The world’s largest single-dish radio telescope can be found in the municipality of Arecibo. Yes, the world’s largest… right in the middle of small Puerto Rico’s north coast. The Arecibo Observatory is part of what is officially known as the National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (NAIC), operated by Cornell University and funded by the National Science Foundation.
The grounds of this observatory are open to visitors during limited hours, but photographs can’t do justice to the immensity of the telescope. Standing on the edge of the observation deck and peering down at the concave plate has been known to induce either vertigo or the hopes of making contact with extraterrestrial life.
But Arecibo was not famous for space exploration until the late 20th century. The town’s history actually stretches back several centuries. Founded in 1556, it was the third Spanish settlement on the island. It acquired the nickname “Villa del Capitán Correa,” after the valiant captain who fended off a (pre-rock’n’roll) marine British invasion in 1702. Along this same coast one can visit various beaches with very clear waters, although the area’s rugged rock formations can make for difficult access. There’s Playa Las Tunas, Playa Morrillo, and Playa Hatillo, among many others.
The Arecibo Lighthouse and Historical Park adds another dimension to one’s beachside adventure. It is considered one of the best designed and most informative historical attractions in the island. The area features dining, shopping, and a combination of educational activities for children. Various time periods and cultures are represented along the way: from the native taínos to the famous pirates, from Spanish colonization to the invasion by the United States in 1898 (when the lighthouse itself was completed).
There is almost too much to do in Arecibo, from exploring the Cueva del Indio Natural reserve to visiting the Art and History Museum. There are also more modern thrills to be had, like taking the kids to the Fun Valley Amusement Park or witnessing the Xtreme Divers Freefall Festival (slated for February). A new piece of public art, Nelly Toledo’s Infinity Playground in the Plaza Manuel Ledesma, exemplifies the spirit of Puerto Rico’s “Diamond of the North,” aware of its complex history while looking forward to what the future holds.