Known as La Perla de Sud (“the pearl of the south”), PONCE is a glittering showcase of criollo architecture, its lavish buildings a legacy of the golden years between the 1880s and 1930s, when the city was the hub of vastly profitable trades in rum, sugar cane and shipping. Ponce remains the second largest city in Puerto Rico outside Greater San Juan, and sometimes fierce rivalry exists between the two, Ponceños often portraying themselves as a more sophisticated bunch than their money-minded northern cousins: as they say, “Ponce es Ponce, lo demás es parking” (“Ponce is Ponce, the rest is just parking”). Ponce feels surprisingly provincial despite its status, retaining a relaxed atmosphere long lost in the capital.
Ponce is an enchanting old city with plenty to see, but much of the allure comes from its ravishing architecture, actually a mishmash of styles employed between 1880 and 1940. Ponce Creole style blends traditional clapboard criollo houses with exuberant balconies and layers of marble, while Ponce Neoclassical became vogue between the US occupation and the 1920s, a decorative form most associated with architect Alfredo Wiechers and influenced by Art Nouveau. You’ll also see several Art Deco gems dotted around town, built in the 1930s. Downtown Ponce, or Ponce Centro, is where most of the historic attractions are located. To the south, Ponce La Playa is the old port district while La Guancha is a flashy boardwalk and marina at the end of PR-12, both excellent places to eat but with not much else to do. West of town on PR-2, Las Cucharas is another cluster of inviting waterside restaurants, while overlooking Ponce Centro on the foothills to the north is El Vigía and Castillo Serallés.
Several buildings act as small but fascinating museums, such as the exhibition commemorating the Ponce Massacre, while the collection of fine artwork on display at the Museo de Arte would be considered impressive in any European city. To get a feel for the old money that once dominated Ponce, visit Museo Castillo Serallés on the outskirts of town, monument to the great Don Q sugar and rum dynasty, and the sobering Panteón Nacional Román Baldorioty de Castro, the city’s historic cemetery.
Ponce was little more than a village until the mid-nineteenth century, evolving around a hermitage established in 1670. Ponce de León y Loayza (or Loíza), Juan Ponce de León’s great-grandson, obtained official recognition for the settlement in 1692, and the village was promptly named in his honour. Ponce remained a sleepy backwater until the 1820s, when the south became the centre of the burgeoning sugar economy. The good times lasted well into the 1930s, the city home to scores of artists, politicians and poets; Ponceños are justly proud of their musical traditions, and claim that danza and plena were invented in the city. Ponce was also the home of the growing independence movement. In 1937, seventeen civilians were killed by police during a march celebrating the 64th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, a tragic event known as the Ponce Massacre. After World War II the agrarian economy collapsed, and the introduction of new factories did little to alleviate the decline of the city. The administration of Mayor Rafael “Churumba” Cordero began to turn things around in the 1990s, and although the popular leader died in office in 2004, his successors have continued to revive downtown Ponce.