Founded in 1579, COAMO is one of the oldest towns in Puerto Rico, best known today for its rustic outdoor hot springs. The town itself is 34km from Ponce and a short drive from autopista PR-52, the oddly appealing cluster of ageing buildings in the centre evidence of its long history. There are no options for lodging here – your best bet is to stay near the hot springs themselves, or visit for the day from Ponce or the coast.
Downtown Coamo is worth a detour to soak up the bustling, no-nonsense atmosphere and pretty buildings around the central Plaza Luis Muñoz Rivera, dominated by the main church, the Iglesia Católica San Blás de Illesca. The current building dates from 1784. The interior is unusually ornate, with a fine Neoclassical retablo, and you’ll also see a rare painting by José Campeche, El Bautisterio – the artist originally had three paintings inside the church, but one was lost and the other, Las Animas, deteriorated so badly it had to be copied and replaced by Francisco Oller in 1888. The latter is near the main entrance (on the right as you come in) – the blonde woman at the base is said to have been Oller’s mistress at the time.
On the plaza’s southwest corner, the Museo Histórico (t787/825-1150) occupies an eye-catching, reddish townhouse with a tranquil patio interior that virtually drips with a sense of colonial Spain; the odd collection of bits and pieces inside reflects Coamo’s chequered history. It’s normally only open on weekdays or by appointment – check at the Instituto de Cultura next door. The house was built in the nineteenth century by Don Clotilde Santiago, a wealthy landowner, and much of his original mahogany and cedar furniture is on display inside.
Baños de Coamo
Baños de Coamo
Local legend has it that Juan Ponce de León’s biggest (and fatal) mistake was to seek the fountain of youth in Florida, when the true source of eternal life was in Puerto Rico all along, at the Baños de Coamo (Coamo hot springs). The elderly locals hobbling down to the baths for a daily dip may appear to throw doubt on this claim, but even if you’ve been to hot springs elsewhere, the sheer novelty of scalding hot mineral pools in the Caribbean makes them all the more enticing. The water shoots out of the ground at 43°C, but cools quickly in the baths: its therapeutic qualities stem from healthy doses of carbonic and sulphuric acid combined with magnesium carbonate.
You have two choices here: the slightly smarter and larger pools within the Hotel Baños de Coamo, lined with some of the brickwork from the original nineteenth-century Spanish hotel and spa, or the public pools (daily 6am–7pm; $3) at the end of the lane that continues to the right of the hotel (park along the road). These were spruced up in 2010 and feature small but clean landscaped baths surrounded by flowers. If you visit during weekdays in “winter”, you’ll usually have them to yourself.
Hotels have been welcoming visitors to the hot springs since 1847, and though the current accommodation is basic, the Hotel Baños de Coamo (787/825-2239; $75–99) offers a bucolic setting on the Río Coamo. Rooms are set in slightly worn two-storey wooden chalets in flowery, overgrown gardens above the river, with balconies, air conditioning and basic cable TV. Some rooms are in dire need of renovation – check yours on arrival. The hot springs are at the end of PR-546 and signposted off PR-153, which runs between Coamo and the PR-52 autopista.