As recently as 2017, a national survey found that most Americans didn’t know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens.
That changed when Hurricane Maria propelled Puerto Rico into the headlines.
Still, many stateside Americans are not completely clear on Puerto Rico’s location or geography. Maps of the United States often do not even include Puerto Rico. Here’s the scoop.
Puerto Rico is in North America
Puerto Rico is 1,150 miles from Florida. By comparison, Hawaii is 2,467 miles from California, and Alaska is 500 miles north of Washington state. If Puerto Rico becomes a state, it will not be the most distant state from the continuous 48 states.
Puerto Rico is a group of islands
Puerto Rico is often referred to as an island, but it is actually a group of islands. In fact, technically speaking, Puerto Rico is an archipelago within the larger archipelago of the Antilles.
The largest island of Puerto Rico is called La Isla Grande, or the Big Island. It is part of the Greater Antilles along with Cuba, Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.
The smaller islands include Vieques, the site of a former naval base where weapons testing was conducted for about 60 years. This base, an extension of the Roosevelt Roads base on the big island, was the focus of intense protests in the 20th century and is even now suspected of causing health problems for residents. A Marine base, Camp Garcia, was also located on this island. The military left in 2003, turning over the land to the National Fish and Wildlife Service for management. Cleanup of the island remains ongoing.
Culebra is another island you’ll find on a map of Puerto Rico. Culebra is a town, a municipality, and also a separate island. It is known for its beaches. It was taken as a naval base by the U.S. Navy in 1902 and in 1939 it was repurposed as a bomb testing site. In 1971, local protests began and by 1975 all testing was moved to Vieques. Culebra is surrounded by 23 smaller islands and is now the home of a national wildlife refuge.
If Puerto Rico were to become a sovereign nation and work towards a unique free associated agreement with the United States, the issue of U.S. military presence in Vieques and Culebra would be back on the table, as would veterans’ benefits in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is geographically varied
Puerto Rico is approximately 100 miles long and 35 miles wide, making it roughly the size of Connecticut. The capital city, San Juan, is located on the northeast coast of the island and is one of the most important ports in the Caribbean. It is also the cultural, political, and financial center of Puerto Rico, and its old town, known as Old San Juan, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city is surrounded by a series of fortifications built by the Spanish in the 16th century to protect the city from pirates and invaders.
The eastern part of the island is dominated by the El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System. The forest covers an area of 28,000 acres and is home to over 200 species of trees and plants, as well as a variety of animal species, including the coqui frog, Puerto Rico’s national symbol. The forest has several hiking trails that lead visitors to spectacular waterfalls and panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea.
With hundreds of native plants and animals, Puerto Rico has one of the highest levels of biodiversity in the nation.
The central region of Puerto Rico is home to the Cordillera Central mountain range, which stretches from east to west across the island. The highest peak in Puerto Rico, Cerro de Punta, is located in this range and rises to a height of 4,390 feet. The mountain range is covered by lush vegetation and is dotted with small towns and villages that offer a glimpse into Puerto Rico’s rural life.
The western part of the island is known for its beautiful beaches, and the most popular beach destination is the town of Rincon. The town is located on the west coast of the island and is famous for its world-class surfing spots, which attract surfers from all over the world. Other popular beach destinations include the town of Aguadilla and the Boquerón Beach in Cabo Rojo.
Puerto Rico’s second-largest city, Ponce, is located on the south coast of the island and is known as the “Pearl of the South.” The city is famous for its neoclassical architecture and is home to several museums and art galleries, including the Ponce Museum of Art, which houses one of the most extensive collections of Puerto Rican art in the world.