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.
Just north of Ponce are two of the most memorable sights on the island, both associated with the region’s long and eventful history. The Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes is one of the most significant Pre-Taíno archeological sites ever found, and a tantalizing window into the culture of this now lost civilization, while Hacienda Buena Vista is a captivating nineteenth-century plantation.
Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes
Evidence of pre-Columbian civilization has been rare in the Caribbean until relatively recently, but the CENTRO CEREMONIAL INDÍGENA DE TIBES (787/840-2255) remains one of the region’s greatest discoveries, proof of highly complex societies long before the Spanish conquest. The site was inhabited for 1500 years by a series of migrating peoples and primarily used as a burial ground and ceremonial centre, littered with ball-courts and standing stones. Like Caguana, this has none of the grandiose ruins of Central America, but the guides do their best to bring the site alive with illuminating facts and anecdotes, and if you visit early, you’ll almost certainly have it to yourself. Tibes is clearly signposted off PR-503 at km 2.2, due north of central Ponce. Note that you can only visit the site with a guide (free; tours last up to 1hr): weekdays you should be able to pick up an English-speaking one at the entrance, though if the park is busy (unusual), you may have to wait. Note that the site cannot be reached by public transport.
In 1975, a local farmer stumbled across ancient ruins uncovered by flooding in the wake of Hurricane Eloise, and archeologists finally got working on the site a year later. They found nine ball-courts, three plazas and the largest indigenous cemetery ever discovered on the island, comprising 187 human skeletons (one of which is displayed in the museum) from the Igneri and Pre-Taíno periods. The Igneri people established Tibes and used the site from around 300 to 600 AD as a sacred burial ground, but it was later re-inhabited by Pre-Taíno peoples, who constructed the ball-courts and seem to have used it primarily as a ceremonial and burial centre (the remains of which survive today). The Igneri may have played an early form of the ball-game (see The museum), but just for sport, while it started to assume a more spiritual and symbolic meaning under the Pre-Taínos.
Our understanding of el batey or the ball-game (pelota in modern Spanish), is almost completely based on a few early Spanish accounts. Played with two teams, passing a rubber ball between them (with anything but the hands), it had many similarities to the game played in Mesoamerica, and had a serious ceremonial function.
In around 1100 the site was abandoned after extensive flooding of the Río Portugués, and it remained lost for almost nine hundred years. The academic impact of Tibes was seismic: previously, little was known about Pre-Taíno cultures, and the ball-game was considered a relatively recent phenomenon, while the construction of so many stone structures implied a highly organized society able to plan, mobilize, control and sustain many workers. Some experts go further, claiming that the plazas were positioned to reflect the seasonal solar equinox and solstice, making Tibes the oldest astronomical observatory in the Caribbean.
Hacienda Buena Vista
Coffee and sugar once dominated the Puerto Rican economy, a legacy beautifully preserved at the HACIENDA BUENA VISTA (787/722-5834 ext 240 Mon–Fri, 787/284-7020 weekends and holidays), offering a rare opportunity to tour one of the island’s historic plantations. Note that you must reserve a tour in advance – don’t just turn up. English tours normally run at 1.30pm and last around two hours, but call to check. You can take additional tours of the especially fertile grounds and Río Canas gorge – these last two hours or four hours, and are usually in Spanish only.
The core of the plantation retains the attractive, European style of the main house. Running through the yard is a narrow but fast-flowing mill-course built in 1845, which leads back towards the river and an extremely lush gorge – the plantation was once powered by water. The tour starts inside the old coffee storage room and main house above, all painstakingly restored in 1890s style. From here you’ll be led around the main outhouses (including the slave house that once quartered 57 slaves), before following the mill-course above the Río Canas to the gorge at the Salto Vives – the vista through the bushes to the falls and pool below is the “beautiful view” (“buena vista”) that the hacienda was named after. On the way back you’ll visit the creaky wooden roasting house and the whirling millstones of the original corn mill built by Carlos Vives.
The hacienda is around 17km from Ponce Centro, at PR-123 km 16.8. It’s clearly signposted with a small car park on site.
