Although there are only 60 miles between Puerto Rico's two largest cities — San Juan and Ponce — the two feel like they are in different worlds. San Juan is a bustling cosmopolitan city and a center of the Caribbean tourist trade.
Its white-sand beaches are festooned with luxury high-rise hotels. And despite the fact that Spanish is the predominant language and you can wager on the Saturday night cockfights and buy slices off a whole roasting pig at a sidewalk stand, San Juan feels decidedly American.
Ponce, however, is a very different story. Just getting there is a challenge. There is currently no train across the island's mountainous spine, although plans for one have been proposed. There is no efficient bus line, and at this point the airport cannot accommodate full-size commercial jets. So the best way to get there is by car or small plane.
With this type of isolation, it's not surprising that tourism plays a much smaller role in Ponce. Basically it's a rather shabby, working-class city that has only recently added a Hilton resort, condo development, casino and championship-worthy golf course. Beyond that the city has made very little effort to upgrade its facilities for visitors.
On the other hand, Ponce offers the feel of a more real Puerto Rico, where the tempo is relaxed, the paint is allowed to peel on the old cottages that line the hillsides and the favorite "hot spot" is the local ice cream parlor on the plaza. If San Juan feels like America, Ponce feels more like Mexico.
The history of both cities dates back to the days of Christopher Columbus, Ponce de Leon and the discovery of the New World. But while San Juan emerged as a center of colonial trade, Ponce, separated by the island's jungle-covered mountains, became a land for vast plantations run by slave labor and a lair for pirates.
The difference today is that San Juan has retained a tangible sense of its historical connection, while little of its pre-19th-century past remains to be seen or felt in Ponce.
To walk the cobbled streets of Old San Juan and look out from the battlements of the San Cristobal Fortress (erected by the Spanish in the 16th century to repel invaders that included the Elizabethan privateer Sir Francis Drake) is to be transported back in time.
Old San Juan is situated on the western end of a small barrier island that lies between the broad expanse of San Juan Bay and the open sea. Because of this strategic position, Old San Juan became a crucial gateway to the riches of the Caribbean and beyond for ships arriving from Europe.
To protect it, the Spanish erected massive stone fortifications facing land and sea. Today the forts of San Cristobal and El Morro are maintained by the National Park Service and are designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
The spell of Old San Juan is captivating. Its narrow blue-tinted cobblestone lanes set off vibrantly colored blocks of colonial architecture. There are several museums, including the Casa Blanca, ancestral home of the family of Juan Ponce de Leon, Puerto Rico's founder and first governor.
Between the two forts is the Cementario Maria Magdalena de Pazzis with its myriad white marble tombstones and mausoleums framed against the azure blue of the Atlantic Ocean. The district is ideal for walking, and the narrow lanes are lined with delectable eateries and a wide variety of shops.
There is relatively little sense of historical connection to be found in Ponce.
The most popular architectural artifact in the city is the strikingly painted red and black firehouse, which was erected in 1883.
There is, however, a real secret treasure — the Museo de Arte de Ponce, home of a world-class art collection that ranges from medieval religious portraits to the pop art portraits of Andy Warhol.
The first works in the museum's collection were acquired in 1957, when Luis A. Ferre, a successful businessman, philanthropist and future governor of Puerto Rico, purchased 24 paintings on auction at Sotheby's in New York City.
The current museum, which opened in 1965, is a sweeping piece of clean-lined white 1960s modernism designed by Edward Durell Stone, who is best known for his design of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
A recent renovation and expansion of the museum was completed in November 2010, highlighted by the installation of Roy Lichtenstein's colorfully swishing sculpture, "Brushstrokes in Flight."
The expansion also included the addition of an elegant new dining facility — the bar and restaurant Al Sur, which is an ideal place to enjoy a relaxing, superbly prepared lunch and one of the restaurant's signature cocktails or the fresh-squeezed tamarind juice.
It was on the advice of a savvy art buyer that Ferre made the decision to purchase the most important additions to his collection — Pre-Raphaelite art. Buying at a time when interest in this Victorian school of painting was decidedly low, Ferre was able to acquire paintings by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and Edward Burn-Jones, including Burn-Jones' epic masterwork, "The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon."
To find a British painting of this importance less than a mile from a Puerto Rican town square where street vendors were selling fresh fruit and flowers seemed almost beyond belief.
At this point in its history Ponce appears to be situated on a cusp between its role as a working-class town and an aspiring tourist destination. According to Jose Caro, director of sales for the Hilton Resort, there are initiatives in the works to make the city more appealing through a substantial architectural facelift of its older structures, the addition of more hotels and an increase in the city's accessibility by lengthening the runway to allow frequent flights from multiple airports.
But even with these upgrades, it's hard to see how Ponce could ever become a tourist destination to rival San Juan.
WHEN YOU GO
Puerto Rico Office of Tourism: www.topuertorico.org
Rico Sun Tours (Old San Juan tour, Ponce tour): www.rstpuertorico.com, 787-722-2080
Ponce Tourism Office: www.visitponce.com, 787-284-3338
Museo de Arte de Ponce: www.museoarteponce.org, 787-840-1510. Admission fees are $6 for adults and $3 for children under 12, seniors (60-plus) and students with ID. The museum is open Wednesday to Monday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and closed on Tuesdays. Guided tours are available at 11a.m. and 2 p.m. in English and Spanish.
Jim Farber is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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