Like many of Puerto Rico’s midsized cities, it takes some digging to discover the charm of Mayagüez. The ‘Sultan of the West’ is largely a transportation point for visitors to the west or those making the weekend junket to the Dominican Republic. The commonwealth’s underrated and slightly disheveled dock town is the island’s third biggest – behind San Juan and Ponce – though it has few comparable attractions. Still, savvy travelers will sense some vibrancy here, mostly thanks to a hard-partying student population and some ambitious restoration projects, many of which were completed before hosting the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games.
Founded in 1760 by émigrés from the Canary Islands, Mayagüez had an inauspicious early history considering its current size and importance. The emerging economy was based on fruit production and agriculture, and even today the city remains noted for the sweetness of its mangoes. In the mid-19th century Mayagüez developed a contrarian nature and sheltered numerous revolutionary thinkers including Ramón Emeterio Betances, architect of the abortive Grito de Lares. Disaster struck in 1918 when an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale all but destroyed the central business district, but the city rose from the rubble.
Mayagüez today boasts a large university (specializing in sciences), numerous historic buildings, a couple of parks and a lovely central plaza. It’s also a center of Puerto Rican gastronomy and drinking, with a pair of 19th-century bakeries celebrated for a locally famous delicacy known as brazo gitano (gypsy’s arm; a jam sponge cake presented in the style of a Swiss roll). For drinkers, there’s a raucous college bar scene and an out-of-the-way place brewing an insanely sweet rum-and-wine cocktail known as Sangria de Fido.
Little visited by tourists who veer northwest to Rincón or south toward Cabo Rojo, Mayagüez has enough distractions to fill a long afternoon (including Puerto Rico’s only zoo and planetarium), the delightful Yagüez theater and a lively student nightlife. Then there’s the congenial mayagüezians (people from Mayagüez), always up for a spontaneous fiesta, such as Cinco Días con Nuestro Tierra, an agricultural-industrial fair.