The Spanish conquest of Puerto Rico all but completely destroyed the Taino tribes that inhabited the island; they were decimated by attacks, disease and forced assimilation. According to a 2003 study by Juan Martinez Cruzado, a geneticist at the University of Puerto Rico, more than 60 percent of the island's population still carries Taino DNA in their blood, a fact of which many Puerto Ricans are extremely proud. Every 19th of November, the town of Jayuya celebrates this heritage with the Festival Indigena Jayuya that draws throngs of national and international tourists.
Town of Jayuya
Jayuya is at the edge of the Toro Negro forest reserve, which gives the town grand views of the forested mountains all around. On the unprotected side of town, the mountain slopes are full of coffee plantations, many of which provide public tours. The town itself is fairly small and tranquil, with a few interesting public buildings around the central plaza and several museums dedicated to the Taino people. According to local legend, it was to these mountains that the Taino tribes escaped from Spanish conquistadors and set up their last settlements, often mixing with the local African slave population.
Route 144 takes you from the capital of San Juan to the remote site of Jayuya in a couple of hours, with public and chartered bus services making the trip around the festival days. The official festival day is held on November 19th, a date that coincides to the public holiday that celebrates the discovery of the island by Christopher Columbus. The festival usually lasts around 10 days, with small events scheduled a few days before and after the 19th of the month.
The first Festival Indigena Jayuya was celebrated in 1969, the same year the bust of the namesake indigenous chief was placed in the town's central plaza. According to colonial documents, Jayuya was a Taino tribal leader in the area, displaced by Spanish forces in the 16th century. While some travelers describe the town's late interest in their indigenous roots as a bit of a tourist trap, most townspeople are genuinely proud of their Taino heritage, and the town now calls itself the indigenous capital of the island. You'll find the Taino sun symbol on everything from public monuments to handicrafts and tattoos in Jayuya.
The main events on the 19th of November include a beauty pageant, public concerts, historical presentations and reenactments -- all held in the town's central plaza and open to the public. On the days before and after the 19th, the town takes on a bit of a carnival atmosphere, complete with food and drink stalls, carnival games, smaller concerts of indigenous and contemporary music and even dancing in the streets after sunset. The festival attracts a huge local and family crowd, with most events designed to be educational and appropriate for children.