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by Mark Chesnut

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Founded in 1692 and named for the great grandson of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de León, the city of Ponce is an architectural and artistic gem on Puerto Rico’s south coast; an often-overlooked metropolis that has rightly earned the nickname La Perla del Sur (the Pearl of the South). Your friends may not have discovered the island­’s second-largest city yet, but stylish new dining and accommodations, the recent re-opening of a prestigious art museum, plus new options for gay-friendly nightlife are providing new reasons why Ponce should be on your vacation itinerary.

Ponce’s prominence in Puerto Rican history took root in the early 1800s, when French, Spanish, and other European immigrants took advantage of the region’s natural and economic resources to make fortunes in coffee, rum production, finance, and the harvesting of corn and sugarcane. New wealth brought growth and power to this seafront metropolis, helped in no small part by its position as the capital of Puerto Rico’s southern region under the Spanish crown. By the time the United States took over Puerto Rico in 1898 (following the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Spanish-American War), Ponce was the largest city on the island, its streets lined with elegant homes, businesses, and cultural institutions.

The US government’s decision to centralize the island’s governmental, military, and financial operations in the capital city of San Juan meant that Ponce’s strategic importance would diminish over the coming decades, but for a time its size and opulence continued to grow.

With a population of nearly 200,000, it is noticeably smaller, less touristy, and quieter than San Juan. It’s also the main hub for the recently dubbed “Porta de Caribe” tourism region of Puerto Rico. While Old San Juan is known for its strictly Colonial design, Ponce is rich with examples of belle epoque, art nouveau, neoclassical, and uniquely Ponce Criollo (Creole) architecture, which combines French, Spanish, Victorian, and even Art Deco elements. Since 1985, a revitalization project called Ponce en Marcha has expanded the city’s historic designation from 260 to 1,046 buildings, a significant number of which are also listed on the US National Register of Historic Places. The city’s structures are so prized, in fact, that the European Union’s prestigious Art Nouveau Route has recognized Ponce in its roundup of noteworthy destinations.

When planning your trip to this architectural paradise, you will find a handful of nonstop flights from the US mainland that arrive daily at the city’s own airport, La Mercedita. Another option is to fly into the much larger Luís Muñoz Marín airport in San Juan and make the scenic, 1.5-hour drive through lush, hilly terrain from the capital. Either way, Ponce can serve as a wonderful side trip or a convenient hub for exploring other parts of the island.

In 1956, Luis A. Ferré, a Puerto Rican engineer, industrialist, politician, philanthropist, and future governor of the island, traveled to Europe and began collecting artistic masterpieces. In 1959, he opened a world-class art museum in Ponce, later moving it into a newly constructed building designed by Edward Durell Stone (the mastermind behind New York’s Radio City Music Hall and the Museum of Modern Art). The Museo de Arte de Ponce grew to become the largest art museum in Puerto Rico (by most reports, the largest in the entire Caribbean) and one of the best in all of Latin America.

As of October, the best has gotten even better. A $20 million renovation and expansion has increased the size of the museum by about 40 percent, allowing it to offer more services (including education facilities, an art history library, museum shop, and restaurant) and also provide refurbished exhibit and storage space for nearly 4,000 pieces of art that range from the 14th to the 21st century. Works from Italy, England, Spain, and Latin America, and artists including Rubens, Gainsborough, and Rodin are represented in the collection.

The Museo de Arte may be Ponce’s most prominent artistic and cultural institution, but in many ways the city itself is like a giant, open-air museum. In the city center, nearly every turn reveals a vision of architectural splendor from the late 19th through the early 20th centuries, accented dramatically on the outskirts of town by mid-20th-century landmarks like the Auditorio Juan Pachin Vicens, a soaring, gull-winged, 12,000-seat stadium that opened in 1972, and the Pontificia Universidad Católica, a modernist complex marked with a swooping, cross-topped arch and a barrel-shaped church.

Most tours of Ponce begin at the lovely Plaza Las Delicias, the city’s shady main square, which is dominated by the crisply soaring Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe, a cathedral that dates to 1835, and the regal Fuente de los Leones. Even more photographed is the iconic Parque de Bombas, Ponce’s landmark former fire station, which sits behind the cathedral. This eye-catching, black-and-red-striped wooden building was designed by a Spanish Army architect as an exhibit pavilion for an 1882 trade fair expo; it served as the city’s central firehouse for more than a century and today houses a small museum dedicated to the city’s firefighters.

