The now empty plains between the southeast coast and the mountains, once the heart of sugar country, show few signs of their former glory. Yet the inviting hot springs at Coamo and the graceful old sugar towns of Arroyo and Guayama are steeped in history, legacies of the great wealth created in the colonial and early American periods. The last in particular is a smaller, less pretentious version of Ponce, well stocked with ramshackle but striking architecture, and a smattering of galleries and museums. The lack of beaches means you’ll see few tourists here, and for once the coast is not the main attraction. Salinas is the modest exception, with a yacht-filled marina, seafood specialities and a spread of tempting offshore cays to explore. Access to the region is easy via PR-52 and PR-53, slicing through vast swathes of abandoned, overgrown plots of land that testify to the drastic collapse of not just the domestic sugar industry, but all of Puerto Rico’s traditional agriculture since World War II.
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- Coamo and around
In the nineteenth century GUAYAMA was one of the grandest towns on the island, overflowing with money garnered from nearby sugar-cane plantations. Though it remains a large, lively place, it’s the legacies of that period, chiefly its fine architecture, that make a visit worthwhile today. The local Oficina de Turismo is housed in the attractively renovated birthplace of Luis Palés Matos (1898–1959), acclaimed poet and creator of the genre known as Afro-Antillano, a blend of Afro-Caribbean words and Spanish. You’ll find the “Casa del Poeta” at Calle Ashford and Baldorioty, just off the plaza.
Driving into town on PR-3, stop first at the Centro de Bellas Artes, an imposing Neoclassical structure built in 1927 and formerly the Supreme Court. Today it houses an odd assortment of fine art, archeology and sculpture, much of the latter created by local artist Gladys Nieves. The building itself is the real attraction, though the Sala Taína contains a couple of ghoulish Taíno petroglyphs and a small collection of Taíno tools, ceremonial objects and ceramics. The Sala de Simón Madera is dedicated to the composer of the popular danza Mis Amores, containing his old violin, desk and portrait. Madera supposedly wrote the dance in Casa Cautiño, and died in Guayama in 1957.