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Ten Things You Probably Didn't Know About Puerto Rico

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Visitors to Puerto Rico tend to have a general idea of what to expect from the island: great beaches, a sizzling nightlife, and all the advantages of a premier Caribbean travel destination. But here are a few things you may not know about Puerto Rico ... fun facts and quirky tidbits that add to its unique allure. Take a look: I bet there's at least one surprise on the list.

1. The world's largest single-dish radio telescope is located in Puerto Rico.

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico
Stocktrek/Photodisc/Getty Images

Who'd have thunk it?? Not known as a scientific hub, Puerto Rico certainly surprised me when I learned that this technological marvel was nestled in the hills of Arecibo. The dish measures a thousand feet in diameter and spans about 20 acres, and is also the most sensitive radio telescope in the world.

There's a chance you've seen the Arecibo radio telescope, even if you've never been to Puerto Rico before. In the climactic last scene in the James Bond movie Goldeneye, the (inevitable) showdown between 007 and the bad guy takes place right here.

2. Puerto Rico is roughly the size of Connecticut.

Given its population (it's one of the most densely populated islands in the world), Puerto Rico is a relatively small place. If it was a state, it would be down near the bottom of the list in terms of size, and that includes the network of islands around the mainland. For those of you traveling from New England, don't worry: in every other way, Puerto Rico is about as far removed from Connecticut as you can think of!

3. El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System.

Photo © Zain Deane

Just a few hours from the ritzy resorts of San Juan, a trip to El Yunque is a visit to a primitive land that has remained virtually unchanged for millennia. Trail hikes, waterfalls, grand vistas and a variety of birds, flora, and some wildlife await you. You'll also be happy to know that there are no dangerous animals in the rainforest.

4. Puerto Rico was "discovered" by Christopher Columbus.

That's right, it was Chris himself who landed on these shores and claimed it for Spain. For those of you who are counting, that makes Puerto Rico the oldest European city under the American flag. It's also interesting to note that Columbus wasn't exactly enamored with the place. He spent two days here, declared it part of Spain, and never returned.

He also wasn't alone when he got here. Puerto Rico at the time was inhabited by a tribe of Indians who called themselves the Taíno. (As we know, these technicalities didn't stop Columbus from claiming foreign lands.)

5. Puerto Rico's unofficial mascot is a tiny tree frog found only on the island.

Photo © Angel A. Acevedo (Dj Soundwav), www.swavdesignstudio.com

Anyone who has been to Puerto Rico is familiar with the incredible coquí, which is native to the island. The inch-long amphibian has a powerful and melodic voice, and its high-pitched, chirrupy song can be heard for miles. The coquís sing from dusk to dawn, and while the locals find this a lilting lullaby, unsuspecting foreigners aren't always comforted by their song. But they are a cute, much-loved symbol of Puerto Rico.

6. More than 70% of the rum sold in the U.S. comes from Puerto Rico.

Photo © Zain Deane

Rum ... the libation of choice, the island's chief export, and the base ingredient in many of Puerto Rico's best cocktails. Puerto Rico and rum go way back ... about 400 years, give or take a decade. Bacardi and Don Q are the largest producers on the island. Puerto Rico is the only rum-producer in the world to maintain a minimum aging law for its rum. You can get three main categories of rum here: light, dark, and añejo, or aged.

7. San Juan is the second largest cruise port in the western hemisphere.

Photo © Zain Deane

Cruise lovers, and Caribbean cruise lovers in particular, are probably quite familiar with Puerto Rico and its capital. How popular is San Juan among cruise aficionados? It's the largest hub in the Caribbean, and a major port of call for almost every cruise ship heading this way. As further incentive for the cruising crowd, Puerto Rico offes a Fun Card which gives disembarking passengers discounts on shopping, dining and lodging at participating businesses on the island.

8. Two of the oldest churches in the Americas lie in Old San Juan.

Photo © Zain Deane

Built in the 1530s, the Iglesia de San José (or "Church of San José") in Old San Juan is the second oldest church in the western hemisphere, and a wonderful example of Spanish gothic architecture. More famous (and beautiful) is the Catedral de San Juan (or "San Juan Cathedral"), which is merely steps away on Cristo Street. The most important religious landmark in Puerto Rico, the cathedral was originally built in the 1520s but fell victim to two hurricanes, attacks, and lootings. The Cathedral also has an interesting tour which includes the remains of Ponce de León (which were removed from the Iglesia de San José in 1908 and relocated here) and a wax-covered, glass-encased mummy of a saint.

9. Puerto Rico has its own "Galapagos Island."

Off the eastern shore of mainland Puerto Rico, (roughly 50 miles away from Mayagüez) lies
Mona Island, which has been compared to the Galapagos island for its unspoiled-by-man natural beauty and its colony of iguanas, which practically overrun the place. The Mona Iguana, found nowhere else on the planet, is the star of the show here. While the iguanas are benign creatures, they're not easy to visit because the island is protected.

10. Puerto Rico has over 270 miles of beaches.

Photo © Zain Deane

It's not just the sheer volume of beachfront that makes Puerto Rico a favorite Caribbean destination, but the quality and variety of them. From beaches with black, magnetic sand to beaches with rusted military tanks left as a poignant memorial; from secluded, idyllic spots to glitzy, star-studded stretches of resort-front property; and from surfing havens to tranquil waters, Puerto Rico has a tremendous variety of beaches. You might even need a guide to help you figure out which beach to go to.

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