The hacienda was established as a small farm for cacao, corn, plantains and coffee in 1833 by Salvador de Vives, a Spanish émigré from Venezuela, who had moved to the island in 1821 after the South American nation became independent. Between 1845 and 1847, his son Carlos Vives built the mill-course, most of the buildings you see today and a corn mill, expanding production of coffee and corn-meal so that the plantation was booming by the early 1870s. Technology and investment were important, but as in the rest of Puerto Rico, the real foundation of plantation wealth was the back-breaking labour of African slaves. The abolition of slavery in 1873 proved the first of many blows to the Vives empire, including Hurricane San Ciriaco in 1899, which devastated the plantation. In 1904 the hacienda started to produce oranges for the US market, a much smaller trade which nevertheless kept it going until the 1930s. By the 1950s the virtually abandoned estate was appropriated by the government, which distributed four hundred acres to landless Ponceños, while the Conservation Trust acquired the remaining 86 acres preserved today.
Guánica and around
Blessed with one of the south coast’s most flawless natural harbours, GUÁNICA is a once-prosperous sugar town with a typically torpid plaza and a couple of low-key sights. The real reason so many people flock here is the adjacent Bosque Estatal de Guánica, a unique dry forest of twisted trees and stumpy cacti, with well-maintained hiking trails winding down to a glorious coastline of sparkling beaches and sprawling mangroves. The coast is also accessible by road, its highlight the coral- and mangrove-smothered Guilligan’s Island just offshore, where you can float in crystalline waters rich with fish and crabs. With the Central Cordillera draining moisture from the trade winds, this area has the lowest annual rainfall on the island, meaning you are virtually guaranteed hot, sunny days.
Guánica is 9km southwest of Yauco on PR-116: you’ll pass the turning to the forest first (PR-334), before reaching the road to the beaches (PR-333), which effectively bypasses the town. The main road to the centre is PR-332, at the next junction. Needless to say, you need a car to get the most out of the area, as things are extremely spread out.
Bosque Estatal de Guánica
Much of Guánica’s seductive coastline falls within the Bosque Estatal de Guánica, a 37 square kilometre forest reserve that incorporates some of the driest and most unusual flora on the island. Its heart lies high above the coast, accessible via PR-334, which ends 3km from PR-116 at a car park and small information booth (t787/724-3724) supplying basic maps (if closed, check at the ranger station nearby). The reserve is crisscrossed by twelve well-kept and mostly signposted trails, with literally hundreds of species of bird flittering around the gnarled trees and bushes, in a withered landscape often reminiscent of outback Australia. Noting that Guánica is now the largest remaining tract of tropical dry coastal forest in the world, UNESCO made it a Biosphere Reserve in 1981.
It’s important to remember, however, that there are four different forest types here, with only one being truly exceptional: the dry scrub forest that lines the southern slopes, studded with the imaginatively named Spanish dildo cactus, squat melon cactus and gumbo-limbo trees with peeling red bark. Two-thirds of the reserve is covered in deciduous forest (most of the area around the information booth, which contains the majority of the bird life), while one-fifth (mostly in the sinkholes and ravines of the east side) is evergreen forest. Coastal forest lines the shore, characterized by bonsai-like shrubs and mangroves.
Impressive as all this sounds, you might find the forest a little underwhelming: unless you have a keen interest in botany, the dry landscape can get monotonous and you’ll have to be here at dawn to catch most of the birds. The best strategy is to take a whole day and tackle one of the longer trails in order to appreciate the bizarre diversity of the area, combining the hike with a few hours on the beach. You’ll need to bring plenty of water and preferably start early. December to April is the driest period, and you’ll find the most colour, flowers and odd bouts of rain, between September and January.
Officially Cayo Aurora, Guilligan’s Island is an idyllic outcrop of thick mangroves bordered by white coral sand, just off the Guánica coast. The sobriquet recalling the US television series Gilligan’s Island was added in the late 1960s as a marketing gimmick (but retaining a Spanish twist), and today it falls under the same DRNA management as the forest reserve.
