“A bastion of the irreducible essence of Puerto Rico” is how author Abelardo Diaz Alfaro described Ponce in Puerto Rico. Striking colonial architecture and verdant plantations are the backdrop for a rich cultural heritage and tempting culinary scene, which offers freshly caught seafood, fantastic local coffee, and some of the best rum in the world.
Beaches, mountains and lakes are all within reach, with adventure hub Toro Negro State Forest easily accessible from the city. But it’s the historic centre that impresses the most, offering a distinctly different feel from Ponce’s bigger brother, San Juan, despite being just an hour away.
What to do
At its heart is Plaza Las Delicias, which is home to Parque de Bombas, an imposing black and red striped edifice that’s well worth checking out for its bold, Arabian-style design.
But for a deeper insight into the region’s history, head to the Centro Ceremonial Indigena de Tibes, an ancient Indian site where you can visit a reconstructed TaÃno village and see the remains of what was once a ceremonial sports complex. Alternatively, take a tour of Castillo Serrallés, a mansion-turned-museum and former home of the barons behind Don Q Rums. While you’re there, head over to Cruceta El VigÃa – a 100-foot cross – and take an elevator up to the observation tower for stunning views across the sea and mountains.
Don’t miss the Museo de Arte de Ponce. As one of the most acclaimed collections of art in the Caribbean, it houses over 4,000 pieces from Puerto Rico and beyond. There’s also the Museo de la Musica Puertorriquea, where you can have a go at playing local instruments and, in summer, catch a concert in the courtyard.
To feel the sand between your toes, look no further than El Tuque. This beach and water park sits on the shores of the vivid blue Caribbean Sea, and is a haven for scuba diving, snorkelling, boating and fishing.
And if you’re looking to flex the purse strings, check out the Nueva Plaza del Mercado – an indoor market with an array of tantalisingly fresh local produce – or Plaza del Caribe, a large, elegant mall housing theatres and restaurants alongside its shops.
After all of that, you’ll probably need a caffeine fix. Ponce is well known for its coffee plantations and Hacienda Buena Vista, built in 1833, is one of the best. Take a tour of the estate house and step back in time by exploring rooms decked out with furniture dating back to the 1850s.
Where to eat and drink
If you’re more into drinking coffee than learning about it, the Café Café Cocina Criolla Espresso Bar should be at the top on your list, with beans freshly roasted just next door. Gastronomes will be in their element in the city, with restaurants to check out like Pito’s Seafood, which is known for serving up the best fish in the area. Sabor y Rumba, meanwhile, serves up dishes like stuffed pork and mashed plantain in an edgy, graffiti-clad interior.
For drinks with a distinctly Ponceo twist, venture to Blue Kafé, a quiet, unassuming courtyard bar that’s popular with locals. Or for something a little livelier, head to Bembele Art Lounge, a trendy hangout that hosts live music and comedy acts.
Ponce deserves a stop-off at any time of the year, but February shakes things up with Carnaval Ponceo (the Caribbean’s answer to Mardi Gras), where thousands take to the streets to witness masked parades and other festivities. And if you’re there in mid-May you’ll witness the Semana de la Danza, a celebration of Puerto Rico’s traditional dance that will have you singing, dancing and sincerely wishing you could stay a little longer, which is probably how you’ll feel out of festival season, too.
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Have you explored Ponce in Puerto Rico? What did you like most about the city? Let us know in the comments section below.