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St. Petersburg Times
Taking Southern Puerto Ricos Pulse
By MARINA BROWN
February 3, 2002
PONCE, Puerto Rico -- As if set in a 1940s musical starring Carmen Miranda and Fernando Lamas, the outskirts of Ponce along Puerto Rico 's southern coast seem to sway to a sound track. Blending the velvety melodies of Placido Domingo singing tangos and splashy meringues that start the hips of the boat boys swinging, the ambience is pure magic.
In fact, to meander through the 5-year-old waterfront park El Malecon at Guanica, 10 miles west of Ponce, is to capture the special heart of southern Puerto Rico .
Along Guanica's boardwalk, the generations stretch out in the warm winter evening - old women arm in arm with grandchildren; young marrieds who, along with their parents, dance the samba with bodies undulating in a tiny quick step. And laughing children on the sidelines, swinging their little hips, imprinting the rhythm of the island.
Slightly inland is Ponce proper. Located near the the islands of Vieques and Culebra in the Caribbean, Ponce has often been called the "city of museums." Indeed to walk the bustling streets of Ponce, circle its Lady of Guadeloupe Cathedral and stare up at 16th century balconies and Moorish arcades is like wandering through a gigantic museum - one with a pulse, perhaps bouncing to a rhumba beat.
Established in the late 1600s by Spanish farmers and ranchers, Ponce began to thrive when the Spanish crown encouraged the immigration needed to bolster the lucrative coffee and sugar cane plantations.
Wealthy emigres, educated in Europe, brought the architecture of the continent and blended it in a creative free-for-all with Creole, neoclassical, Spanish revival and Moorish styles.
Promoting this "European Route," the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities and Puerto Rican Foundations for the Humanities have designated 45 sites singled out for their architectural beauty and historical importance. Visitors who want to trace the route can borrow for two days a guidebook ($20 deposit) that details in English and Spanish the breadth of Ponce's architectural heritage.
Included among the sites are the Parque de Bombas, the red-and-black-striped wooden firehouse, now a museum, that squats in the middle of the Plaza las Delicias; the neoclassical Museum of Puerto Rican Music, with a stunning collection of musical instruments set in elegant surroundings; and Teatro La Perla, which was destroyed twice by earthquakes and rebuilt along classical lines.
There is also the first Protestant church established in the Spanish New World, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, and the tiny, jewellike Juan Ponce de Leon Marketplace, also known locally as Dog Plaza.
We caught one of the free trolleys from the plaza to the Castillo Serralles. About 10 minutes from the throbbing city into Ponce's northern hills, this is the mansion built with the sugar and rum fortune of the Serralles family.
The 14,000-square-foot Spanish revival restoration is filled with period furniture from the 1920s and '30s. Visitors view a short but entertaining documentary on sugar cane production in the early years of the 20th century.
And we happened upon yet more music: A university soiree was in full swing on the sprawling piazza of the mansion - complete with tinkling crystal, subdued voices and a full orchestra playing music right out of a Fred Astaire flick.
Shifting gears, we headed east along Highway 53 where the inland mountains slump down to low mangrove forests.
The Aguirre Forest is remote and seems to be a maze of mangrove roots. Home to Jobos Bay, it has been declared a National Estuarine Research Reserve, the only one in the Caribbean.
Local fishermen will take passengers to hidden cays with superb snorkeling, often followed by a fresh fish dinner at a local fishermen's retreat. Try chapin with a Creole sauce and mashed plantains, called mofongo. But be prepared to play charades if your Spanish is not up to breakneck speed.
Less than a half-hour to the east lies Guayama, a smaller version of Ponce. Again, the ticket to prosperity here was sugar cane. The money helped finance a lovely miniature yellow version of Notre Dame, a charming museum that was once the Cautino family's home and a Fine Arts Center.
But our real goal was a little quietude off the beaten track and a getaway to the islands of Culebra and Vieques .
The ferry from Fajardo takes about 45 minutes and costs $3; it lands at Isabel Segunda on the north coast of Vieques .
If Fajardo is a verdant extension of the United States mainland, complete with fast-food franchises and urban chain stores, then Vieques and Culebra are time warps to a more rural, rustic way of life. Here the idiosyncrasies of the large American expatriate community are taken in stride.
A night spent kayaking under a full moon or eating avocados on a beach only Matisse could have designed is more noteworthy than a win at a casino on the mainland. Although Vieques is in the news because of protests of Navy bombing practice there, we did not once think of bombing ranges or political controversies.
One of two communities on Vieques , Isabel Segunda is named for a Spanish queen. There is a traditional central plaza here, and the Conde de Mirasol Fort, a Spanish military structure, is nearby.
After a look at the wonderfully restored Punta Mulas Lighthouse, we headed south to the quieter village of Esperanza. Here it is the night tour of Bioluminescent Bay (Mosquito Bay) that is not to be missed.
Sharon Grasso, a retired science teacher, provides the explanations of how the tiny dinoflagellates manage to cause the waters to glow with each swish or bubble. For humans, swimming in these waters on a moonless night is like becoming a glowing snow angel - and the fish around you zip through the water like hundreds of underwater shooting stars.
We ferried to Culebra from Vieques in less than an hour, for $2, and found a tiny turquoise and pink guest house that seemed to be scraped off a painter's palette.
We headed for Flamenco Beach and, over the hill, Rosario Beach. Then with a kayak we went to Honeymoon Beach. All are pristine, as if undiscovered.
Thanks to Theodore Roosevelt, in 1909 all of the public lands on Culebra were declared bird preserves. The Culebra National Wildlife Refuge protects sea turtles and coastal ecosystems as well. Consequently, these two tiny islands are among the most tranquil havens one could imagine.