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Ponce is Ponce and That’s That: Uncovering the Pearl of the South.

By Brenda A. Mari

August 13, 2004
Copyright © 2004 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

Founded in 1692, Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second most important city, (Bayamón is now the largest when it comes to acreage), offers some of the most outstanding, history-laden sights on the island. The Stately City boasts many a historical museum, a splendid main square, a magnificent cathedral, plenty of restored buildings that hail from colonial times and its fair share of sumptuous mansions dotted all over the place.

Ponce boasts some of Puerto Rico’s richest histories, dating back to its sugar heyday during the 19th century and beyond, when it was the heart of the biggest "cacicazgo" (Taíno indian district) on the island, that of Guanía, headed by the legendary chief Agueybaná. Once the cultural heart of Puerto Rico before the coming of the Americans, Ponce’s past glory glows dim much like the Old South’s in the U.S. In fact, the underlying friction between Ponce and San Juan still exists, just like the antipathy against the Northeast still lurks in forgotten corners of the South. This sentiment lives on in the contemptuous saying of "Ponce is Ponce… and the rest is parking." However, when it comes to travelling and enjoying the sights each city has to offer, one must leave aside the differences and understand that both were as intrinsic to Puerto Rico’s history as salt and pepper are to a dish.

Contrary to popular belief, Ponce was named after Loíza Ponce de León, great-grandson of the famous Fountain of Youth seeker Juan Ponce de León, and one of the town’s earliest civic leaders, not after his great grandfather. Ponce is the proud birthplace of the plena, the vivacious and popular musical rhythm that turned out to be the precursor of salsa. Ponce is also home to the regal Ponce Museum of Art, the Don Q rum epic and the Leones de Ponce, Puerto Rico’s 11-time national basketball champions.

Famous Ponceños include international singer Ednita Nazario, former governors Luis A. Ferré, Pedro Rosselló and Rafael Hernández Colón, former Menudo Roy Roselló, Ferré’s sister, Sor Isolian Ferré, the Puerto Rican Mother Theresa, and his daughter Rosario Ferré, one of the most celebrated Latin American women novelists.

The Pearl of the South offers many places for the curious traveler. One day isn’t enough to explore all the beauties this gem of a city has to offer. So book a weekend at the Hotel Meliá (787- 842-0260 /1-800-742-4276), the oldest and most traditional hospice in town, and get set to explore the many corners and surprises Ponce has in store. Following are some of the most popular spots.

Museum of the History of Ponce

This museum showcases the city's history, from pre-Columbian times to the present. Opened in 1992, it is the perfect starting point for a tour of Ponce because of its engaging interactive displays. It is located inside the Casa Salazar, one of Ponce's major architectural treasures. Built in 1911, the house combines Neoclassical and Moorish details, while showing off the typical Ponce decorative style: stained-glass windows, mosaics, pressed-tin ceilings, fixed jalousies, wood or iron columns, porch balconies, interior patios, and the use of doors as windows.

Phone: 787-844-7071

Plaza of Delights (Plaza de las Delicias)

Ponce’s main square has enough to keep you busy, from historical sites to great people-watching. This is the heart of historic Ponce and where you can catch the trolley that takes you around to all the best spots in the city.

Cathedral of our Lady of Guadeloupe

This stately 17th-century cathedral stands majestically in the heart of Ponce. In 1660, a rustic chapel was built on the site; since then fires and earthquakes have battered the poor thing repeatedly. In 1919, a group of priests raised funds to build the Doric- and Gothic-inspired building that stands here today. Designed by architects Francisco Porrato Doria and Francisco Trublard in 1931, and featuring an impressive pipe organ installed in 1934, it remains an important prayer site for many.

Phone: 787-842-0134

Parque de Bombas

This eye-popping black, red, green and yellow structure was built for a volunteer firefighters brigade. It was built in 1882 as the centerpiece of a 12-day agricultural fair intended to promote the urban charms of Ponce. A tourist-information kiosk is situated inside the building. Check out the old fire engines in mint condition, while you find out where to go.

Phone: 787-840-2255

Twenty-Fifth of January Street

This picturesque street is lined with around 60 red- and black-striped houses, the local firefighters’ colors. It takes its name from the historic fire of the Polvorín sector. Every year they drew lots to see which firemen would get to live in those houses.

