Ponce, Puerto Rico

The Pearl of the South, the City of Lions — Puerto Rico’s second city is an open-air museum, an architectural treasure, and home of the island’s best ice cream

Photo by iStock.com/GregobagelPhoto by Felix Lipov/Shutterstock.comPhoto by iStock.com/GregobagelPhoto by iStock.com/Gregobagel

Streetscape

The municipality of Ponce sprawls from the southern coastal plain of Puerto Rico up to the heights of the Cordillera Central, but the city’s historic centre, two and a half miles inland from the Caribbean Sea, is the Plaza de las Delicias, with its shady trees and gushing Lions Fountain. Surrounding the plaza are Ponce’s City Hall, its wedding-cake cathedral, the Art Deco Teatro Fox Delicias, and other buildings showing off the diverse styles that make Ponce an architecture lover’s delight: from neoclassical to Art Nouveau to the distinctive vernacular Ponce Creole. The city’s protected historic zone falls within the six numbered central barrios: Primero to Sexto. The best views of Ponce are from the sky bridge of the Cruceta del Vigía, a cross-shaped monument, a hundred feet tall, on a hill just north of the city centre, once used as a defensive lookout.

Longing for some sea air? The La Guancha Boardwalk in the Playa barrio offers numerous food and drink vendors, an observation tower, a marina, and Ponce’s main beach is close at hand.

 

Trivia

Ponce isn’t just the city of museums — its several nicknames capture various other aspects of its history and geography: from la Perla del Sur (“the Pearl of the South”) to Ciudad de las Quenepas (“City of Genips”), thanks to its many trees bearing the small green fruit, and even Ciudad de los Leones (“City of Lions”), from the name of its founder.

 

Culture

Ponce isn’t called “the City of Museums” for nothing. Its dozens of historical and cultural institutions rival the riches of San Juan and make Ponce a magnet for arts lovers. Heading the list is the Museo de Arte de Ponce, the largest art museum in the Caribbean, housed in a landmark building designed by the American modernist architect Edward Durrell Stone. Its treasures include everything from European Old Master paintings to one of the best Pre-Raphaelite collections in the world, to works by contemporary Latin American artists.

The city’s history, meanwhile, is documented in the Museo Castillo Serrallés, the former mansion of a sugar baron, and the Hacienda Buena Vista, a historic coffee estate on Ponce’s outskirts. And the most immediately recognisable landmark is the Parque de Bombas, a former fire station, its ornate façade painted in red and black stripes. Now a fire-fighting museum, it is home to a collection of nineteenth-century artifacts as well as displays paying tribute to the brave firemen who saved the city from devastation in an 1899 conflagration that started in the gunpowder-laden city armoury.

 

Appetite

Ice cream is as popular in Ponce as in any tropical city, and the lines are longest at the unassuming-looking King Cream parlour (also known as Los Chinos), a longtime mainstay serving gelato-style treats — the best in Puerto Rico, locals claim. Fans recommend the flavours derived from locally grown fruits like parcha (passionfruit) and guanabana (soursop), and the coconut ice cream is a must-try.

 

History

Several archaeological sites within the Ponce city limits preserve remains of the indigenous Taíno who once flourished here on Puerto Rico’s Caribbean coast. After the arrival of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce de Léon in 1508, San Juan on the north coast became the main centre of colonial power. It was Ponce’s grandson Juan Ponce de León y Loayza who led the Spanish settlement of the region around Rio Portugués, which flows just east of the city’s modern centre.

Recognised as a parish in 1692, Ponce grew slowly until the nineteenth century, when the revolutions in Haiti and Spanish South America triggered a wave of immigration. This new class of farmers and merchants set up agricultural estates, rum distilleries, banks and factories, and by the end of the nineteenth century Ponce was Puerto Rico’s leading city and economic capital, with a ruling class willing to lavish their money on monuments and mansions.

But the 1898 invasion by the United States began a long period of decline, as the new colonial authorities centred administration and commerce in San Juan, and the Spanish American War cut Ponce’s traders off from their markets in Spain and Cuba. Ponce continued to be an important political base, and in recent decades its economy has improved, while the city’s historic and architectural heritage have attracted a growing number of tourists.

 

Co-ordinates

18.0º N 66.6º W
50 feet above sea level