The 17th century Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe is one of Ponce’s must-see sights. // © 2014 Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Feature image (above): The well-known Parque de Bombas building, built in 1883, was originally a fire station. // © 2014 Creative Commons user fortherock
When it comes to Puerto Rico’s historic attractions, San Juan deserves to be center stage. But there are other cities on the island worthy of a visit, especially Ponce, Puerto Rico’s second largest city.
Ponce was founded in 1692, and its prime position on the island’s south coast earned it the nickname “Pearl of the South.” While modern day San Juan buzzes and hums with action, Ponce ambles along at an appealing slower pace that harks back to an earlier time.
Most visitors to Puerto Rico arrive in San Juan. Those who want to visit Ponce can join an organized tour or do what my wife and I did, which was to rent a car at the San Juan International Airport and set off on a self-drive adventure.
Travelers comfortable driving in the U.S. will have little difficulty navigating Puerto Rico by car, especially if they keep to the main roads and highways. Signs are bilingual, drivers keep to the right side of the road and the roads are generally well maintained. I chose a longer route for our drive from San Juan to Ponce, traveling west and then heading south along the coast for the last leg of the journey. A quicker route to Ponce heads directly south on Highway 52; that’s a scenic, 90-minute drive.
Once you drive into Ponce, head to the historic part of town, find a place to park and set off exploring on foot. This is easy to do, since the historic quarter is compact and most of its notable sites are clustered around Plaza las Delicias, the town’s tree-shaded main square.
We arrived on a quiet Sunday morning. The city was waking up slowly — shuttered windows were starting to open and cafe owners were sweeping the sidewalks. There were few cars on the quiet streets, which heightened the 19th century ambience of the city.
Ponce’s signature attraction is the Parque de Bombas. This red-and-black-striped building, which now serves as a tourist office, was built in 1883 and first functioned as a fire station. It’s an arresting sight. I’ve traveled to 54 countries and I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Parque de Bombas is on the east side of Ponce’s main square and makes a good starting point for a day of exploring.
Right across from Parque de Bombas is the Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, painted in blue and white. Since we visited Ponce on a Sunday, we saw family groups dressed in their best making their way across the square to attend a service in the historic church, which was originally built in the 17th century and then rebuilt in 1931.
Ponce prides itself on its museums. The Museo de Arte de Ponce has 3,000 works by such heavyweights as Velazquez and Rubens, as well as works by some of Puerto Rico’s most important artists. The Museo de la Musica Puertorriquena showcases Puerto Rico’s musical heritage and the Museo de la Historia de Ponce has exhibits on the history of Ponce.
My wife and I walked by the historic Teatro La Perla, a theater built in 1864. Even though it was closed, someone had left the huge front doors ajar. We slipped inside and explored the darkened theatre, which is decorated in gold gilt offset by deep reds.
Visitors can get a sense of Ponce in a single day. But since this is a city that prides itself on its cultural venues, the optimum way to experience Ponce is to stay overnight when a performance is scheduled at the Teatro La Perla. Performances here are usually held during one of the city’s cultural festivals. The Melia Century Hotel, a neoclassical treasure built in 1895 and the oldest hotel in Puerto Rico, is my accommodation recommendation. Ask for a room with a balcony and a plaza view to enjoy the full effect of historic Ponce at night.