After years of decline, MAYAGÜEZ is finally starting to feel like Puerto Rico’s third city again, a wilfully provincial place that has always stuck its nose up at posh Ponce and the brash wealth of the capital, desperately proud of its historic reputation as “La Sultana del Oeste” (Sultan of the West). Long ignored by tourists, central Mayagüez is a surprising treasure-trove of ornate architecture, a legacy of the boom years of coffee and sugar, and home to some endearing edible attractions: the cream-stuffed brazo gitano and zesty home-made sangría. Now just the eighth most populous city on the island after years of migration, the city’s impressive centre has been spruced up, and a palpable sense of optimism pervades the streets.
Mayagüez was founded in 1760 by a group of settlers from the Canary Islands, the name deriving from the Taíno word for the Río Yagüez, “Maygüex”. In the nineteenth century the city became a major port and commercial centre serving the rich coffee plantations in the western mountains. This was despite a series of catastrophic natural disasters: the great fire of 1841 destroyed most of the city, while the 1918 earthquake and tsunami levelled it yet again with seven hundred stone buildings and over a thousand wooden homes destroyed – much of what you see today dates from the massive rebuilding programme that followed. The University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez Campus (UPRM) was founded in 1911 (wwww.uprm.edu), and today the city remains a major education centre, students making up a large proportion of its population.
The city was an important rum producer between the 1930s and 1970s, and Cervecería India (now Cervecera de Puerto Rico), which opened in 1937, still produces Medalla beer here. After World War II, textile factories boomed, and between 1962 and 1998 Mayagüez was a major tuna-canning centre, supplying 80 to 90 percent of all tuna consumed in the US – now only one factory remains, supplying the Bumble Bee brand. The city’s recent renaissance was in part inspired by its selection to host the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games – the games were a big success and gave a welcome boost to the local economy.