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.