La Perla Theater

Extensively restored in the 1990s, this sumptuous theater plays host to a wide variety of performances. Built in the Neoclassical style in 1864, it remains one of the most visible symbols of the economic prosperity of Ponce during the mid-19th century. Designed by Juan Bertoli Calderoni, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1918, and rebuilt in 1940 according to the original plans. Its acoustics are so clear that microphones are often uncalled-for. The theater is now the largest and most historic in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Everything from plays to concerts to beauty pageants takes place here.

Phone: 787-843-4080

El Museo Castillo Serralles

Evoking the era of the island’s sugar barons, the largest and most stately building in Ponce rests high on El Vigía Hill. It was built during the 1930s for the Serrallés family, owners of the Don Q rum distillery. This beautiful Spanish Revival mansion with Moorish and Andalusian details is truly one of Puerto Rico’s architectural gems.

Phone: 787-259-1774

El Vigía Hill

The city’s tallest geological feature, El Vigía Hill (about 300 ft.) presides over Ponce’s northern skyline. When you reach the top, you’ll get to see the soaring Cruz del Vigía ("Watchtower Cross"). Built in 1984 of reinforced concrete to replace a 19th-century wooden cross, this modern 100-foot structure has an observation tower from which you can take in the surrounding natural beauty. The cross commemorates the Vigía Hill’s role as a deterrent to contraband smuggling.

Phone: 787-259-3816

Museum of Puerto Rican Music

Inside a former residence of the Serrallés family, you can find an interesting showcase of the history of Puerto Rican music, featuring Indian, Spanish and African musical instruments. Discover all about the romantic "danza," a 19th-century favorite of Puerto Rico’s upper crust, as well as the African-inspired and popular "bomba" and "plena." Also on view are memorabilia of the island’s composers and performers.

Phone: 787-848-7016

Wiechers Villarong House-Museum

Architect Alfredo Wiechers designed this gorgeous house for himself in 1911. It’s one of the most representative buildings of the Neoclassical architecture in Ponce. Years later it was acquired by the Villaronga family. Since 1996, it is the home of the Ponce Architecture and Urban Planning Museum of the Puerto Rican Institute of Culture.

Phone: 787-843-3363

Ponce Museum of Art

Bestowed to the people of Puerto Rico by former governor Luis A. Ferré, this museum has one of the finest collections of European and Latin American art. The building itself, a unique building comprised of hexagonal rooms, was designed by Edward Durell Stone. Among the nearly 400 works on display are exceptional pre-Raphaelite and Italian baroque paintings from European masters such as Gainsborough, Velázquez, Rubens and Van Dyck, as well as some of the best works of the two Puerto Rican masters, Francisco Oller and José Campeche. Here is where the eminent and resplendent "Flaming June" by Lord Frederic Leighton lies asleep like a delicate flower. (You’ll be able to get your hands on a mug or a print at the museum’s quaint shop.) Temporary exhibitions are also top-notch. This is a must-see, folks.

Phone: 787-848-0505

Hacienda Buena Vista

Built in 1833, this hacienda was once one of the most successful plantations in Puerto Rico, generating coffee, corn and citrus. It was a working coffee plantation until the 1950s. Step back into time, as the rooms are furnished with authentic pieces from Puerto Rico in the 1850s; there are 19th-century farm artifacts also on display. Reservations are required.

Phone: 787-848-7020

Ceiba Tree Park

This peaceful green area borders the Portugués River and is home to the legendary 500-year old Ceiba (kapok) tree. Legend says that it was around this massive tree that the first Spanish families settled down to establish Ponce. Great for picnics or resting after a day’s walk.

Phone: 787-843-2512

La Guancha

Ponce’s boardwalk and beach area is a cornucopia of people-watching. With the Caribbean Sea as backdrop, this recreational complex has an observation tower, a boardwalk, a restaurant, several food kiosks, a park and an amphitheater for cultural events. There is always something going on here. It’s also a favorite Sunday destination.

Phone: 787-844-3995

Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center

Bordered by the Río Portugués and excavated in 1975, this is the oldest cemetery in the Antilles. The site includes a re-created Taíno village, seven rectangular ball courts, and two dance grounds. The arrangement of stone points on the dance grounds, in line with the solstices and equinoxes, suggests a pre-Columbian Stonehenge. The place is outside the city, but it’s well worth a visit.

Phone: 787-840-2255

Brenda A. Mari is an editor/reporter for The San Juan Star, an accomplished web copywriter and a fan of everything unusual. She can be reached at

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