Puerto Rico’s balmy south coast is known as the Porta Caribe (“gateway to the Caribbean”), a designation that neatly sums up its laidback appeal. The only part of Puerto Rico that actually faces the Caribbean Sea, the waves here are calmer, the skies warmer and the air drier than elsewhere on the island, but the lack of beaches means you’ll see far fewer visitors. As a result, traditional Puerto Rican culture remains vibrant here, towns and villages exuding a strong Spanish identity closer in spirit to that of Cuba and Central America.
Some of the most powerful Taíno kingdoms were based here, home to Agüeybaná himself, overlord of the island when the Spanish arrived in 1508, but the conquerors focused their efforts elsewhere and the south remained thinly populated until the eighteenth century. Sugar changed everything, with plantations rapidly colonizing the narrow strip between the Central Cordillera and the coast in the nineteenth century. By World War II the sugar industry had collapsed, and today great swathes of the south are empty, overgrown prairies, a haunting reminder of a lost era.
Ponce is the capital of the south, Puerto Rico’s second city and peppered with ebullient architecture and museums, a poignant legacy of those heady days of sugar. Outside Ponce, make time for the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes, one of the most important archeological sites in the Caribbean, and Hacienda Buena Vista, a lush coffee plantation frozen in the nineteenth century. To the west, the humdrum town of Yauco boasts a number of less-visited treasures to complement its prestigious coffee, while Guánica is best known for its remarkable dry forest and series of enticing beaches, the only section of the south coast mobbed by tourists. To the east, the hot springs at Coamo are a pleasant novelty, but the town itself is a fine product of sugar country, with nearby Guayama another gracefully weathered example.