Just across the street from the cathedral is the Casa Armstrong-Poventud, built in 1900 for a wealthy businessman who was also the Danish consul in Ponce. Following a two-million-dollar renovation, the building, which mixes belle epoque, neoclassical, late Victorian, and Criollo elements, was reborn as a museum, allowing visitors to admire its stained glass windows, chandeliers, and period furnishings, and shop for design-related items at the small gift shop.

To make sense of Ponce’s rich architectural heritage, pay a visit to the Museo de la Arquitectura Ponceña, which opened in 1996 in the Wiechers-Villaronga residence, an elaborate neoclassical home built in 1911 by Alfredo Wiechers, one of Ponce’s most prominent architects. Today, this stately mansion, graced with wonderful details including a rooftop gazebo and original, Catalonian art nouveau furnishings, is listed on the US National Register of Historic Places.

Also worth a visit is the Museo de la Historia de Ponce, housed in two adjoining, neoclassical buildings, with exhibition halls that highlight Ponce’s development from the Taino Indians to the present.

Don’t limit your camera’s workout to the buildings you can actually enter. Wandering the streets by foot or by car (or perhaps, the free tourist trolley), you’ll find lots to photograph. The lovely former Doctor Pila Hospital (where my life partner, Angel, was born) has been updated and recast as condominiums.

Other classic buildings sit abandoned, waiting to be rediscovered, but still ready to be photographed, like the historic Hospital Tricoche, a beautiful example of 19th-century civil architecture designed by the Spanish Royal Corps of Engineers and built in 1885, or the crumbling finery of the Centro Español de Ponce, which hosted Argentina’s king of Tango, Carlos Gardel, in 1935. Like New Orleans, this is a city where every block seems to tell a story.

Some of the city’s most prominent residents are buried at the Panteón Nacional Román Baldorioty de Castro, a cemetery listed on the National Register of Historic Places, where guides can help point out the mausoleums of the rich and famous, including opera singer Antonio Paoli, a tenor who achieved worldwide fame while touring Europe, the Americas, Africa, and Asia between 1900 and 1914.

Considering that Ponce is located on the coast, it’s no surprise that the port has traditionally been an important source of revenue and transportation for the city. Today, it’s also a prized leisure destination. One of the best spots on the waterfront is La Guancha, a boardwalk where seafood vendors and open-air concerts make it an especially pleasant place to stroll and people-watch on the weekends. There is no beach within the city limits (although the Hilton Ponce has a bit of sand), so those looking to soak in the sun should consider a quick boat ride to Caja de Muertos (literally “Coffin Island”), an uninhabited island off Ponce’s coast with uncrowded beaches, good snorkeling, and a lighthouse that dates back to 1887. There are also some excellent beaches with warm, tranquil waters to the west of the city, near the town of Guanica. including Manglillo Grande, Manglillo Pequeño, and Playa Santa

Antonio Paoli, is just one example of Ponce’s strong connection to the arts. To sample live performances by musicians, singers, and actors from Ponce and beyond, check the schedule at the neoclassical Teatro la Perla, a beautiful theater that debuted in 1864, was rebuilt in the 1940s after an earthquake, and reopened in 2008 following major renovations.

It’s definitely a good idea to try to catch some of the region’s unique musical styles. Plena, a narrative musical form, originated in Ponce, and every July the city hosts an annual Festival of Bomba y Plena, which incorporates music and dance with West African and European roots. Live music also fills the air during Ponce’s annual pre-Lenten Carnival, which dates to 1858 and is the oldest in Puerto Rico. Masked characters representing good and evil include “demonic” veijgantes, clad in colorful masks with dramatic teeth and horns, who parade through the streets, gently smacking passersby with vejigas (inflated cow bladders), to scare off any evil spirits that may be present. The festival ends with the Entierro de la Sardina, or “Burial of the Sardine,” a mock funeral that culminates with a symbolic fire to burn away sins. (Throughout the year, dramatic vejigante masks are among the city’s most popular souvenirs and can be bought in gift shops around the central Plaza Las Delicias, as well as in the city’s old market at the end of the pedestrian street called Paseo Atocha).

Even if you can’t visit during one of the city’s special events, a trip to the Museo de la Música Puertorriqueña provides a good introduction to Ponce’s musical traditions, and the Ponce Municipal Band usually offers a live, open-air concert on Sunday afternoons on one of the city squares.

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Ponce it is. Have been to San Juan many times but Ponce seems like a new "must visit" for me. Thanks!
- Jim Guinnessey , West Palm Beach,Florida,USA

When does Sonora Poncena perform in ponce in 2011?
- pedro romero , oakland

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