PONCE: THE JEWEL OF PUERTO RICO

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This travel article by Jacqueline L. Scott appeared in Anancy Magazine. This is the place where I spent my teenage years and it’s lovely to revisit through the article. Our thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing the article to our attention.

God must have paid special attention to Puerto Rico, giving it a little bit of everything, thus making the island a miniature of the world itself. On the road to Ponce, we drove through mountains with their heads crowned in mist.

Around the next bend the land was perfectly flat. It seemed like we were crossing the remnants of a dried-up lake. A few kilometres later we traveled by a lunar-like desert with the bare earth painfully exposed without its clothing of plants. And, always to the left, was the shimmering blue-gray of the Caribbean Sea. All these landscapes passed by in less than two hours.

We, my sister and I, spent three weeks in Puerto Rico one Christmas. She, to recover from a soured love affair; and I, to recuperate from the stress of wearing a suit all day. Leaving the capital of San Juan behind, we took a day trip to Ponce on the south coast of the island.

Ponce turned out to be a sophisticated city, not the small pretty, but provincial town that I had expected. The main square looked like an ostentatious film set from the 1930s, designed by an architect in a dream.

Building styles ranged from seventeenth century Spanish colonial to Art Nouveau, and every period in between. The architect’s final touch was to paint everything in the prettiest palette of pastels. The city had spent millions on the restoration of the fine buildings to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the island in 1493.

Picking up a free map from the tourist centre in the main square, the Plaza de Delicias, we ambled about on a self-guided walking tour of the renovated heart of Ponce. While I lingered over the architectural details of the buildings, my sister savored the delights of shopping.

Ponce had simply the best stores in Puerto Rico. We passed bustling department stores, malls and boutiques selling everything from cheap imitations to the latest designer clothing. In between gazing at the elegant Art Nouveau stain-glass windows of the Scotiabank, we bought sandals and summer dresses.

Tibes Indian Ceremonial Centre

After lunch, we went to the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Centre on the outskirts of Ponce. It is a first rate museum on the excavated site of a Taino village. The Taino were the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico. On the site archaeologist found remnants of their life including skeletons, houses and ball courts.

Playing ball was a key part of Taino life. So much so, that there were seven ball courts on the site. The ball games were played for fun in Puerto Rico. In the Aztec culture on the main land, they played for life. Members of the loosing team were sacrificed to the gods.

“Over here sat the chief and the other high-class officials to watch the game,” said Salvador the museum’s guide pointing to a platform of smooth rocks. “And maybe there sat the shaman. Nobody wanted to get too close to him as he was in touch with the gods.

The shaman was also the medicine man. If the medicine did not work, the people would beat him up. These days we have lawyers to do that,” Salvador added with a smirk.

We walked around a recreated Taino village. The houses were large, each sleeping about seventy people. All the houses were circular, made out of bamboo with thatched roofs. Only the chief’s house was square shaped.

The little museum was excellent, with well-planned exhibits with clear explanation in Spanish and English. The usual pottery shards, beads and tools were illustrated by drawings that put the artifacts in the context of their every day use. Some of the artifacts were over 1,500 years old.

Around the museum were displays of school children’s models of the life of the Taino natives. One model caught my eye: in the foreground was a Taino village, with women grinding cassava flour, men fishing in the river and people relaxing in hammocks.

In the background Columbus’ three ships were anchored in the bay. Some of the crew were on the beach, including a priest holding a bible and a cross and blessing a group of soldiers. And at the feet of the Spaniards, lay dead Indians.

Ponce had plenty to offer. For the curious, like myself, there was the diverse geography, the stunning architecture and the poignant legacy of Columbus. For shoppers like my sister, the fashions were fine and so were the bargains.

For the original report go to http://anancymag.com/ponce-the-jewel-of-puerto-rico/

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