Step back into colonial history in Ponce, Puerto Rico

One of the greatest joys of travel is the chance to experience the past, unvarnished and unaltered by time and decay. Such a place is Ponce. Located on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, Ponce is often referred to as La Perla del Sur (The Pearl of the South) or La Ciudad de los Leones (City of Lions). It was first discovered in 1692, and is named for Juan Ponce de León y Loayza, the great-grandson of Spanish conquistador Juan Ponce De León. Today, it is the most populous city outside of San Juan.

Carolyn stands in the plaza of El Parque de Bombas / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray

The storied history and architectural beauty of this colonial city may be best seen in its red and black museum of firefighting history (El Parque de Bombas). Built in the town square in 1882, it was Puerto Rico’s first fire station, a symbol of prosperity at a time when Ponce was experiencing an influx of entrepreneurs and industrialists from around the world, incentivized by the government’s desire to make it an industrial hub for coffee, sugarcane and shipping.

Melina Aguilar Colón’s company Isla Caribe offers historical tours of Ponce. “Ponce is a cultural tourism gem that has not been polished,” she said. “There are so many opportunities for growth and real impact, especially in creating jobs and economic growth.”

She started her business after Hurricane Maria motivated to do something for her community and Puerto Rico to help develop the island using cultural tourism.

Red buildings in Ponce, Puerto Rico / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray

Street art in Ponce, Puerto Rico / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray

“My family moved to Ponce when I was two to start a family business in the historic area,” she said. “After Maria, I felt I had responsibility to come back after working overseas for 10 years and help the city’s tourism rise again. I had just graduated with a Masters in Political Science and International Relations from the Graduate Institute of Geneva, but I knew I wanted to come back and help develop my island. I knew my city was the perfect place to start.”

There is much to discover here, and I wish I could have stayed longer. From the heart of the city, at Plaza Las Delicias, where El Parque de Bombas and La Catedral Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe are located, you can easily walk to aristocratic homes, stunning fountains and open-air museums and art galleries, most of which are meticulously well-preserved.

Street art in Ponce, Puerto Rico / Photo credit: Carolyn Ray

There is also a revival happening, with cruise ships, new art galleries and hotels like the 1950s-themed Fabulous Fox. Once an art deco movie theatre built in 1934, the Fox re-opened in December 2019, welcoming you with pink flamingoes in a circular fountain near the entrance.

I left Ponce feeling that I hadn’t given it enough time; and sadly, many of the colonial structures that I would have like to visit were damaged in the earthquake that happened days later. I’m planning to return and spend more time walking its cobbled streets and learning more about its music, creativity, and culture

If you go

  • To plan your trip, visit: visitponce.com
  • Isla Caribe Tours: www.islacaribepr.com
  • Review our Earthquake Tips on how to plan and prepare for an earthquake
  • El Parque de Bombas: located at Plaza Las Delicias, the city square
  • El Castillo de Serrallés: Built in 1926, the family home of the Serrallés family (Don Q Rum), is now a museum offering a glimpse into the history of the sugar cane and rum industry
  • The Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Centre: one of the most important archaeological discoveries made in the Antilles, providing insight into how the indigenous tribes of the Igneri and Tainos lived before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.
  • Calle 25 de Enero: the 25 tiny red and black houses that were awarded to the firefighters who saved their city from an enormous blaze in 1899
  • Hotel Belgica: Right on the town square; ask for a room with a balcony www.hotelbelgica.com
  • The 100-foot Watchman Cross, or Cruceta del Vigía marks the original wooden cross where residents were alerted to merchant ships and invaders arriving at its port through a series of flags on top of a hill
  • The Fabulous Fox Hotel: just re-opened with a retro-1950s theme www.thefoxponce.com
  • Places to eat: Vistas Restaurant, Lola’s

Carolyn is the Publisher + Editor-in-Chief of JourneyWoman and a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW) and Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC). A Canadian raised in South Florida, Carolyn loves all things Spanish, historic destinations and always has her backpack ready to go.

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