A ferry plies back and forth from the main island, where you’ll find a few barbecue huts and plenty of shade, but this isn’t really a beach – being completely hemmed in by mangroves is what makes the lagoon so magical. Swim or just drift around in the incredibly clear (and shallow) water, where shoals of parrot fish and crabs huddle beneath the roots, or snorkel over the reef just beyond the jetty.
The ferry (787/821-4941) sails from the pier in front of the San Jacinto restaurant, on the narrow road that splits off PR-333 towards Mary Lee’s by the Sea (taking just 10 to 15 minutes). Note that at weekends and holidays, especially in the summer, cars begin to line up at the ferry car park at around 6am, and the island can get swamped (the ferry takes 45 people per trip, with a maximum 350 allowed on the island). Taking the private launches from Copamarina or Mary Lee’s (both charge around the same price) is a good idea, as you can set your own pick-up time and combine the trip with a visit to Ballena – you’ll have to be a guest to organize this, however.
The old sugar country
The now empty plains between the southeast coast and the mountains, once the heart of sugar country, show few signs of their former glory. Yet the inviting hot springs at Coamo and the graceful old sugar towns of Arroyo and Guayama are steeped in history, legacies of the great wealth created in the colonial and early American periods. The last in particular is a smaller, less pretentious version of Ponce, well stocked with ramshackle but striking architecture, and a smattering of galleries and museums. The lack of beaches means you’ll see few tourists here, and for once the coast is not the main attraction. Salinas is the modest exception, with a yacht-filled marina, seafood specialities and a spread of tempting offshore cays to explore. Access to the region is easy via PR-52 and PR-53, slicing through vast swathes of abandoned, overgrown plots of land that testify to the drastic collapse of not just the domestic sugar industry, but all of Puerto Rico’s traditional agriculture since World War II.
Coamo and around
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
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.
In the nineteenth century GUAYAMA was one of the grandest towns on the island, overflowing with money garnered from nearby sugar-cane plantations. Though it remains a large, lively place, it’s the legacies of that period, chiefly its fine architecture, that make a visit worthwhile today. The local Oficina de Turismo is housed in the attractively renovated birthplace of Luis Palés Matos (1898–1959), acclaimed poet and creator of the genre known as Afro-Antillano, a blend of Afro-Caribbean words and Spanish. You’ll find the “Casa del Poeta” at Calle Ashford and Baldorioty, just off the plaza.
Driving into town on PR-3, stop first at the Centro de Bellas Artes, an imposing Neoclassical structure built in 1927 and formerly the Supreme Court. Today it houses an odd assortment of fine art, archeology and sculpture, much of the latter created by local artist Gladys Nieves. The building itself is the real attraction, though the Sala Taína contains a couple of ghoulish Taíno petroglyphs and a small collection of Taíno tools, ceremonial objects and ceramics. The Sala de Simón Madera is dedicated to the composer of the popular danza Mis Amores, containing his old violin, desk and portrait. Madera supposedly wrote the dance in Casa Cautiño, and died in Guayama in 1957.
Ponce and around
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.
Carnival of the devil masks
Ponce’s carnaval starts one week before Ash Wednesday, a tradition that goes back officially to 1858, making it the oldest in Puerto Rico. It’s nothing like the crazy celebrations in Rio or New Orleans (this version is more family oriented and a lot more local – you won’t see many foreign tourists), but still loads of fun: just make sure you book accommodation well in advance.
The carnival opens with a procession of masked figures known as vejigantes. The original purpose of the vejigante was to scare people (they traditionally represented demonic Moorish warriors), and these days you’ll see them merrily thwacking kids that line the streets with a vejiga, a dried, cow’s bladder blown up like a balloon. Vejigantes wear incredibly ornate masks made of papier-mâché and embellished with outlandish colours and devilish horns.
The programme of week-long festivities includes a danza competition, the unveiling of Miss Ponce Carnaval (chosen from a local high school), concerts and special exhibitions in Plaza Las Delicias. The merrymaking ends on Shrove Tuesday with the Entierro de la Sardina (Burial of the Sardine), a mock funeral procession attended by hyperbolic cries and wails from everyone in sight. A dummy is symbolically burnt at the climax, signifying the purging of sins before the beginning of Lent. For more information call t787/841-8044 or check wwww.visitponce.com.
