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Beach at Hilton Hotel, Ponce

Pleasures of Ponce, Puerto Rico

I'm sitting at a table in the open air restaurant in the Ponce Hilton hotel. The sky is a cloudless blue, the sun is shining and there's a soft breeze. I'm having breakfast and watching a black bird raid the sugar, flying off clutching a yellow packet of artificial sweetener in his beak. I idly wonder what he's going to do with it. He can't possibly be using it for his coffee and there are other more appropriate nesting materials available. The sparrows seem to be doing fine with the bark of the palm tree. The parrot (in a cage) has his housing needs met.

This moment is made even more sweet by the fact that back home it's below freezing. But even if the weather up north was warm, it would still be a golden time to visit Ponce. This smaller sibling to San Juan has enough amenities to be comfortable but has not yet become a tourism magnet.

Historic Ponce

Tiny Mercedita Airport in Ponce was the first sign that this part of Puerto Rico has not yet been discovered. There are just two gates, actually just doors to the tarmac outside, and no food vendors. But then, no one goes to the airport except when the two flights land just before dawn or take off slightly later in the morning.

Ponce was officially founded in 1692 by Loiza Ponce de Leon, great grandson of the famous Juan Ponce de Leon first governor of Puerto Rico, and seeker of the fountain of youth (the source of its name and its symbol of the lion). The beautiful heart of Ponce is the historic district.

The Houses of The 25th of January Street

Firefighters are a particularly revered group in Ponce, a result of the devastating fires that have regularly swept through the city. But it was the fire on the 25th of January, 1899 known as "el polovorin" that is perhaps the most famous. It started in a military munition depot, located just three blocks from the firehouse yet the firefighters were told not to fight the fire.

The reason for the order is not really known but what is certain is that several firemen decided to disobey orders, extinguishing the fire and saving the town. Although they were initially in danger of being punished for insubordination, the people of Ponce considered them heroes and the city government eventually rethought their decision and honored the men in a public celebration.

Fast forward to 1906. The firefighters of the city had always been volunteers who did not receive any pay for their service and the municipal government decided to recognized their courage and importance by selecting a firefighter each year to receive a new home. These houses were constructed by the government and the official name of the street where they were built was eventually changed to 25 de enero street "the 25th of January Street" in honor of those firefighters who saved the city in 1899. The houses, which today number about 60, are easily spotted. They're painted in the distinctive red and black colors of Ponce.

Fire Station - Parque de Bombas

Parque de Bombas - Fire Station

One of the highlights of a visit to Ponce is the eye-catching red and black striped Parque de Bombas, or Fire Station. Originally built in 1882 for an Exposition, the Moorish-style building is painted in the colors of the flag of Ponce. It became the Ponce Fire Station in 1883, and served proudly until it was renovated and reopened over a hundred years later in 1990 as a combination museum with a collection of antique fire trucks, and tourism information center. One of the most visited, loved, and photographed buildings in Ponce, it is also on the National Register of Historic Places.

Cathedral of our Lady of Guadalupe in Ponce The Parque de Bombas is a must-see attraction, and along with the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe it dominants Plaza Las Delicias (Plaza of Delights) in the heart of historic Ponce. Originally built in the 1830s the Cathedral was partially destroyed and then reconstructed with its current facade in the 1930s.

Museums and Parks of Ponce

After enjoying the plaza stroll east on Isabel Street admiring more beautiful buildings, and visiting the Museo de la Historia de Ponce (Museum of the History of Ponce), and the Museo de la Musica Puertorriquena (Museum of Puerto Rican Music) housed in heritage buildings. City Hall, dating back to 1847 when it served as a jail and, Casa Armstrong-Poventud are both magnificent classics.

At the edge of historic Ponce is the Tercentenary Park Plaza, built in 1992 for the 300th anniversary of the founding of the city, and the Bridge of Lions. The plaza was constructed with commemorative plates and plaques for famous native sons and daughters from actors to governors. And the lions are, of course, the emblem of Ponce.

Outside of Downtown Ponce

Museo de Arte de Ponce The pleasures of Ponce extend beyond the historic district and include some of Puerto Rico's most engaging attractions.

Museo de Arte de Ponce -- Ponce Museum of Art

Located outside the historic district in a striking white building designed by Edward Durrell Stone, the Museo de Arte de Ponce is considered to be the finest art museum in Puerto Rico, It houses the art collection of Luis Ferre‚ former Governor who was born in Ponce and chose his hometown for the permanent location. Each room is devoted to a school of art from around the world, including Flemish, Italian, and Spanish. The six-sided rooms each have a skylight to provide natural light.

Because all the paintings are originals, there are many that visitors have never seen, including the complex and fascinating El Diluvio Universal by Leandro Bassare ca 1700 who depicted the biblical flood story but placed it in Venice. We produced a nonstop stream of questions which delighted our knowledgeable guide who tailors the tour to the interests of the group. An expansion of the museum is planned to allow them to display currently unavailable works as well as provide an amphitheater for concerts.

