South Side Story
“Puerrrrrrto Rico! My heart’s devotion…”
Travelers tend to have three different and distinct impressions of Puerto Rico. One, they’ve seen West Side Story and think that all Puerto Ricans live in New York City. Two, they’ve been to or through San Juan on their way to somewhere else in the Caribbean and assume it represents the rest of Puerto Rico. Or three, they’ve spent some time in Ponce and have a sense of the true culture and history of this very unique island.
If you’re not in category three, this is your lucky day.
The Other Puerto Rico
All too often we allow “gateway” cities to define the countries for which they are merely an entry point. Is the rest of England really like London, as wonderful as it is? Is Italy like Rome, or Japan like Tokyo? Is the U.S. like Los Angeles or New York, or is Chicago the most “American” of our big cities?
San Juan has the advantage and disadvantage of being the gateway to Puerto Rico. It thrives in that capacity and defines our view of Puerto Rico. But the very presence of so much foreign influence puts San Juan in the company of other international cities.
Ponce is Puerto Rico unfiltered, unplugged, but far from unadorned.
The Pearl Of The South
In Ponce you can be immersed in the often overlooked but very rich culture of Puerto Rico. The island, like much of the rest of the Caribbean, was settled by the Spanish who immediately spread their seed among the indigenous Indian population. But the richness of the culture is derived from the waves of immigration that followed Spanish dominance, most of which came through the southern part of the island where Ponce is located.
In the 1800s alone there arrived French citizens fleeing the Haitian Revolution; wealthy merchants and businessmen from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries declaring their independence from Spain; and Europeans taking advantage of Spain’s offer to accept citizens of any politically-friendly country as settlers in Puerto Rico. By the end of the century, Ponce had become the largest city on the island and center for the music, art and cuisine that defines so much of the Caribbean experience.
The Spanish-American War began as an intervention into the Cuban War of Independence, spread to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and after three months and a charge up San Juan Hill, ended with the U.S. taking possession of all those Spanish assets except Cuba. The war effectively ended the Spanish Empire and inaugurated the “American Empire”.
The good news for today’s visitors is that the new American owners immediately moved administration of the island to San Juan, which had a better harbor and was closer to “home”. As a result Ponce was frozen in time and was able to avoid much of the cultural modernization that took place in the north. The bad news was a period of economic stagnation that took the better part of the 20th century to reverse.
Ponce En Marcha
In the last couple of decades, an ambitious revitalization project has transformed Ponce into a living museum. Billions have been spent restoring over one thousand buildings in the city’s historic center. An organization called Project For Public Places has placed Ponce on its list of 60 of the World’s Great Places, calling it a “graciously preserved showcase of Caribbean culture.”
Museums dot the restored streets of Distrito Histórico. Architecture, music, art, theater, and history are all celebrated in buildings that have been reclaimed from more difficult times. Best are the Ponce Museum of Art and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music. The Parque de Bombas Museum is the city’s most recognizable landmark, a red and black striped firehouse located in the central square behind the Ponce Cathedral. As expected it features the colorful history of Ponce’s firefighters.
Outside of the downtown area, you might want to clamber up the hill (actually, you can take a taxi) that features the Cruceta El Vigía (a cross housing an observation tower) and Serrallés Castle, former home of the DonQ Rum family. It was from this vantage point that the invading American fleet was spotted in 1898. Near there is the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center that, thanks to erosion from a 1975 hurricane, became the most important archeological site in the West Indies.
Finish your day with a stroll along the La Guancha Boardwalk on the city’s seafront. Certainly you’ll find some uniquely Caribbean form of refreshment to round out your taste of true Puerto Rico.
Karyn L. Planett