Formally established in 1775 near the site of a far older Taíno village, the thriving community of CAGUAS is the fastest growing metropolitan area in Puerto Rico and currently its fifth largest city. The historic core is a compact, attractive area easily explored on foot, surrounded by a great swathe of suburbs and strip malls. Parking is easy and it’s only 29km and 25 minutes’ drive from San Juan, making the city a tempting day-trip or first stop on the routes south or east. It’s also one of the few places served by regular públicos, so you won’t need a car to get here.
At the centre of Caguas is the tree-filled Plaza Palmer, one of the largest squares on the island and more like an elegant Mexican parque than the cramped plazas of Old San Juan. The flower clock at the eastern end was added in 1966 and lined with the faces of the twelve most illustrious cagüeños, including José Gautier Benítez (1848–1880), Puerto Rico’s finest Romantic poet.
Opposite is the twin-towered Catedral Dulce Nombre de Jesús, most of the structure dating from the 1930s and not especially interesting, though it does contain the tomb of Carlos Manuel “Charlie” Rodríguez, the first Puerto Rican to be beatified. On the other side of the plaza, the Casa Alcadía (town hall) was built in 1887 and contains the Museo de Caguas, the city history museum (t787/744-8833). The exhibits are well presented and particularly enlightening when it comes to the area’s Taíno history, with artefacts such as pottery, shells and beads on display from a nearby archeological site. The Spanish room relates how Ponce de León made contact with the local Taíno in 1510 and covers the tragic 1511 rebellion.
The Museo Casa del Trovador, one block north at c/Tapia 18, is another historic property that contains a compact but unique exhibition on local folk singers and troubadours, charting the important role Caguas has played in the development of Puerto Rican folk music.
One block west of here, on the corner of calles Ruíz Belvis and Padial, the modest Museo de Arte contains three spacious exhibition rooms housing mostly local, contemporary art: the abstract work of Caguas-born painters Carlos Osorio (1927–1984) and Orlando Vallejo (b. 1955) is well represented and you can admire Las Tradiciones Puertorriquenas, the vivid seven-panel mural by Alfonso Arana (1927–2005).
Walk one block south and you’ll find the Museo del Tabaco at calles Padial and Betances, testament to the area’s central role in the Puerto Rican tobacco industry, especially between 1890 and 1930. In addition to exhibits and information panels, the museum contains a replica of an old tobacco factory, where ageing but dextrous workers demonstrate how to roll cigars by hand. Today there are only a handful of tobacco factories in the area.
Back towards the bus station, Casa Rosada at c/Alejandro Ramírez 14 was the former home of Charlie Rodríguez and local writer Abelardo Díaz Alfaro (1916–1999), beautifully restored and housing a small exhibition on both men.