Puerto Rico is one of the biggest islands in the Caribbean and features a lush landscape with beaches, waterfalls, tropical rainforests, and mountains. PR is well-known for its Spanish heritage, rich history, reggaeton music, and buena gente (“good people”).
Island With an American Twist
Puerto Rico — also known as la Isla de Encanto (“the Island of Charm”) — is a primarily Spanish-speaking island. It’s a U.S. territory, and you can see American influence everywhere on the island.
Puerto Ricans hold U.S. passports, shop at American chains, and pay with American dollars. They don’t have the right to vote in U.S. presidential elections, but they have their own governor and flag, but a large percentage of the population doesn’t speak English. Even though many people on the island identify solely as Puerto Rican, and some Americans may not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, the island and the mainland still benefit from each other. One benefit is the ease of travel between the two destinations; mainlanders make up a large percentage of tourism to the island.
Former Spanish Colony Without Many Europeans
For many Europeans, Puerto Rico remains an undiscovered gem. A lack of direct flights between PR and Europe limits the number of visitors. If it weren’t for cruise ships that call on PR’s ports, European tourism would be rarer. Holiday offers from travel agents in Europe are still largely dominated by hassle-free “all-inclusive” resort holidays to other Caribbean destinations, including the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Jamaica.
Prior to arriving here, I also had very limited knowledge of Puerto Rico and I was surprised to discover that Puerto Rico is very different from the rest of the Caribbean. I quickly realized that the typical European vacation consisting of a week at an all-inclusive resort is just not a thing here. Instead, a vibrant, diverse, and unique culture is waiting to be discovered.
Living the Caribbean Dream
The home of the hit song “Despacito” became my home in late 2019. After living in rainy England for 13 years, I jumped at the opportunity to live on a sun-kissed island. My only exposure to the island before moving there was the song “Puerto Rico” by Vaya Con Dios. But the promise of sunny weather, a Latin atmosphere, and the inviting ocean were enough for me to leave Europe.
I arrived at the San Juan airport with a backpack and a strong desire to live the Caribbean dream.
A Friendly, Lively Local Culture
The people of Puerto Rico are one of its greatest treasures. They’re always smiling, friendly, and helpful. Don’t be surprised if strangers greet you while you’re walking down the street (buena!) or eating at a restaurant (buen provecho!). They make you feel like family, not just a visitor, and I felt very welcomed by the island’s residents from my first day. I found it very easy to integrate socially into PR. I’ve always considered myself an extrovert, but I’ve met my match with many locals here. We Europeans could learn a thing or two about Puerto Ricans! Their positive approach to life is an inspiration, and around every corner, you will find celebrations like family picnics and chinchorreo (“party buses”). It’s what makes this island such a special place!
Puerto Rico has a very rich and unique culture that is illustrated by its cuisine (local favorites include mofongo and pasteles), music (Ricky Martin and Bad Bunny), and street art. Even after two and a half years of living here, I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is so much more to the island than palm-lined beaches (but if that’s your thing, try Luquillo beach for chilling and Mar Chiquita beach for cool drone shots), including El Morro of Old San Juan (pro tip: park in Doña Fela and walk everywhere in Old San Juan).
A Slower Pace of Life
In Poland and the United Kingdom, I was accustomed to prioritizing speed and efficiency when dealing with daily errands. But here, those things are less important. Locals are much more focused on building relationships and connecting with people. Lines at medical clinics, banks, and government offices can be long and might irritate new arrivals who are used to living their life a bit faster. Even though it can be frustrating, those who are overworked, overscheduled, and overstimulated may find that the laid-back life in Puerto Rico is just what they need. World events over the last couple of years have caused many of us to reexamine our lives and slow down a bit, but Puerto Ricans were already way ahead of the rest of us.
The Caribbean From the Postcards
The Caribbean Sea, palm trees, and pristine beaches are a huge part of Puerto Rico’s landscape. But the natural beauty of the island can also be found inland. PR is packed with majestic waterfalls, beautiful rainforests, scenic mountains, and refreshing rivers. La Isla de Encanto has fascinating flora and fauna, and it’s a true paradise for nature lovers. I have explored some great hiking trails, seen very unique flowers, and tasted exotic fruits I had never heard of. Living here has taught me that there’s so much more to Puerto Rico than what you typically see on postcards. (Though I must admit it took this city girl some time to get used to seeing chickens at gas stations, random pigs sunbathing on the beach, and iguanas casually crossing the road.)
Summer Weather All Year Round
Many dream of living where the weather is always sunny and warm — myself included. I liked experiencing four seasons, but swapping long Polish winters and English rain for year-round sunshine was an easy decision. Puerto Ricans enjoy warm, sunny, and humid days most of the year, with a rainy season between May and October. Rainfall is frequent (especially near El Yunque National Forest) but mercifully short. And as much as I hated rain in the U.K., living in a hot, humid climate has made me appreciate it more.
Perennial sunshine makes all types of outdoor activities more appealing, but the tropical climate also requires some adaptation. For example, I learned to arrive early to yoga class so that I could secure the coolest spot in the room. I never leave the house without sunglasses, a hat, and SPF protection. And I’ve gone from being ambivalent about AC to considering it a necessity.
Celebrating my first warm Christmas felt very strange. Artificial Christmas trees, no town square Christmas markets, and Santa wearing a tank top were all odd but delightful surprises. I loved immersing myself in the local Christmas culture — and enjoying the holidays while wearing flip flops wasn’t too bad either!
Hurricanes, Power Outages, and Earthquakes
My new life in Puerto Rico hasn’t been without unpleasantness. Within two months of living here, a major 6.4 earthquake woke me up in the middle of the night. While the earth was shaking, my husband slept without even stirring. I was petrified and shocked.
PR is also prone to seasonal hurricanes. Most hurricane seasons pass without incident, but Hurricane Maria devastated the island in 2017. Locals take hurricane preparation very seriously and regularly stock emergency food, water, and medicine whenever a storm is approaching the island. I’ve learned to regularly follow all updates on earthquakes and hurricanes.
The island has also underinvested in its infrastructure. Its potholes are legendary and are just about everywhere, so drive cautiously. Public transportation is limited so prepare to drive or use a rideshare service. PR’s roads are also largely not pedestrian-friendly, and sidewalks are not well maintained if they are there at all. I am frequently the only pedestrian on the road (think suburbs of Los Angeles or Texas).
Lastly, power interruptions happen with some regularity. I didn’t know what generators were until I got to PR. But without one, your groceries may rot in the fridge, and you won’t be able to prepare meals, so it’s a necessity (and the bigger, the better).
“I like creating beauty out of scary things.” – Grimes
Moving to another country is challenging, and moving to another continent can be a shock to your system. Moving from an English-speaking country with a population of 66 million to a Spanish-speaking island with 3 million inhabitants is challenging, culture shocking, and scary. But I can’t wait to see what’s next.
by Anna Lech