Until a recent trip to Puerto Rico with my sister and brother-in-law, I assumed the major attractions of the island were beaches, plantain dishes, and colonial churches.
By Cynthia J. MacKay
Until a recent trip to Puerto Rico with my sister and brother-in-law, I assumed the major attractions of the island were beaches, plantain dishes, and colonial churches. I would never have guessed there was a world-class art museum on the island.
Now I know better. The Museo de Arte de Ponce is a knock-your-eyes-out museum designed by Edward Durell Stone (also the architect of Rye’s Milton Harbor House). To me it seemed to float in the air and dissolve in light. It contains major works by many of the world’s great artists, including Goya, Velazquez, Cranach, Durer, and Rodin. We spent three hours there, and could happily have spent more.
Ponce’s nickname is “Museum City,” because it also offers high-quality museums of history, architecture, and music. It even has a museum of firefighting, located in a striking black-and-red striped historic building in the central square.
There are no fewer than ten universities in Ponce, including one of the three best on the island. (The other two are in Mayaguez and San Juan — the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton of Puerto Rico.)
Ponce (pronounced PON-say), the largest city on the south shore, is a lively center teeming with art, culture, history, and learning. As you come into town, you drive between monster letters that spell out the city name. You know immediately this is a happening place.
Most tourists miss Ponce because they gravitate to the resorts on the north shore, with their sandy surf beaches. We stayed in Dorado in the north and then drove three hours south across the mountains to this amazing city.
This drive alone was worth the trip. We gaped at the dramatic mountain vistas, the unexpected waterfalls, the thick rain forest with its flamboyant trees crowned with flaming red blossoms, banana trees with their thick green fingers pointing skywards, and small colorful houses clinging to impossibly steep cliffs. It took every ounce of my brother-in-law’s consummate driving skill to navigate the hairpin turns and potholes of this narrow road, while dodging chickens and dogs.
You may have guessed that Ponce was named after Ponce de León. A Spanish conquistador who joined Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the New World in 1493, de Leon became the first governor of Puerto Rico in the early 16th century.
“León” means “lion”, and there are lions all over this charming, historic city. The main square, in addition to a striking cathedral and some remarkable historic buildings, has a fountain surrounded by stone lions. The city recently gave a number of artists a life-sized lion sculpture to decorate, and these vividly colored statues now stand in many prominent public places.
A great time to visit Ponce is February during Mardi Gras, when the whole city explodes with color and music.