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Go now to Puerto Rico’s second city

Nicknamed the “Pearl of the South,” Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second largest city and is often missed by tourists. If you’ve already seen the more popular San Juan, this port city should be the next Puerto Rican destination on your list. And with developments such as new airline routes and more hotel facilities, it might even be your first choice altogether.

If that’s not enough, the island’s ever-present warm weather, profusion of discounts, and no-passport-required status, make it the perfect place to go right now.

What’s the secret?

While San Juan might get all the attention, with its row of high-rise beach hotels and famous El Morro fort, Ponce may well be the island’s true cultural center. Founded in 1692 by Loíza Ponce de León, the grandson of explorer Juan Ponce de León, the city is steeped in history and is home to the island’s major museums and some of its best festivals.

What makes Ponce special right now is how it’s starting to get noticed by visitors and how island officials are responding to the new demand. Last year, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company (PRTC) launched a campaign to brand the island’s southern region, which includes Ponce, as the “Porta Caribe,” and hopes to add 900 more hotel rooms and new infrastructure to support regional tourism. Even better, Ponce remains as affordable as ever.

Like many U.S. destinations, Puerto Rico is experiencing the “JetBlue effect,” where new routes cause increased competition resulting in lower prices across all airlines. JetBlue now flies to all three of the island’s airports (San Juan, Ponce, and Aguadilla) and continues to add new service. You can easily find fares from the East Coast for under $300 most of the year, even during the high season.

Visitors to Ponce can either fly directly into the city or into San Juan, which is only about an hour-and-45-minute drive away. Although more flights currently fly into San Juan, Puerto Rico has invested $2.5 million to renovate Ponce’s Mercedita airport, which will include a 1,000-foot runway expansion that literally paves the way for more flight service. Already, Continental has added a daily nonstop flight to Ponce, and Delta has expanded service from Atlanta.

Ponce’s, Port of the Americas, is also receiving a little TLC. Enhancements such as an a bigger dock and the creation of the deepest pier of the Caribbean aim to turn it into a megaport, further solidifying the city’s status as a major economic center for the island. While the benefit to travelers has yet to be determined, there are talks of expanded pre- and post-cruise offerings.

You can take advantage of some of Ponce’s hotel happenings right away. The oceanfront Hilton Ponce Golf & Casino Resort has recently opened the Costa Caribe Golf & Country Club, which boasts a 27-hole PGA Championship course and full-service clubhouse overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Greens fees cost $85 for hotel guests. Rooms start at $190, but the resort offers several value-added packages, including one that comes with accomodations, breakfast, and two rounds of golf with a cart and caddy for $285 per night.

For families and couples on a tighter budget, Holiday Inn Ponce also has created its own special packages, which start at $150 and include a room with a private balcony, breakfast, and one $10 match play coupon for casino table games.

Things to see in Ponce

Affordability isn’t the only reason to visit Ponce. While most Caribbean destinations flaunt stretches of sandy shoreline, Ponce owns perhaps the best collection of museums of all the islands. The Ponce Museum of Art exhibits many famous European painters such as El Greco, Francisco de Goya, and Peter Paul Rubens, as well as a significant stock of Puerto Rican paintings from the 18th century to the present. Museum highlights include works from the British Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, most notably Frederick Lord Leighton’s Flaming June, which details a sensuous sleeping figure dressed in layers of fiery orange gossamer.

Other notable museums include the Ponce Museum of History (51-53 Isabel Street), which gives visitors an interactive tour of the city from its beginnings, and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music (50 Isabel Street), the place for a complete education on the history and influence of the beat of Puerto Rico throughout the world.

Not all the sights are indoors. The Plaza of Delights, one of Ponce’s main draws, is located in the main historic center and features grand fountains, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and benches that serve as perfect perches for enjoying a tropical ice cream cone from King’s Cream across the street. Around the corner lies the opulent red-and-black-striped fire station turned museum, Parque de Bombas, which was built for the 1882 Exhibition Trade Fair. On a hill overlooking Ponce, the Castillo Serrallés Villa (in Spanish only), was the stately home of the maker of Don Q Rum, Don Juan Eugene Serrallés, during the early 20th century when sugar cane was a main island industry. Visitors can tour the inside of the house and outdoor gardens, not to mention enjoy an excellent view of Ponce from above.

Slightly beyond downtown Ponce, Hacienda Buena Vista allows visitors a glimpse into the world of a 19th-century coffee plantation. Apart from providing a lesson on coffee production and a tour of the main house, guides will take you on a short walk through the rainforest, which leads to the waterfall that powers the plantation’s irrigation system and watermills. Free samples of hand-roasted coffee are available to guests. Call for reservations (787-722-5882), and make sure to get good directions, as the winding roads leading up to the hacienda are not clearly marked.

The Island of Caja de Muertos (Coffin Island), a short ferry ride from Ponce, has just reopened as an ecotourism destination. Considered to have the area’s best beaches and excellent snorkeling and diving, it now has a nature reserve and several miles of hiking trails. Transportation costs $20 round-trip and is available by reservation only (787-842-8546).

When it’s time for a refreshment break, Ponce’s restaurants do not disappoint. Among a host of options, a top choice is the highly acclaimed Mark’s at the Meliá, where Chef Mark French intermixes Puerto Rican flavors such as shrimp mofongo with traditional French dishes, including French onion soup topped with so much cheese that it comes with a pair of culinary scissors. Outside of the city center by the sea is El Ancla (805 Hostos Avenue), a local restaurant that serves true Puerto Rican fare. Some items like crabmeat stew take awhile to prepare, so dine there when you’re not in a rush.

It may be lesser known than San Juan, but Ponce certainly has plenty to offer. And if you need more motivation to visit, the city presents two major festivals. The traditional Ponce Carnival, running in mid-February, and Feria de Turismo de Puerto Rico, held alternating years in Ponce, occurs later in the spring and showcases culture, food, and the arts. With so much going on, you might want to consider a trip to Puerto Rico’s “second city” right now.

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