Centro Ceremonial Indigena de Tibes -- Tibes Ceremonial Center

This pre-historical site is one of the major archeological destinations in the Caribbean, one of only two ceremonial sites found so far in Puerto Rico, unique in the number and size of the ball parks and ceremonial plazas. The inhabitants predate even the Taino, the indigenous group all but wiped out during the conquest of the island by the Spanish.

The site appears to go back to 300 AD and was discovered in 1975 after a hurricane exposed some ancient pottery, shells and bones. Almost 200 skeletons have been found so far in the ancient cemetery. The guided tours, available in English, provide the narrative describing the inhabitants' lives. In addition, a recreated dwelling allows visitors to walk through a construction.

Castillo Serralles

Visitors to Ponce quickly discover that the rum of choice is Don Q. Indeed, it was also just about the only rum available. The reason is the Serralles family who owns not only Don Q distillery but are also prominent in much of Ponce's commerce and development. Their former home, Castillo Serralles is an elegant Spanish Revival castle built in 1930 and now open to the public. The guided tours are very popular and there is often a wait, but the cafeteria offers drinks and munchies and the gardens are lovely. The tour includes not only the house and furnishing, but also provides a history of the rum business and how their distillery was started as well as a documentary about the Serralles family. This building is also listed on the National Register.
If you want a great view but don't feel like a long drive up into the mountains, walk over to El Vigia Hill. This must be one of the world's most unusual observation towers. The 100-foot tall cross, La Cruceta del Vigia, stands 300 feet above sea level. Originally a simple but large wooden cross, it was rebuilt in concrete to honor Don Luis, a security guard for the wooden cross for 30 years. The folks of Ponce decided to make it sturdy enough so that people could go up to the top to enjoy the view. There's also a Japanese Garden open to visitors.

La Guancha

The boardwalk along the marina is not only a pretty sight during the day (as well as the location for several of the boat tours), but also a source of nightlife on the weekends when there might be music, as well as bars and food kiosks and sidewalk vendors.

If You Go

Eating in Ponce
Mark's at the Melia Hotel
This charming restaurant provides a wide selection of expertly prepared food. The appetizers were delicious, and the platter for two could easily have been for three or four. The entrees range from continental specialties (often with a gastronomic twist) to local seafood. My plaintain perfectly crusted dorado (also known as mahi mahi) was white fleshed with crunchy shell served with rice and beans. Since Puerto Rico I've taken to fantasizing about rice and beans but haven't found anything that compares. Desserts were elegant and delicious.

Pito's Seafood
We also ate in Pito's Seafood on Route #2 with a friendly casual atmosphere and delicious food. Pito's is part of the Mesones Gastronomicos (Gastronomic Inns) restaurants that are sponsored by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company and offer local cuisine. Their cozy dining terrace overlooked the water and had a piano for evening music.

La Cava
The Hilton also has La Cava, an upscale sophisticated restaurant with an extensive wine list and excellent service, and excellent food as well.

Nightlife
Ponce is not exactly a nightlife city. In fact, it closes down at dark. On weekends younger folks head to La Guancha, strolling along the water, getting drinks at several of the bars and grabbing a bite to eat from vendors and enjoying some of the music which may come from a performing group, or float out from the bars. The Hilton's casino bar offers salsa music and dancing on weekends.

Getting Around
Ponce is currently served by midnight flights out of JFK (Jet Blue) and Newark (Continental). Jet Blue is planning to add a second flight at a more congenial hour in spring, 2006. Alternatively, you can fly into San Juan and rent a car and explore the island. The road that connects the two cities cuts right through Toro Negro and takes you through towns along the way which tourists seldom see.

Once in Ponce a free trolley/bus runs during the day and there is public transportation to San Juan and nearby towns, also daytime only. In addition, Rico Sun Tours provides tours and services. The guides in this family-owned business are licensed by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company and certified by the Public Service Commission as well as being friendly and knowledgeable. Aventuras Puerto Rico is another well-regarded tour operator in Ponce.

For adventure travel Ray Sepulveda of Acampa Tours is excellent. Thoroughly professional, knowledgeable and with a great staff.

Hotels
Three of the hotels in Ponce are associated with major chains. The Hilton Ponce Golf and Casino Resort is a beautiful destination resort right on the beach. In addition to the pools, tennis court, golf, spa, restaurants and the beautiful Caribbean Sea, it has a real playground for children, complete with bags of sand toys for those who wisely eschew packing a suitcase full of plastic buckets. The Holiday Inn is also in Ponce but higher up the mountain, away from the water. Howard Johnson is located by the airport. There are also several charming small inns in historic Ponce including Fox Delicias, Hotel Melia, and Hotel Bélgica.

For more information on Puerto Rico (and Ponce) visit SeePuertoRico.com.


Neala Schwartzberg Photos: © Neala Schwartzberg

2006 - updated August, 2012