Just north of Ponce are two of the most memorable sights on the island, both associated with the region’s long and eventful history. The Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes is one of the most significant Pre-Taíno archeological sites ever found, and a tantalizing window into the culture of this now lost civilization, while Hacienda Buena Vista is a captivating nineteenth-century plantation.
Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes
Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes
Evidence of pre-Columbian civilization has been rare in the Caribbean until relatively recently, but the CENTRO CEREMONIAL INDÍGENA DE TIBES (787/840-2255) remains one of the region’s greatest discoveries, proof of highly complex societies long before the Spanish conquest. The site was inhabited for 1500 years by a series of migrating peoples and primarily used as a burial ground and ceremonial centre, littered with ball-courts and standing stones. Like Caguana, this has none of the grandiose ruins of Central America, but the guides do their best to bring the site alive with illuminating facts and anecdotes, and if you visit early, you’ll almost certainly have it to yourself. Tibes is clearly signposted off PR-503 at km 2.2, due north of central Ponce. Note that you can only visit the site with a guide (free; tours last up to 1hr): weekdays you should be able to pick up an English-speaking one at the entrance, though if the park is busy (unusual), you may have to wait. Note that the site cannot be reached by public transport.
In 1975, a local farmer stumbled across ancient ruins uncovered by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Eloise, and archeologists finally got working on the site a year later. They found nine ball-courts, three plazas and the largest indigenous cemetery ever discovered on the island, comprising 187 human skeletons (one of which is displayed in the museum) from the Igneri and Pre-Taíno periods. The Igneri people established Tibes and used the site from around 300 to 600 AD as a sacred burial ground, but it was later re-inhabited by Pre-Taíno peoples, who constructed the ball-courts and seem to have used it primarily as a ceremonial and burial centre (the remains of which survive today). The Igneri may have played an early form of the ball-game (see The museum), but just for sport, while it started to assume a more spiritual and symbolic meaning under the Pre-Taínos.
Our understanding of el batey or the ball-game (pelota in modern Spanish), is almost completely based on a few early Spanish accounts. Played with two teams, passing a rubber ball between them (with anything but the hands), it had many similarities to the game played in Mesoamerica, and had a serious ceremonial function.
In around 1100 the site was abandoned after extensive flooding of the Río Portugués, and it remained lost for almost nine hundred years. The academic impact of Tibes was seismic: previously, little was known about Pre-Taíno cultures, and the ball-game was considered a relatively recent phenomenon, while the construction of so many stone structures implied a highly organized society able to plan, mobilize, control and sustain many workers. Some experts go further, claiming that the plazas were positioned to reflect the seasonal solar equinox and solstice, making Tibes the oldest astronomical observatory in the Caribbean.
Hacienda Buena Vista
Hacienda Buena Vista
Coffee and sugar once dominated the Puerto Rican economy, a legacy beautifully preserved at the HACIENDA BUENA VISTA (787/722-5834 ext 240 Mon–Fri, 787/284-7020 weekends and holidays), offering a rare opportunity to tour one of the island’s historic plantations. Note that you must reserve a tour in advance – don’t just turn up. English tours normally run at 1.30pm and last around two hours, but call to check. You can take additional tours of the especially fertile grounds and Río Canas gorge – these last two hours or four hours, and are usually in Spanish only.
The core of the plantation retains the attractive, European style of the main house. Running through the yard is a narrow but fast-flowing mill-course built in 1845, which leads back towards the river and an extremely lush gorge – the plantation was once powered by water. The tour starts inside the old coffee storage room and main house above, all painstakingly restored in 1890s style. From here you’ll be led around the main outhouses (including the slave house that once quartered 57 slaves), before following the mill-course above the Río Canas to the gorge at the Salto Vives – the vista through the bushes to the falls and pool below is the “beautiful view” (“buena vista”) that the hacienda was named after. On the way back you’ll visit the creaky wooden roasting house and the whirling millstones of the original corn mill built by Carlos Vives.
The hacienda is around 17km from Ponce Centro, at PR-123 km 16.8. It’s clearly signposted with a small car park on site.
The hacienda was established as a small farm for cacao, corn, plantains and coffee in 1833 by Salvador de Vives, a Spanish émigré from Venezuela, who had moved to the island in 1821 after the South American nation became independent. Between 1845 and 1847, his son Carlos Vives built the mill-course, most of the buildings you see today and a corn mill, expanding production of coffee and corn-meal so that the plantation was booming by the early 1870s. Technology and investment were important, but as in the rest of Puerto Rico, the real foundation of plantation wealth was the back-breaking labour of African slaves. The abolition of slavery in 1873 proved the first of many blows to the Vives empire, including Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899, which devastated the plantation. In 1904 the hacienda started to produce oranges for the US market, a much smaller trade which nevertheless kept it going until the 1930s. By the 1950s the virtually abandoned estate was appropriated by the government, which distributed four hundred acres to landless Ponceños, while the Conservation Trust acquired the remaining 86 acres preserved today.