The best-loved and most fiercely guzzled rum in Puerto Rico is Don Q (wwww.donq.com), still proudly produced in Ponce by the Destilería Serrallés near the airport (which was once its private airstrip). Like the Barcardís, the Serrallés family hail from Catalunya in northern Spain, and it was patriarch Juan Serrallés Colón (1834–1897) who emigrated to Puerto Rico and established Hacienda Mercedita in 1861 as a sugar-cane plantation, still the location of the current distillery. In 1865 he began to produce quality rum, using a French still you can see in the Castillo Serrallés, but it wasn’t until 1932 that the Don Q brand was launched, named after the much-loved Cervantes character, Don Quixote. Don Q Gold and especially Don Q Cristal are now staples in almost every home and bar on the island, and if you order a piña colada, it will almost certainly contain the latter. Don Q is still owned by Destilería Serrallés, which also produces the Ron Llave, Palo Viejo and Granado brands, as well as Ronrico and Captain Morgan for distribution in the Caribbean (Seagrams has US distribution rights). Sadly, tours of the distillery are not available.
One of the most talented yet tragic figures in the world of salsa, Héctor Lavoe was born in Ponce in 1946. He moved to New York in 1963, beginning a sparkling musical career that began with traditional bolero songs. Making his big break with band leader Willie Colón in 1967, he went solo in 1973, and had a string of catchy hits such as Bandolera, Sóngoro Cosongo and Joven contra Viejo, but El Cantante (“the singer”) became his signature tune, his eventual nickname, and title of the biopic movie released in 2007. Lavoe helped solidify the growing New York Latin sound of the era, soon to be known as salsa, but despite his apparent success, he struggled with a largely unsupportive music industry, drug addiction and depression for most of his career – after a suicide attempt in 1988, a penniless Lavoe died of AIDS-related complications in 1993. Initially buried in the Bronx, he was re-interred at the Cementerio Municipal de Ponce in 2002, along with his son Héctor Junior and wife Nilda Rosado. In addition to laying flowers at the white marble headstone, fans commemorate his birthday here on September 30. The annual “Lavoe Weekend” of concerts takes place on La Guancha boardwalk around this time.
The Ponce Massacre
The Ponce Massacre of seventeen civilians has assumed mythical status on the island, not just within the independence movement, but for many ordinary Puerto Ricans too, despite taking place over seventy years ago. The killings occurred amid growing tension: in the 1930s, the increasingly frustrated Nationalist Party, led by Ponce lawyer Pedro Albizu Campos and advocating full independence for Puerto Rico, became more militant, and relations with the police deteriorated rapidly. On Palm Sunday, 1937, the party organized a march in Ponce to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery, but at the last minute Governor Winship revoked their permit – he had surmised, correctly, that the march would also be an indirect protest against the recent incarceration of Albizu. Indignant, the marchers decided to continue as planned: in trying to break up the protest, police fired on the crowd with machine guns, killing seventeen civilians – men, women and one twelve-year-old girl. Two policemen also died. Over one hundred people were wounded, many while trying to run away, and in the aftermath hundreds more were arrested. The massacre led to widespread anger across the island, especially when an official inquiry proved inconclusive and an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union held the governor responsible. The massacre has only been taught in schools since 1990, and was largely covered up by the US government. Now there are subdued ceremonies honouring the dead held every year at the Casa de la Masacre.
Yauco and around
Many Puerto Rican towns claim to be the capital of coffee, but only YAUCO owns the franchise. For over one hundred years, the town has been synonymous with the island’s most respected and eagerly sought brands – Café Yaucono remains the best-selling Puerto Rican coffee by a long margin. Yet the coffee-growing highlands of Yauco municipality lie far to the north of the actual town, which is part of the arid southwest and better suited to sugar cane. What really makes Yauco so appealing is its vastly underrated ensemble of dazzling criollo buildings, early colonial ruins and culinary specialities, largely ignored by foreign tourists.