Unlike many destinations in the north, where history buffs have to navigate tourist attractions and do some digging, Ponce’s celebrated past is a marquee feature. Present in preserved Spanish colonial buildings, statuary and more than a dozen museums, history is most readily visible at the city’s historic Plaza Las Delicias. Those interested in the island’s precolonial indigenous roots are only a short drive from Puerto Rico’s largest and most educational archeological site, the Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes.
The earliest western settlement saw a number of clashes between Spanish Conquistador Ponce de León (from whom the town gets both its name and one of its many nicknames, ‘City of Lions’), and the Taíno tribes, but the region was claimed for the Spanish Crown in 1511. The city was established around 1630, when the Spaniards built the first incarnation of the current cathedral and named it for the patron saint of Mexico, the Virgen de Guadalupe.
As the first port of call in the region – far from Spanish authorities in San Juan – Ponce grew fat off the rewards of smugglers who trafficked the Caribbean in the late 1600s. By the mid-1700s Ponce’s bourgeois society wanted at least a patina of respectability; Spanish merchants and wealthy refugees from nearby Saint-Domingue (where slave revolts radically changed the order of things) poured resources into legitimate enterprises like tobacco, coffee and rum. Sugar, too, became an important business, and entire plains (the same denuded ones you see today) were shorn of greenery and replaced with silky, highly profitable sugarcane stalks. The added wealth and polyglot mixture of Spanish, Taíno, French and black West Indian peoples helped establish Ponce as the island’s earliest artistic, musical and literary center.
The parlors of the bourgeoisie echoed with postured danza while satirical, boisterous strains of bomba y plana were shared by laborers.
That golden age ended in 1898 when Spain rejected America’s demand to peacefully observe Cuban independence to start the Spanish-American War. Compared to modern definitions, it wasn’t much of a scuffle, lasting a scant five months, but the Americans’ strategic Operation Bootstrap had a lasting impact on Ponce by only funding ports on the north coast. Shortly thereafter, a hurricane devastated the region’s coffee and sugar crop and the region slid into near ruin. The sugar industry never fully recovered, and civil unrest a few years later resulted in the Ponce Massacre, which politically alienated Ponce from the rest of the island. In the decades since, Ponce has gradually reestablished itself as a historic center for tourists – helped dramatically by a highway connecting it to San Juan – and entered the modern age with an economy based on textiles, plastics, oil and rum.