Photos: Picturesque Puerto Rico

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  1. Eye on the word

    The Castillo de San Felipe del Morro in San Juan is a 16th century citadel. It was designed to keep seaborne enemies of out San Juan (thus the gun turret pictured). In 1983, the United Nations declared "El Morro" a World Heritage site. Today, it is Puerto Rico's best known fortress, with more than two million visitors a year. (Francisco Turnes / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Hidden beauty

    Isabela is a coastal city in Puerto Rico whose main industries include tourism due to it's classic and secluded surfing beaches, panoramic views, rainforest, rivers, caves archaeological sites and more. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A beacon of the times

    The Punta Higuero Lighthouse in Ricon, situated on POint Juguero, was built in 1892 by the Spanish and rebuilt in 1922 by the U.S. Coast Guard after a 1918 tsunami hit the coast of Puerto Rico that also damaged the structure. The lighthouse still works and employs an unmanned 26,000-candlepower rotatintg beacon. The beaches around the Punta Higuero Lighthouse are also popular surfing destinations, and visitors converge in the area to see the annual migration of humpback whales. (fotoamateur / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Buried in history

    The Cementerio de San Juan (San Juan Cemetery), located between El Morro and the cliffs above the Atlantic of Old San Juan, is known for being one of the most picturesque burial grounds. The cemetery is also noted for its elaborate tombstones and the neoclassical chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene, which dates to the 19th century. Many of Puerto Rico's earliest colonists are buried here. (tank bmb / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Staying afloat

    Tourism is a big component of Puerto Rico's economy, and supplies about $1.8 billion annually, with millions of visitors visiting the island. It is estimated that about a third of the tourists come on cruise ships. (Ritu / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Traveling back in time

    A church stands on the grounds of La Fortaleza in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Withstanding time

    Old San Juan in Puerto Rico is the oldest settlement within the territory of the U.S., and spans just seven square blocks. Here, the La Fortaleza (the governor's mansion), a part of the old city wall and a gate are pictured. (tank bmb / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Historical colors

    Colorful homes line the cobblestoned streets in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Popular pastime

    Locals often gather at the many plazas of Old San Juan to chat and play dominoes. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Room with a view

    In Old San Juan, one of the oldest cities in the Americas, embellished balcony doors, such as the one pictured, are not unusual in the city that dates back to 1521. Most buildings are more than 150 years old and are evidence of the Spanish architectural heritage. (capricornis / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Natural beauty

    The El Yunque National Forest is the sole rain forest in the U.S. National Forest System, according to the park's Web site, and is relatively small at 28,000 acres. It features a year-round tropical climate and immense biodiversity. About 600,000 tourists each year enjoy all that the forest has to offer, including wildlife, waterfalls, hiking and camping opportunities, and more. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Guiding light

    A 19th century lighthouse -- called the Los Morrillos -- sits atop a towering cliff that overlooks the waters of Cabo Rojo, located at the southwestern tip of Puerto Rico. The cliffs around the lighthouse drop more than 200 feet into the ocean. The lighthouse was originally built in 1882 to guide ships from the Caribbean Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. Today, the lighthouse is completely automated, and a renovation cleared the interior of everything of historical significance. (ervphotos / FeaturePics.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 1/8/2007 12:50:39 PM ET 2007-01-08T17:50:39

Because Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth, U.S. citizens don't pay duty on items brought back to the mainland. And you can still find great bargains on Puerto Rico, where the competition among shopkeepers is fierce. Even though the U.S. Virgin Islands are duty-free, you can often find far lower prices on many items in San Juan than on St. Thomas.

The streets of Old Town, such as Calle San Francisco and Calle del Cristo, are the major venues for shopping. Malls in San Juan are generally open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Regular stores in town are usually open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. In Old San Juan many stores are open on Sunday, too.

Native handcrafts can be good buys, including needlework, straw work, ceramics, hammocks, and papier-mâché fruits and vegetables, as well as paintings and sculptures by Puerto Rican artists. Among these, the carved wooden religious idols known as santos (saints) have been called Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the plastic arts and are sought by collectors. For the best selection of santos, head for Galería Botello, Olé, or Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts.

Puerto Rico's biggest and most up-to-date shopping mall is Plaza Las Américas, in the financial district of Hato Rey, right off the Las Américas Expressway. This complex, with its fountains and modern architecture, has more than 200 mostly upscale shops. The variety of goods and prices is roughly comparable to that of large stateside malls.

Unless otherwise specified, the listed stores can be reached via the Old Town Trolley.

Know When the Price Is Right
The only way to determine if you're paying less for an item in San Juan than you would at home is to find out what the going rate is in your hometown. Obviously, if you can find items in San Juan cheaper than back home, go for it. But know the prices before you go. Otherwise, you could end up lugging merchandise back on an airplane when the same item was available at about the same price, or less, where you live.

A Dying Art: Old Lace
Another Puerto Rican craft has undergone a big revival just as it seemed that it would disappear forever: lace. Originating in Spain, mundillos (tatted fabrics) are the product of a type of bobbin lace making. This 5-century-old craft exists today only in Puerto Rico and Spain.

