On the southern coast of Puerto Rico lies the exquisite city of Ponce. It is the second largest city on the island and it has many different names, including La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South) and La Ciudad de los Leones (City of Lions). Ponce has worked diligently to maintain its exquisite architecture and highlights it with beautiful statues, fountains and landscaping. Read on for tips on the top ten things to see and do in this beautiful city.
Plaza las Delicias
Nearly all municipalities in Puerto Rico center around their plaza and develop out from there, and Ponce has one of the most beautiful on the island. Delicias is made up of two separate plazas: Plaza Luis Muñoz Rivera on the north and Plaza Degetau on the south. Visitors can view the architecture of the past in the stunning edifice of Casa Alcaldía (City Hall) and Casa Armstrong-Poventud. The detail of Casa Armstrong-Poventud is mesmerizing. Our Lady of Guadalupe Church lords over the plaza as somewhat of a beautiful matriarch. The fountains in Degetau were originally built for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, and were shipped to Ponce and installed here. Plaza las Delicias is also excellent for shopping, dining and just general relaxation, and there are many very fine hotels right on or just off the plaza, so there is much within walking distance.
Parque de Bombas
Parque de Bombas is one of the most recognizable tourist attractions of Puerto Rico. Its vivid black and red paint scheme and bright chrome of the antique fire engines draw you to it and makes it one of the most photographed attractions on the island. The firehouse as a backdrop is another popular place for wedding photos.
Parque de Bombas was built by Lt. Col Maximo Meana of the Spanish Army as the main exhibit pavilion for the 1882 Exhibit Trade Fair. In 1885 it was dedicated as Ponce’s official firehouse, and it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on July 12, 1984.
The firehouse is open to the public and a tour only takes about 10-15 minutes, depending on your pace and interest. It can be self-guided or you can have a volunteer expert onsite take you through and provide greater detail. Admission is free, but donations are welcome and needed for the continued maintenance of this beautiful structure.
Parque de Bombas, Plaza Las Delicias, Ponce, Puerto Rico +1 787 840 1045
Carnaval in Ponce is not only a festival of decadence leading up to the Lenten season, but a celebration of the city and its heritage. The Plaza is filled with people in colorful costumes and vejigante masks, most of which are handmade by the wearers. The best day to attend is the Sunday of the Carnaval when there is a big parade, many food and drink stands and other vendors selling trinkets, and small rides for the kids. A stage is put up and there is festive music. Entierro de la Sardina, or Burial of the Sardine, is the finale to the celebration on Fat Tuesday, where a dummy in a coffin in a hearse is paraded around while people “mourn,” before the dummy and coffin are burned, symbolically washing away the sins of the past and starting Lent fresh and renewed.
Castillo Serrallés was built in 1930 for the family of Don Juan Eugenio Serrallés who were leaders in the sugar and rum industry of the time, what we now know as the tantalizing Don Q Rum. The structure is one of the most well-preserved examples of the Spanish Moroccan architecture introduced to Puerto Rico by Pedro Adolfo de Castro. There is a terrace on the 4th floor that can be rented for special events and has a gorgeous view of the coast. Castillo Serrallés was purchased by the City of Ponce in the 1980s and the original intent was to make it the Museum of Music, but a different location was later chosen for that. Much work was done on the castle to bring it back to its original beauty, and to this day it is a joy to visit and enjoy the architecture, history and beautiful gardens.
Cruceta del Vigia
Ponce also owns Cruceta del Vigia, which is a 30m (98ft) high cross that sits in front of Castillo Serrallés. This cross was built at the site where settlers would watch for incoming ships, carrying both good and evil. The original cross was made from two intersecting tree trunks, on which a watchmen would sit and use flags to communicate what was coming and, whenever possible, from which country. The Vigia Hill also served as a refugee camp for citizens during a storm on September 12, 1738, an earthquake on May 10, 1787, a tsunami on November 18, 1867, and the United States invasion on July 25, 1898. Today the cross hosts a tourist center, and visitors can go up to the sky bridge via an elevator or stairs. Cruceta del Vigia, along with Castillo Serallés, the Japanese Gardens and Butterfly Gardens are all part of the Serrallés Complex, and admission tickets can be purchased for individual sites or for all of them.
Cruceta del Vigia, Sec El Vigia, Ponce, Puerto Rico +1 787-259-1775
Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center
Located in Barrio Portugués, this relatively new archaeological find was uncovered in 1975 when the nearby river flooded and washed away some of the soil. The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center is one of the best examples of Igneri, pre-Taino and Taino culture. It is home to the largest ceremonial site in Puerto Rico, and it also houses a sports arena where many types of competitions were held. As with many civilizations of this era, there were also the much-more violent and sometimes deadly body games, where men would “play” to show their strength to the chief, and the game did not end until the chief said it did. The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center conveys how the inhabitants lived, thrived, survived and died.
Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center, Ponce, Puerto Rico +1 787-840-2255
There is so much history in Ponce, and with all that history comes many museums. In addition to the already-mentioned museums of Parque de Bombas, Castillo de Serrallés, and the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center, you should also visit the Ponce Museum of Art, The Museum of the Massacre of Ponce, the Ponce History Museum, and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music.
Paseo Tablado La Guancha
The boardwalk of La Guancha is still being rebuilt after Hurricane Maria, but some of the kiosk restaurants are now reopened and when things get back to normal, this is a wonderful place to spend a Sunday afternoon and evening. There are restaurants serving cold drinks and many different kinds of food. You can find traditional Puerto Rican dishes like mofongo and pinchos, great Mexican food, and yummy munchies like chicken cordon bleu bolitas and pizza cones. Vendors can be found throughout selling all types of goods, including sardines, which you can feed to the pelicans idling about. But be careful: although they make for a good selfie, these birds might peck and those beaks are strong. Also, sunset at La Guancha is a superb backdrop for a romantic dinner, and after the sun has set, stick around for live music and karaoke.
Isla Caja de Muertos, or Coffin Island, lies 8 miles (13km) off the coast of Ponce, also on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. There are ferry rides and catamaran trips available, or you can take your own transportation. As with all of the islands of Puerto Rico, Coffin Island has beautiful beaches and opportunities for snorkeling, including a guided snorkeling tour with underwater signs. There are also hiking trails and a lighthouse to explore, so there is a little something for everyone. You need to bring your own food and water, but there are picnic tables available for your convenience. Coffin Island is a great place to find conch shells.
Hacienda Buena Vista
If you love coffee, then you will love Puerto Rico, and Hacienda Buena Vista is a wonderful place to learn about the origins of this trade. Located in the mountains outside of Ponce, Hacienda Vives, which was established in 1833, is a glimpse into the origin of the coffee trade from Puerto Rico which, at that time, was considered some of the best coffee in the world.
Hacienda Buena Vista, Km 16.8, PR-123, Ponce, Puerto Rico +1 787-722-5882