Ponce, PR: Pearl of the South
By : Barbarella Brown
Photos J. Kevin Foltz
A classic beauty carved into Puerto Rico's southern coast, Ponce is as much a metropolis as San Juan, yet with a different vibe—one that's a bit aristocratic, intensely Puerto Rican and decidedly no-nonsense.
Now just one-and-a-half hours by car from San Juan, Ponce was once relatively isolated and thus developed a unique personality and fiercely independent spirit. One of the city's most indelible marks is its celebration of the island's African, Spanish and Taino heritage. Indeed, the city is well known for its annual Carnival, which dates back to the 1700s. Besides music and floats, Ponce's Carnival is always host to a number of vejigantes, brightly costumed characters with devilish masks who play tricks on spectators and dance in the streets. The city is also the birthplace of plena, an intrinsically Puerto Rican style of music that combines the island's main cultural legacies and is one of the island's most enduring forms of folk music.
Tucked well inside the hustle and bustle of Ponce's fringes is a historic district with finely restored buildings and landmarks, whose architecture reflect the city's rich history. This area is the cultural core of Ponce, and no visit to the area—or indeed, Puerto Rico—is complete without a stroll along its streets (if you tire of walking, you can hop on the free Chu-Chu trolley that allows visitors to enjoy the municipality's many offerings). Among the highlights of this area are the Museum of the History of Ponce, housed in Casa Salazar, one of Ponce's most amazing architectural treasures; the Casa Alcaldia, or City Hall, the oldest Colonial structure in the city; and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music, which showcases the roots and development of the island's musical genres through instruments and memorabilia.
The main square and heart of the city is Plaza Las Delicias, a Spanish-style plaza dotted with fountains, statues (including one of Puerto Rican composer Juan Morel Campos) and a steady stream of locals. This is the site of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe—also known as the Ponce Cathedral—whose foundations date back to the 17th century, but whose current façade, constructed between 1932 and 1937, is French neoclassical. The plaza is also home to one of Ponce's most renowned landmarks: the Parque de Bombas, an ancient wooden firehouse built more than 100 years ago that screams for attention in wide horizontal stripes of red and black. It was built for the 1882 Exhibition Trade Fair and served as Ponce's official firehouse for more than a century. Now it's open as a museum and a tribute to the efforts of Ponce's firefighters.
Five additional must-sees that will give you a taste of Ponce's past and present:
Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center—Considered the most significant archaeological site in the Caribbean, the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center was discovered in 1975. It's a ceremonial complex with three plazas constructed with acute astronomical placement, nine ball courts and countless remnants of the Igneri and Pre-Taino Indians' daily lives, dating back more than 1,000 years before Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico in 1493. Moreover, the discovery of more than 180 skeletons in the area allowed scientists to learn important social and anthropological information about the island's former inhabitants.
Ponce Museum of Art—This is easily the most exceptional museum in the Americas, with a number of permanent collections spanning nine centuries and the most important schools. Founded by the late former governor and ponceño Luis A. Ferre, a great patron of the arts, this museum houses pieces from well-known international masters—El Greco, Rubens, Goya, Murillo, Van Dyck and Rossetti—as well as representations from local artists such as Jose Campeche, Francisco Oller and Antonio Martorell. Among this museum's top draws is Lord Leighton's Flaming June. The Ponce Museum of Art is also respected for its fantastic visiting collections, which in the past have included exhibits by Frida Kahlo and contemporary Latin American artists.
Castillo Serralles—The Serralles Castle is a gorgeous representation of Spanish-revival architecture, home to exquisite antiques and an interior patio, as well as delicate gardens that are a throwback to another era. Built by the Serralles family, known for their world-famous rum, it houses the Museum of Sugar and Rum, which focuses on two of the most important industries in Puerto Rico during the construction of the castle, and plays host to exhibits and special events throughout the year.
Paseo Tablado La Guancha—This boardwalk is the place to see and be seen when the casual, beachy mood strikes. Overlooking the yacht harbor, the area is dotted with seafood restaurants and kiosks, as well as a public area to enjoy the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea. La Guancha often welcomes live music events and weekend revelry as beachgoers stop by for a drink and a snack after a day in the sun. You can catch the Chu-Chu from Ponce's center to La Guancha.
Hacienda Buena Vista—Once a successful coffee plantation, this hacienda offers a peek into early Puerto Rican life with farm artifacts, original coffee-processing machinery and household antiques. With origins dating back to 1833, Hacienda Buena Vista is thought to be one of the best examples of this type of plantation.
For more information about Puerto Rico, please visit ExperiencePuertoRico.com.
Book your trip today! Visit www.aa.com, call American/American Eagle reservations at 1-800-433-7300, or call your travel agent for more information.