The capital city of San Juan is divided into the old and the new. The old part was founded in 1521 and is now officially declared a National Historic Zone, and many 16th- and 17th-century buildings have been restored and refurbished in the original Spanish style. This part of the city boasts many shops, restaurants, art galleries and museums. The Pablo Casals Museum has manuscripts and photographs relating to the work of the famous cellist. Videotapes of performances from past Casals festivals (held every June) can be viewed on request. Casa de los Contrafuertes houses the African Heritage Museum. Casa del Callejón is a traditional Spanish-style home, which holds the Museum of Colonial Architecture and the Museum of the Puerto Rican Family. Casa del Libro holds a rare collection of early manuscripts and books, some dating back to the 15th century. The San Juan Museum of Art and History was built in 1855 as a market and restored in 1979 as a cultural centre where the patio is often used for concerts. Plaza de San José, at the ‘top’ of old San Juan and marked by a statue of Juan Ponce de León, is a picturesque area of small museums and pleasant cafes. Other places of interest in Old San Juan include El Morro (a 16th-century Spanish fortress) and the 18th-century fort of San Cristobal, built in 1771. Both buildings are perched on clifftops at the tip of a peninsula. El Morro, in particular, has many exhibits documenting Puerto Rico’s role in the discovery of the New World and was instrumental in the defence of San Juan in the 16th century and its continuing survival.
Casa Blanca, dating from 1523, was built as a home for Ponce de León, and the Dominican Convent (also started in 1523) now houses the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña. La Fortaleza, completed in 1540, is now the Governor’s residence – the oldest of its kind in the Western hemisphere. The old San Juan City Wall, dating from the 1630s, was built by the Spanish and it follows the peninsula contour, providing picturesque vantage points for viewing Old San Juan and the sea. San Juan Cathedral, originally built in the 1520s, was completely restored in 1977. San José Church is the second-oldest church in the Western hemisphere – Ponce de León’s body was interred here until the early 20th century. The Alcaldía, or City Hall, was built between 1604 and 1789. The Casino (not to be confused with gambling clubs) is a beautiful building dating from 1917. Recently refurbished, the rich interior boasts marble floors, exquisite plasterwork and 4.7 m (12 ft) chandeliers.
New San Juan is connected to the old town by a narrow neck of land, and modern architecture has flourished in recent years. The Botanical Gardens are worth visiting. A bay cruise is also available, which offers excellent views of the city.
El Yunque, east of the capital, is a 28,000-acre rainforest (with over 240 species of trees) and bird sanctuary. It is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System and is located in the Luquillo Mountains.
The beautiful town of Ponce, on the southern side of the island and connected to the capital by a toll road, is situated near many excellent beaches. It hosts an Indian Ceremonial Park and also has several buildings of interest, including a sugar mill and rum museum. The Museum of Art there contains more than 1000 paintings and 400 sculptures, ranging from ancient classical to contemporary art. Its collection of 19th-century Pre-Raphaelite paintings is among the best in the Americas.
The Arroyo to Ponce train stops at Guayama, where the station has been restored as a crafts centre. The Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, a short drive from Ponce, is an ancient Indian burial ground. A replica of a Taino Indian village has been built near the small museum, reception area and exhibition hall.
The Phosphorescent Bay, near La Parguera in the southwest of the island, is a major attraction. Here, marine life, microscopic in size, lights up when disturbed by fish, boats or any movement. The phenomenon – especially vivid on moonless nights – is rarely found elsewhere. Boat trips are available at night. There are other phosphorescent bays in Vieques and Fajardo.
The Camuy Caves, near Arecibo on the north coast, is the third-largest cave system in the world. There are well-paved access roads, a reception area, and electric trains to the entrance of the caves. The Arecibo Observatory is the site of the largest radar/radio telescope in the world. Located in the unusual karst country of Puerto Rico, the 20-acre dish is best seen from a small airplane flight between San Juan and Mayagüez. The Caguana Indian Ceremonial Park, south of the Arecibo Observatory, was built by Taino Indians as a site for recreation and worship 800 years ago. There is another Ceremonial Park in Ponce.
There are old colonial towns at San Germán and Mayagüez and a Tropical Agricultural Research Station near the Mayagüez division of the University of Puerto Rico, with cuttings of hundreds of tropical plants. Many of the drives through the centre of the island take in spectacular scenery and are to be recommended. The Espíritu Santo is a navigable river that flows from the Luquillo Mountains to the Atlantic, and has 24 passenger launches available for river tours along 8 km (5 mi) of the route. Special arrangements can be made for groups (through a tour operator); the boat ride usually takes about two hours.