of beaches. Among all of those beaches, Flamenco Beach, in Culebra, has been recognized frequently as one of the Top 10 Beaches in the world.

It Has the Longest Zip Line in America
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It Has the Longest Zip Line in America

El Monstruo at ToroVerde Adventure Park is a 2.5-kilometer cable zip line (that's 1.4 miles) that allows riders to reach speeds of up to 152.8 kilometers per hour (that's 95 mph) while taking in views from, 1,200 feet above the ground. It's the longest zip line in the Americas.

It Has the Longest Christmas in the World
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It Has the Longest Christmas in the World

Calling all Christmas lovers: This may be your new happy place. The island is known for having the longest Christmas in the world, a season lasting 45 days that begins the day after Thanksgiving and ends in mid-January with the San Sebastian Street Festival.

It Has Salt Flats and Pink Water
It Has Salt Flats and Pink Water by Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas (CC BY-NC-ND)

It Has Salt Flats and Pink Water

One of Puerto Rico's least known natural treasures are the salt flats (Las Salinas) in Cabo Rojo. With water pink from the salinity, Las Salinas is a popular eco attraction and one of the most scenic stops along Puerto Rico's west coast. In 1999, the salt flats were made a part of the Cabo Rojo Wildlife Refuge, which is home to six ecological systems.

It's Has a Historic Luxury Hotel Dating Back to the 1600s
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It Has a Historic Luxury Hotel Dating Back to the 1600s

Searching for a memorable place to stay in Puerto Rico? Look no further than Hotel El Convento, a property in the heart of San Juan that is the oldest member of the Historic Hotels of America. The charming property (and former convent, you might guess from the name) was built in 1646, and was also the first Small Luxury Hotel of the World member in Puerto Rico.

It Has the Oldest Executive Mansion in the Western Hemisphere
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It Has the Oldest Executive Mansion in the Western Hemisphere

The Puerto Rican governor's official residence, La Fortaleza, is the oldest executive mansion in the new world still in continuous use. The building, constructed in 1533, has accommodated more than 170 governors. The structure was originally built for defense against Carib Indians.

Birth of the New World and its surroundings after being struck by Maria.

It Has the Tallest Sculpture in North America

"Birth of the New World," a statue of Christopher Columbus in Arecibo, is 360 feet tall — taller than the Statue of Liberty. The sculpture, by Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, weighs a staggering 6,500 tons. The gigantic work required about 500 workers to put it on its feet.

It Has the Second-Largest Single-Dish Radio Telescope in the World
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It Has the Second-Largest Single-Dish Radio Telescope in the World

Speaking of giant attractions, Puerto Rico is home to the Arecibo Observatory and the world's second-largest single dish radio telescope. The research facility also includes several interactive astronomy exhibits.

The Street Art Alone is Worth a Visit
The Street Art Alone is Worth a Visit by Juan Cristobal Zulueta (CC BY)

The Street Art Alone is Worth a Visit

The art goes far beyond the walls of museums. Visitors will stumble across art wherever they go, from the colorful murals of Santurce to Old San Juan. In the Santurce es Ley neighborhood in particular, visitors will see work by some of the best street artists and muralists in the world, blossoming from an effort to beautify old and abandoned buildings.

You Must Look for the 78 Municipios y 1 Bandera Project
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You Must Look for the 78 Municipios y 1 Bandera Project

Artist Héctor Collazo Hernéndez took it upon himself to paint the Puerto Rican flag in each of 78 municipalities across the Island. His "78 Municipios y 1 Bandera" (78 Municipalities and 1 flag) challenge encourages people to travel the Island, taking a picture with each.

Estatua de Agüeybaná II, El Bravo, en el Parque Monumento a Agüeybaná II, El Bravo, en Ponce, Puerto Rico
Estatua de Agüeybaná II, El Bravo, en el Parque Monumento a Agüeybaná II, El Bravo, en Ponce, Puerto Rico by Tito Caraballo (CC BY-SA)

The Original Inhabitants Were the Taíno Indigenous People

Puerto Rico's original inhabitants were the Taíno indigenous people, who populated most of the Caribbean and even some adjacent territories during the pre-Columbian era — long before the Spaniards and others arrived. Once conquerors arrived on the island in the late 15th century, the Tainos were enslaved, and most died of disease or exploitation.

The Taina Route Can Be Explored by Visitors Today
OGphoto/istockphoto

The Taina Route Can Be Explored by Visitors Today

It's easy to spot Taino contributions to vocabulary, cuisine, and artwork by following the Taína Route north to south through central mountainous areas that offer glimpses into their ceremonial centers, tombs, and caves.

Puerto Rico 2016 - Ponce - Carnival 095b
Puerto Rico 2016 - Ponce - Carnival 095b by Aaron Fellmeth Photography (CC BY-NC-ND)

It Has a Mixed Culture

Puerto Rico's culture is a mix of Taino, African, and Spanish influences. This fusion extends to almost every aspect of life, including colorful arts and crafts, vibrant music, and traditional festivals.

Spanglish is Spoken in Some Places
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Spanglish is Spoken in Some Places

While the island's official languages are Spanish and English, visitors may come across people who speak a mixture of both, or "Spanglish."

Plaza @ 7am before opening
Plaza @ 7am before opening by Moebiusuibeom-en (CC BY-SA)

It Has the Largest Shopping Center in the Caribbean

Calling all shopping fans. Yet another larger-than-life offering, Plaza Las Americas is the largest shopping center in the Caribbean. There are more than 250 stores, including a Macy's, the largest JCPenny in the chain, and a 327,000-square-foot Sears. (For younger shoppers, there's also a 40,000-square-foot Forever 21.) Additional highlights at this shopping mecca include a 15-screen movie theater and more than 50 dining options. Get your credit cards ready for a workout.

It's a U.S. Territory that Competes as a Country in the Olympics
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It's a U.S. Territory that Competes as a Country in the Olympics

One last random factoid: While Puerto Rico is an American territory, it competes as an individual country in Miss Universe contests and in the Olympics.