Ponce, a coastal city of intriguing contradictions

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Puerto Rico's Caribbean coast is worlds away from the big-city hustle of San Juan. The rugged Cordillera Central Mountain range, which splits Puerto Rico into distinct north and south regions, is more than a geographical barrier. It signifies a difference in lifestyle.

In Ponce, the jewel of Puerto Rico's Caribbean coast, influenced by the gentle rhythms of the sea, you'll find art museums instead of glittering casinos. In intimate fishing villages, oyster carts replace slick cafes. And colorful Creole-style architecture evokes shades of New Orleans or Barcelona.

With its 200,000 residents, Ponce is the largest city in the south and offers intriguing contradictions.

It's a city replete with American retail and food chains, but the clerks at Burger King don't speak English. From Ponce's outskirts, strips of tract homes, fast-food outlets and shopping malls look like any other metropolitan area. Yet the city center, with Creole-style buildings that feature unusual combinations of wrought-iron balconies, Corinthian columns and 19th-century replica gas lamps, speak to a glorious past.

Such historic splendor is due, in large part, to a $600 million grant from the governments of Puerto Rico and Spain. The money was earmarked for restoration of many of the historic buildings on the streets surrounding the Plaza de las Delicias, an area that, as recently as 10 years ago, had been deserted.

Today, Ponce's historic zone is once again filled with life -- horse-drawn carriages transport sightseers on a slow-motion tour of the city, the sun glows on the soft pastel colors of arched buildings facing the Plaza delas Delicias, and shoppers throng pedestrian malls.

While Ponce may have acquired a patina designed to attract tourists, it's still got rough edges. A few blocks away from the plaza, restoration has not yet begun, and houses are drab and peeling. Residences throughout the city boast intimidating, black, iron security bars on doors and windows. And visitors who prefer sophisticated inns and five-star restaurants may want to spend the night someplace else -- Ponce's development of first-class accouterments hasn't quite caught up.

What Ponce offers visitors, however, is a chance to experience a Puerto Rican city with soul, a real town, rough edges and all, where tourists are still the exception rather than the rule.

The best way to see Ponce is on foot. Start at the Plaza de las Delicias, an expansive urban park dominated by the pastel-blue Our Lady of Guadelupe Cathedral.

Backing up to the rear of the cathedral is the Parque de Bombas, a red- and black-striped structure. Initially designed as a pavilion for an 1882 industrial and agricultural fair, it was later transformed into Ponce's first firehouse. Now, the restored building is a firefighting museum.

Leading away from the plaza, on Isabel Street, rows of buildings show textbook versions of different architectural styles, ranging from European neo-classic to Spanish colonial and Ponce Creole.

The city has also upgraded its museums and shopping districts. The Museum of the History of Ponce, besides being housed in a gorgeous restored mansion complete with stained-glass windows, mosaics and tin ceilings, offers delicious tidbits about the city's past.

The Paseo Atocha is a pedestrian-only street where locals shop for food, clothing, furniture and trinkets. If you see a line of Puerto Ricans outside King's Cream, a tiny ice cream shop across the plaza from the Parque De Bombas, you may want to join them. King's Cream is a delightful concoction of sorbet and an Italian gelato.

On the outskirts of Ponce, just a short car ride away, are other worthy museums. The Ponce Museum of Art is the only place in all of Puerto Rico where you'll find works by European masters such as Peter Paul Rubens.

Perched on a hillside overlooking Ponce's urban sprawl is the Seralles Castle Museum. It's the former home of Puerto Rico's oldest rum-making family, and though the 1930s Spanish revival structure is nicely restored, what's most interesting is the rum. Visitors can watch a fascinating film on the process involved in producing the family's product, Don Q Rum, which is still made in Ponce.

If coffee is your drink, visit the Hacienda Buena Vista, a 19th-century coffee plantation, a scenic 20-minute drive from Ponce. Tucked up into a mountainside and surrounded by tropical rain forests, it still has most of its original machinery.

Not possessing much of an interest in matters mechanical, I found the walking tour through narrow garden pathways to the 100-foot waterfall more soothing -- though plenty of visitors on the tour were fascinated by 19th-century coffee-making technology.

Despite Ponce's many big-city museums and attractions, it's not part of the Caribbean coast for nothing. A certain languor, no doubt inspired by hazy, year-round sunshine, hovers over Ponce. Life here can be slow.

Surprisingly, with all of its Caribbean influence, Ponce has no public beaches, leaving its waterfront to dilapidated warehouses and distribution plants.

Fortunately, quaint fishing villages and great beaches are within an easy half-hour drive.

In San German, the ancient Porta Coeli Church -- built in 1692 -- is more famous for its steps than anything else. Thousands come here to participate in a folkway that says when you experience a miracle, you have to climb the 74 steep stone steps to thank God.

The trick is to do it on your knees. Should you be up for the challenge, it's recommended that you strap gauze padding around your legs to absorb the inevitable bleeding.

During the summer, Boqueron, a tiny fishing village near Cabo Rojo, is the resort of choice for Puerto Ricans; in the winter, it attracts international visitors. Its appeal is miles of palm-tree studded beaches that ring the waterfront.

The village itself has bars, cafes and shops, but more interesting are its cart merchants, who sell everything from parasailing lessons to local crafts. Particularly popular are fresh-off-the-boat ostiones (oysters found in the roots of mangroves) and hand-painted T-shirts by local artist Miguel Torres. He charges $20, and you can buy one right off the easel.

The town of Joyuda is another great spot. This tiny village consists primarily of a mile-long stretch of water's-edge seafood joints. Every one of them boasts of the freshest catch in Puerto Rico (with such a prime location, it should be easy enough), and all feature wide decks that hover over the sea.

I found southern Puerto Rico to be friendly. "People outside San Juan are the most wonderful part of Puerto Rico," says Jane Stern, a native New Yorker who now lives here. "They take special pride in their history and culture, and people who've visited come back with a whole new perception of Puerto Rico."

IF YOU GO . . .

From BWI, American Airlines offers a daily nonstop flight to San Juan, with a 20-minute connecting flight to Ponce via American Eagle.

If you're driving from San Juan, Ponce is a 90-minute ride on a four-lane expressway. It is a toll road, so bring change.

The city center is well-suited for walking, but a car is necessary to reach outlying attractions.

What to do:

Ponce has a number of museums and attractions. For information, call the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. at (800) 223-6530.

Visitors to the Hacienda Buena Vista should make advance reservations. English-language tours are conducted. For reservations and information, call (809) 722-5882.

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