Puerto Rico’s strategic location in the Caribbean has shaped the island’s rich history and left its landscape dotted with vestiges of past commerce and conflict. These include 16 impressive lighthouses, which are scattered across the territory’s islands and accentuate the beauty of the scenery around them. Thanks to their listing on the National Register of Historic Places since 1981, several of these structures have been the subject of restoration efforts that allow tourists to visit them today.
Aside from just being impressive and eye-catching buildings (that make for great photographs), these lighthouses are worth visiting if you want to add an extra dimension to your Puerto Rican experience. Some stand directly on the beaten path, and others keep watch over uninhabited islands. While only a few of them are still in maritime operation, they all shine a light on corners of this island you might not have seen otherwise.
For instance, a trip to Arecibo Lighthouse might bring you closer than ever to seeing a whale in the wild, and it is only a short trip away from one of the world’s foremost astrological facilities, the Arecibo Observatory (with a visitor center and massive radio telescope seen in the James Bond film “Goldeneye” and the Jodie Foster classic “Contact.”) A small museum here exhibits marine artifacts, pieces of local history, and relics from the Spanish-American war, while there is also an amusement park nearby, complete with family-friendly activities.
If radio waves aren’t your thing, catch nautical ones during a visit to Punta Higüeras Lighthouse, Puerto Rico’s tallest. The local government in Rincon has transformed the surrounding grounds into a park, which is now the island’s foremost destination for surfing and whale watching. The lighthouse itself hosts another maritime museum and a platform dedicated to dolphin spotting. After your tour, indulge in the beachside bars and eateries and relax like the local iguanas by watching the sun go down.
For the adventure junkies out there, a visit to the United States’ most remote lighthouse could be supplemented by spelunking, sightings of endangered flora and fauna, and a chance to look thousands of years into the past. Tour group Acampa organizes a camping excursion to Isla de Mona, which includes water transit, food, guided photography sessions, and visits to caves marked with the petroglyphs of the pre-Columbian Taino people. Mona Island Light is notable for being one of only two lighthouses in Puerto Rico built by the American government (the rest were constructed during Spanish rule), and the only one made of iron and steel. It overlooks an island that, while only inhabited by researchers, teems with odd tidbits of history. During World War II, a German submarine mysteriously bombarded the deserted island and, years prior, prohibition smugglers took advantage of its remote location to hide rum in transit from the Caribbean to America.
Those who wish to visit Puerto Rico’s famous bioluminescent algae bays will have to pass through Fajardo, home to the territory’s oldest (and still functioning) lighthouse, Cape San Juan Light. The structure stands tall on the highest point of the cape and is located on a nature reserve that contains mangrove swamps, hiking trails, and coral reefs. The lighthouse hosts activities such as stargazing and astronomy, while inexpensive and informative nature tours of the reserve’s diverse ecology are also offered. Though the biobay in Vieques (a nearby island) is of the most renown, Fajardo has its own that is not to be overlooked, which will save you the ferry ride. As you wait for the sun to go down and the water to light up the night, take in panoramic views with lunch at the rooftop of Las Vistas Cafe, or toast over tapas at La Ola in the marina, where the manatees will swim right past you.
These lighthouses and the areas around them abound with local tales, and they faithfully link Puerto Rico’s storied past and present. Though they might not be the kinds of attractions to immediately draw visitors, they offer unique insights into their communities’ history that will enrich any traveler’s experience. Some of them have seen better days, but their overall resilience demonstrates the extent to which Puerto Ricans care about protecting their heritage. This commitment shines through at El Morro Light on Port San Juan, the oldest lighthouse in Puerto Rico that is a main feature of the old battlement, and at Caja de Muertos Light off the coast of Ponce, which has been maintained along with an uninhabited island home as part of a nature reserve and recreational hotspot. The interaction of these communities with their lighthouses should assure anyone looking to come to Puerto Rico that it is as full of life as ever.
Have you ever visited Puerto Rico’s lighthouses? If you feel that we’ve missed one, or just have an awesome story to share about them, let us know!
Cover Photo by Oliver Ivanov