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Caribbean / Culinary Travel

Discovering Ponce, Puerto Rico’s Surprising “Second City”

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IMG_2148(2)1The laid-back allure of Ponce, Puerto Rico’s Caribbean city, draws local vacationers to the island’s South Coast during holidays. But many mainland tourists overlook the colonial charms and cultural riches of Puerto Rico’s “second city,” located about 90 minutes south of San Juan between the mountains and the sea. Contributing writer Lynn Langway explores the surprising pleasures of this offbeat city in the sun.

We weren’t expecting much more than balmy weather and a spectacular sunset when we went to graze among the seafood shacks of Ponce’s La Guancha Boardwalk. We found both, plus the dramatic sight of paddle boarders and pelicans sweeping across the horizon just as the sun plunged into the sea.

We also got a surprise bonus: excellent food. At the El Machetero kiosk (locals simply call it #18), the brawny bartender whacked through a pile of limes to produce the best mojitos we’d ever had. Next door at Tango (or #17), the empanaditas of tender octopus were freshly made and delicately flaky. Over at #15, El Pilon Borincano served beautiful steamed shrimp in a garlicky sauce with tasty, greaseless plantain fritters. If we’d come on a weekend, we could have danced off the calories to live salsa.

Named after Ponce de Leon, the Spanish conquistador whose great grandson founded the city in 1692, Ponce developed more slowly and fitfully than San Juan, and managed to preserve a fair share of its past. Where San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, seems more international, fast-paced, and crowded—especially when the cruise ships dock—Ponce seems leisurely and intensely local. Like cocina criolla, Puerto Rico’s Creole cuisine, or the drum-heavy bomba music that’s so popular here, this city mixes its various cultures—African, Taino Indian, Spanish and French—into a powerful blend.

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You can see traces of them all in the restored downtown. Start exploring this walkable neighborhood at its heart, and see the tree-shaded Plaza de las Delicias (plaza of delights), where the bold red-and-black stripes of the old wooden firehouse outshine even the cathedral. Now a museum and tourist office, the firehouse displays antique fire trucks and a multi-hued pride of lion statues. The lion—for de Leon—is the city’s ubiquitous mascot.

Several of the surrounding buildings explode with exuberant decoration—lions, devils, scantily-clad goddesses—from every turret and cornice. The most exuberant of them all—and a definite must-see—is the Casa Wiechers -Villaronga, named for the Paris-trained architect who built it for himself in 1911, and the family that later lived there.

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Resembling a pink wedding cake from the outside, this neo classical gem is chockablock with the original art nouveau furniture, ornate tiles, and stained glass windows that checker the floor with bright colors when the sun streams through. The Ponce Museum of History, in another restored mansion, is also worth a stop for its elaborate stained glass and carnival masks.

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Ponce’s celebrated Art Museum, in contrast, couldn’t be more modern. Designed by Edward Durell Stone in 1965 and extensively renovated a few years ago, the sleek white structure marks its entry with a huge Roy Lichtenstein sculpture that resembles a tropical bird. Inside, airy galleries showcase magnificent altarpieces, masterworks by Velasquez, Rubens, and more, and a major collection of pre-Raphaelite paintings, as well as contemporary art. We were most taken with the work of Carlos Rolon-Dzine, a Chicagoan of Puerto Rican descent, who shapes some of the stereotypical artifacts of his culture—fake flowers, gilded religious paintings, intricate wrought iron—into vivid paintings and sculptures.

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But there’s also much to do outside of the city limits. We drove west 34 miles along the coast to one of our favorite hiking and birding spots, the Guánica State Forest, a 9,900-acre UN Biosphere Reserve of stunted trees and cacti, with trails that slope down to the sea. We weren’t quite early enough to spy the Puerto Rican screech owls slumbering in the branches. But we heard their eerie cries, and we saw 10 other species, including the Halloween-ish mango cuckoo with its black, orange and white plumage, and the tiny Puerto Rican tody, a fabulous red-green-yellow-white creature that flit fearlessly across our path. While this is not the region for endless stretches of white sand (go farther west for those) you’ll find some of the better local beaches along this road, where great egrets and little blue herons stalk the shallows. Or you can take the weekend ferry from the Ponce boardwalk out to the deserted Caja de Muertos (coffin key) for hiking, snorkeling, and swimming.

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Ponce’s restaurant scene is increasingly sophisticated, and we enjoyed several memorable meals. At El Negocio de Panchi, lodged in a cheerful, high-ceilinged house on the outskirts of the city, Panchi Zayas, the affable Philadelphia-born chef serves soulful food and an impressive wine list that ranges from Austria to Oregon. We relished our featherweight crab cake with mango-pineapple salsa, expertly-roasted cod with pumpkin seed crust, delicious ropes of pasta with shrimp and squid, and the lightest piece of guava cheesecake imaginable.

Downtown, we shared tapas at Vista’s, a chic new rooftop restaurant overlooking the main plaza that could be right at home in South Beach, Miami. Our favorites were tiny, delicate codfish gnocchi and dumplings of barbecued pork, beef, and lamb. At lunch, we enjoyed the refreshing salads at Al Fresco on the plaza; after our hike in Guanica, we retreated happily for fresh mahi mahi tacos and jicama slaw at the Copamarina Hotel’s waterfront café.

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We stayed at the Ponce Hilton Golf & Casino Resort, not far from the boardwalk. Built in 1992 and showing its age in some public areas, the Hilton was still a relative bargain for the high-season Caribbean, with spacious ocean-view rooms with balconies, its own beach, and capacious pools for less than $200 per night. While we never set sneaker in the casino or on the golf course, we appreciated the helpful concierge, the fitness facilities, and the good food—especially breakfast in the open-air dining room, where parrots and parakeets chattered in the trees, and the café con leches were free.

For more travel tips and destinations from Lynn Langway, check out:

Text and Images by Lynn Langway for PeterGreenberg.com

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