Greater San Juan is a vast, often bewildering mix of residential areas and modern commercial development, but there’s plenty to see before moving on. Just across the bay is the Casa Bacardi Visitor Center, one of the great shrines to rum-making. Bayamón and Caparra offer small but important historical attractions, while the bike trails and celebrated kioscos of Piñones are great fun on weekends. Further south, Caguas is a prosperous colonial town with a rich history.
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.
Arriving by car, there are several places to park on the edge of the historic centre – the best is Estacionamiento Lincoln Center Plaza (Mon–Fri 6am–7pm, Sat 7am–8pm; $1.50 first hr, $0.75 thereafter) at the end of PR-1, on the north side of town.
By público you’ll be dropped at the Terminal Francisco Pereira, two blocks northeast of central Plaza Palmer. The tourist office (daily 9am–5pm; t 787/653-8833 ext 2908, w gotocaguas.com) on the northwest corner of Plaza Palmer, has only basic information on the city but helpful English-speaking staff.
All the museums in Caguas open Tuesday to Saturday 9am to noon and 1 to 5pm, and are free. With the exception of the art gallery, you’ll need to read Spanish to get the most out of them, though you might find helpful English-speaking guides on hand willing to show you around.
Eating options in Caguas include cheap local restaurants in the centre, fast-food outlets around Plaza Palmer and Puerto Rican snack stalls in the square most days. You’ll find a handful of modern and international restaurants on the main highways outside the centre. Cheap snacks and cakes (under $5) can be found at Asturiana c/Goyco 58 (open 24hr), a no-frills bakery with heaps of character, open since 1932. Marcelo, at PR-1 and Avenida José Mercado (t 787/743-8801; closed Sun) is the top place to eat in the centre of Caguas, just on the edge of the old town, facing the monument to Taíno women. It’s nothing special inside but the menu of Cuban and local comida criolla is first-rate. Try the house specialities jamón de pollo (smoked chicken) and smoked pork loin and paella (mains from $12).
Born in Caguas in 1918, few would have believed Carlos Manuel Rodríguez Santiago was destined to become the island’s first Catholic saint. Known as “Chali” (which later became Anglicized as “Charlie”), he was an earnest but initially shy boy who struggled with ill health from an early age, seeking solace in scripture and the rituals of the Church. He became a Catholic lay minister at university in the 1940s, preaching all over the island and especially active in the revival of traditional Catholic customs such as the Easter vigil. Tragically, this burgeoning Church career was cut short in 1963 when Rodríguez died of intestinal cancer. Regarded as a deeply spiritual man, what grabbed the Vatican’s attention was a miracle: in 1981, a local woman (and former friend) claimed to have fully recovered from cancer after praying to Charlie. Brought to the attention of the Pope in 1992, the miracle was deemed genuine and the normally tortuously long process of canonization was initiated. Pope John Paul II beatified Rodríguez in April 2001 and he’s well on the way to becoming a fully fledged saint, though the Vatican must confirm one more miracle before that can happen – until then he’s known as the “Blessed”. Not only the first Puerto Rican to be beatified, Charlie was the first layperson in US history and only the second in the western hemisphere to receive that honour.
Visit the slick Casa Bacardi Visitor Center (t787/788-8400, wwww.casabacardi.org) inside the “cathedral of rum”, the vast Bacardi distillery across San Juan Bay in Cataño and you’ll enter another world – Cuba, to be precise. It’s a series of fun and illuminating interactive exhibits that emphasize Bacardi’s Cuban roots and involve not just watching and listening, but sniffing the products on display. Guided tours depart every 15 to 30 minutes and last around 45 minutes.
Established in Santiago de Cuba by Catalan expat Don Facundo Bacardí Massó in 1862, the Bacardi empire now dominates the global rum market, supplying 75 percent of rum sold in the US alone. The Puerto Rican plant was established in Old San Juan in 1936 and moved to this location – when it received its “cathedral” sobriquet from then-governor Luis Muñoz Marín – in 1958. The move here proved timely, as Castro seized the Bacardi assets in Cuba shortly afterwards, precipitating exile in 1960 – the family remain vehement opponents of what they term a “totalitarian” regime.
