The municipality of Ponce is Puerto Rico’s southern jewel, known to locals as “La Perla del Sur.” This fact won’t be lost on tourists, who’ll surely find enchanted ponceños proudly list all their town has to offer. Ponce’s name gives away its Spanish roots: Juan Ponce De León’s great-grandson, also named Juan, founded the hamlet from which the city later sprung. Ponceños are not afraid of modernity, constantly keeping up with the times by developing hotels, casinos, and malls that attract tourists and locals from all over the island.
An abundance of buildings from different historical periods add a touch of color and prestige to every corner of this constantly-evolving metropolis. Most notable of the offbeat buildings are the Parque de Bombas, a red-and-black striped historic fire station, and the similarly-styled firemen’s houses at “25 de enero” Street. The firehouse was built in the town’s plaza in the Spanish architectural style of immigrants from Cataluña.
The houses were built later, in appreciation of the volunteer-only firemen corps who helped put out the great fire of 1883.
Many influential and wealthy Puerto Ricans have called Ponce their home. The Serrallés Castle, now a museum open to visitors, used to house the Serrallés family, producers of the world-famous rum Don Q. The Serrallés distillery continues its operations to this day. There’s also the Ferré family, best known for their knack for public service: Luis A. Ferré was a beloved governor for many; Sor Isolina Ferré, a benevolent educator; Rosario Ferré, a celebrated writer. It was Don Luis who donated his art collection for what became one of the largest art museums in the Caribbean, the Ponce Art Museum, which opened its doors in 1959.
Stretching further back into the past is Tibes Ceremonial Center, where one can witness ongoing archeological research on the taínos and earlier inhabitants the igneri. Many mysteries await to be uncovered in this important site. The current inhabitants, however, have their own celebrations to keep them busy: Ponce’s own carnaval is the longest running one in Puerto Rico. It is celebrated in honor of the life and death of the sardine. It also features many of the island’s colorful traditions such as the African-influenced song-and-dance of the bomba y plena, as well as masked troublemakers known as vejigantes. Ponce’s daily nightlife, however, is more downbeat than San Juan’s, and consists of “hanging out” at places like the old town’s Plaza of Delights and the boardwalk known as La Guancha.