The Pearl of the South

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Near the explorer’s landing site, on Mayaguez Bay, the Indians at first fled their thatch village at the sight of the tall ships, but friendly encounters soon became common. Not for long. When the natives’ golden ornaments drew the attention of the invaders, the idyll deteriorated into the narrative of greed, exploitation, and violence that has caused many of today’s historians to view more skeptically the blessings of these voyages to the New World.

Visitors to Ponce can try to touch the souls of the island’s first inhabitants at the forty-eight-acre Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center, just outside the city. This is the oldest-known and best-preserved burial ground in the Antilles. It was an overgrown cow and horse pasture until 1972, when the river running past it flooded and in receding revealed to the farmer who owned the land a strange pattern of stones and fields. From around 700 A.D. Tibes was the heart of the island. “Everyone arrived here; there was a gathering of tribes, a miniature ‘E Pluribus Unum,’” said Salvador Más, a history graduate of Drew University and now a highly knowledgeable guide at the site. As he led a small group of increasingly awed visitors through the plazas, ball courts, and dance grounds of nearly two thousand years ago, Más’s pride in the place shone. “People want to know about the parts of their roots that were planted here,” he said. “And they’re coming back to find out.”

In Ponce it seems the greatest and only hope is to shape a more secure future by reclaiming the best of its past.

Another signpost of the island’s history, the immaculately restored Hacienda Buena Vista, lies nine winding, hilly miles north of Ponce. Owned by the same family for 127 years, this was a working coffee plantation until the 1950s. After more than thirty years of neglect it opened again in 1988, this time as a museum run by the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico. Coffee, corn flour, and citrus fruits were processed here; their profitability can be seen in the airy, two-story estate house that also has been restored. Among its furnishings are some of the most exuberant Thonet pieces—table, settee, magazine rack—I’ve ever seen.

Ponce’s greatest pride may be reserved for its art museum, which houses the best painting and sculpture collection in the Caribbean. Medieval and Renaissance works trace an interesting path to the first genre painting by nineteenth-century Puerto Ricans.

In Ponce it seems the reclamations and restorations just keep coming. And when I realized I needed another day, it was time to leave. With only a half-hour to spare I dashed into the spanking-new Museum of Puerto Rican Music, once the dignified home of an 1850s industrialist. As the guide gamely agreed to provide an abbreviated tour, I noticed that a live radio broadcast promoting the museum was under way. Suddenly a microphone was thrust in my direction, and I was asked to offer some thoughts about Ponce. I stammered out the predictable words of praise, wishing I could think faster on my feet. The woman taking tickets seemed pleased enough. “You have just been on WPAB,” she told me. “One hundred and twenty thousand people have heard you.”

Carla Davidson TO PLAN A TRIP