Today Bacardi is a true multinational organization, headquartered in tax-free Bermuda, and with massive operations in the Bahamas, Mexico and Puerto Rico – the last outpost has the capacity to produce 100,000 gallons of rum every 24 hours and is the biggest taxpayer on the island.
Equipped with a hand-held audio guide and accompanied by enthusiastic docents, you’ll pass through seven different zones introducing both the history of the company and the rum-making process. Special barrels allow you to “nose” the effects of wood barrelling, ageing and finishing, as well as the various Bacardi brands on offer: sweetly scented apple and melon flavours and the rich, addictive aroma of coconut-laced rum – piña colada in a bottle. Mercifully, there are two free drinks waiting for you at the end of the tour (and as many soft drinks as you like).
Note, however, that you don’t get to visit the actual distillery – for security reasons the real rum-making facilities have been off-limits since 9/11 and are likely to remain that way.
Just 2km beyond central Isla Verde, PIÑONES is an entirely different world, a languid, low-rent community of shacks, houses and a couple of thousand tenants scattered along the coast and PR-187. At the weekends the whole area comes alive with salsa and sanjuaneros looking to connect with their traditional roots, drink beer and enjoy the cocina en kiosco. In addition, the beaches here are excellent for surfing, especially in winter.
Bus C45 runs into Piñones from Río Piedras via Isla Verde Monday to Saturday: from elsewhere take a bus to Isla Verde and change outside the cockfighting arena. Taxis are impossible to find at the weekends, so you need to arrange transport in advance. Get off the bus as soon as you cross the bridge into Boca de Cangrejos, the first part of Piñones at km 4.3, crammed with cheap restaurants and head to La Paseodora information centre, just off the road on the right.
Piñones is home to the descendants of freed African slaves as well as more recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic, making for a vibrant cultural mix. La Paseodora, run by the Corporación Piñones Se Integra (COPI; t787/253-9707, wwww.copipr.com), acts as a focus for activities to celebrate this heritage and also manages the area’s ecological attractions. To explore the latter, rent a bicycle here and follow the Paseo Piñones bike trail.
In addition to the weekend kioscos that line PR-187, Piñones is home to some rustic open-air restaurants and trendy beach bars that do business all week. Most can be found in Boca de Cangrejos, or along the main beach on the other side of the headland. Salsa fans should make for El Balcón del Zumbador, which hosts outstanding live salsa bands most weekends.
The town of Loíza, 30km from Old San Juan and a short drive east of Piñones, is best known for its Fiestas Tradicionales de Santiago Apóstol, the ten-day carnival held every July to honour St James (his feast day is July 25). What makes the festival so special is the town’s rich African heritage: the religious ceremonies are enhanced with bomba music and dancers and with multicoloured spiky vejigante masks made from coconut shells.
Like Piñones, Loíza became a refuge for runaway and freed slaves in the seventeenth century, most of them Yoruba people from West Africa, and the festival is the result of a gradual blending of Spanish and African cultures over the years. Santiago (St James) is the patron saint of Spain, where he became known as Matamoros (“Moor-slayer”) in the Middle Ages for his supposed help in defeating the Moors, and in the sixteenth century Spanish colonists brought his cult to Puerto Rico (the festival masks symbolize the “heathen” Moors). African slaves began to pray to Santiago for help in fending off pirates and enemy attacks, and gradually St James became associated with Yoruba deities such as Ogun, the spirit of iron and war. Ironically, St James evolved into a symbol of resistance against the Spanish ruling classes, the festival a potent act of defiance against the oppression levelled at slaves and their descendants. Following an influx of Irish settlers in the nineteenth century, the Church made St Patrick the town’s patron saint, but that only served to make the worship of Santiago more intense.
Most of the festival action takes place in Plaza de Recreo, Loíza’s main square: call the local tourist office (t787/876-3570) for details. The town gets jam-packed at festival time, so you’ll need to get there early, preferably with your own car (or via bus C45 from Isla Verde, Mon–Fri, last departure from Loíza 6.30pm). You can purchase masks from Artesanías Castor Ayala at PR-187 km 6.6 (daily 9am–6pm), just outside the town, throughout the year.