The first lace made in Puerto Rico was called torchon (beggar's lace). Early examples of beggar's lace were considered of inferior quality, but artisans today have transformed this fabric into a delicate art form, eagerly sought by collectors. Lace bands called entrados have two straight borders, whereas the other traditional style, puntilla, has both a straight and a scalloped border.

The best outlet in San Juan for lace is Linen House.

Grotesque Masks
The most popular of all Puerto Rican crafts are the frightening caretas -- papier-mâché masks worn at island carnivals. Tangles of menacing horns, fang-toothed leering expressions, and bulging eyes of these half-demon, half-animal creations send children running and screaming to their parents. At carnival time, they are worn by costumed revelers called vegigantes. Vegigantes often wear bat-winged jumpsuits and roam the streets either individually or in groups.

The origins of these masks and carnivals may go back to medieval Spain and/or tribal Africa. A processional tradition in Spain, dating from the early 17th century, was intended to terrify sinners with marching devils in the hope that they would return to church. Cervantes described it briefly in Don Quijote. Puerto Rico blended this Spanish procession with the masked tradition brought by slaves from Africa. Some historians believe that the Taínos were also accomplished mask makers, which would make this a very ancient tradition indeed.

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The predominant traditional mask colors were black, red, and yellow, all symbols of hellfire and damnation. Today, pastels are more likely to be used. Each vegigante sports at least two or three horns, although some masks have hundreds of horns, in all shapes and sizes. Mask making in Ponce, the major center for this craft, and in Loíza Aldea, a palm-fringed town on the island's northeastern coast, has since led to a renaissance of Puerto Rican folk art.

The premier store selling these masks is La Calle . Masks can be seen in action at the three big masquerade carnivals on the island: the Ponce Festival in February, the Festival of Loíza Aldea in July, and the Día de las Mascaras at Hatillo in December.

Laundromat cum Art Gallery
The hippest and most surreal laundromat in Old Town, La Lavanderia, Calle Sol 201 (tel. 787/717-8585), occupies a street-level room that's jammed with coin-operated washing machines and dryers, beneath the massive ceiling beams of a battered-looking building that's at least a century old. At its present location since at least the early 1960s, it's both a neighborhood institution as well as a magnet for the arts crowd throughout the island. On the soaring plaster walls above the machines, you'll find paintings, etchings, or photographs, each of which are for sale, and which seem to project themselves outward to art lovers above the roar of the spinning dryers and the blare of the recorded Latino music. Liquid refreshments derive from an espresso machine and a small bar set up in a corner. Art exhibitions, each with a celebratory opening ceremony-cum-fiesta party, change about every 2 weeks. Phone ahead for venues, or simply pass by with a load of wash ($1.50 per load, plus the cost of soap) for insights into what's probably the most unpretentious art gallery in Puerto Rico. It's open Monday to Thursday 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.; and Sunday 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The Coffee of Kings & Popes
Of all the coffees of Puerto Rico, our favorite is Alto Grande, which has been a tradition in Puerto Rican households since 1839. Over the years, this super premium coffee has earned a reputation for being the "Coffee of Popes and Kings," and is hailed as one of the top three coffees in the world. A magnificently balanced coffee, Alto Grande is a rare and exotic coffee with a sweet, pointed aroma and a bright sparkling flavor. The bean is grown in the highest mountains of the Lares range. This coffee is served at leading hotels and restaurants in Puerto Rico. Should you develop a taste for it, it is also available at various specialty stores throughout the United States.

Shopping for Santos
The most impressive of the island's crafts are the santos, carved religious figures that have been produced since the 1500s. Craftspeople who make these are called santeros; using clay, gold, stone, or cedar wood, they carve figurines representing saints, usually from 8 inches to 20 inches (20cm-51cm) tall. Before the Spanish colonization, small statues called zemi stood in native tribal villages and camps as objects of veneration, and Puerto Rico's santos may derive from that pre-Columbian tradition. Every town has its patron saint, and every home has its santos to protect the family. For some families, worshipping the santos replaces a traditional mass.

Art historians view the carving of santos as Puerto Rico's greatest contribution to the plastic arts. The earliest figures were richly baroque, indicating a strong Spanish influence, but as the islanders began to assert their own identity, the carved figures often became simpler.

In carving santos, craftspeople often used handmade tools. Sometimes such natural materials as vegetable dyes and even human hair were used. The saints represented by most santos can be identified by their accompanying symbols; for example, Saint Anthony is usually depicted with the infant Jesus and a book. The most popular group of santos is the Three Kings. The Trinity and the Nativity are also depicted frequently.

Art experts claim that santos making approached its zenith at the turn of the 20th century, although hundreds of santeros still practice their craft throughout the island. Serious santos collectors view the former craftsmen of old as the true artists in the field. The best collection of santos is found at Puerto Rican Arts & Crafts.

Some of the best santos on the island can be seen at the Capilla de Cristo in Old San Juan. Perhaps at some future date, a museum devoted entirely to santos will open in Puerto Rico.

For a complete listing of Frommer's-reviewed shops, visit our online shopping index.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

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