Ponce is like an elegant, cultured grande dame who started to deteriorate a bit over the years but has recently undergone a vigorous renewal program that has put a new sheen on all her best assets.

Although it looks like one large plaza, Plaza de las Delicias is in fact composed of two smaller plazas: Plaza Degetau and Plaza Luis Muñoz Rivera.An economic and cultural rival to San Juan back in the day, Ponce experienced great growth and wealth during the 18th and 19th centuries thanks to its international shipping trade, which brought in an influx of European immigrants who established lucrative rum distilleries and plantations growing coffee and sugarcane. All that wealth translated into the construction of hundreds of gorgeous, ornate homes and buildings that combine rococo, neoclassical, and Spanish Revival architectural elements with traditional criolla building styles, distinguished by broad balconies, large doorways, and open-air patios. Unfortunately, many of them fell into disrepair over the course of the 1980s and 1990s due to economic hard times. But things are on an upswing, and many of the city’s stunning buildings have been restored to their former glory.

A painted lion statue and Fuentes de Leones.

A painted lion statue standing in front of the Fuentes de Leones. Photo © Micah Craig, licensed Creative Commons usage.

At the city’s core is Plaza de las Delicias, an enormous plaza anchored by a massive fountain, Fuentes de Leones, and the impressive Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.

Plaza de las Delicias

Plaza de las Delicias (bounded by Calles Isabel, Atocha, Unión, and Simon Bolívar) is a bustling Spanish colonial plaza surrounded by many lovely 19th-century buildings, many of them containing banks, but there is a bar and a couple of fast-food joints. Although it looks like one large plaza, Plaza de las Delicias is in fact composed of two smaller plazas: Plaza Degetau and Plaza Luis Muñoz Rivera. Together they create what appears to be the central gathering spot for all of Ponce, especially on the weekends.

During the day the sidewalks along Calle Isabel and Calle Atocha are lined with dozens of brightly colored umbrellas, under which vendors sell hot dogs, silk flowers, lottery tickets, gift wrap by the yard, electronics, sneakers, jewelry, and more. At night, live bands give concerts, attracting multigenerational families, troops of preening teenagers, and love-struck couples who stake out cuddling corners on park benches. Street preachers are known to get up on the soapboxes here, projecting their sermons through public address systems.

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe in Ponce. Photo © Alberto Loyo/123rf.

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadelupe in Ponce. Photo © Alberto Loyo/123rf.

The plaza contains two enormous fountains, including the elaborate Fuentes de Leones (Fountain of Lions). This is also where you’ll find the stunning Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (787/842-0134, office: Mon.-Fri. 9am-1:30pm; services: Mon.-Fri. 7am, 9am, and 12:05pm, Sat. 7am, 4pm, and 7pm, Sun. 7am, 9am, 11am, 4pm, and 7pm), a gorgeous French neoclassical-style edifice reconstructed in the 1930s and featuring two bell towers, stone tile floors, and a sky-high arched ceiling painted a robin’s-egg blue and hung with 20 crystal chandeliers. Check out the stunning religious statuary, including one of Mary dressed in a pale blue robe with a gold halo above her head, and the bloodied body of Christ in a glass coffin.

But by far the most exceptional structure in Plaza de las Delicias is Parque de Bombas (787/284-3338, daily 9am-5pm, free), a startlingly whimsical black-and-red-striped pavilion built in 1882 to provide exhibition space for the Exposition-Fair of Ponce. A year later it became home to the city’s fire station. Today it is a museum honoring the history of the city’s firefighters. It contains portraits of past fire chiefs, exhibits of fire helmets, hats, axes, and hose nozzles, and it also serves as the tourism office for the city. Lots of travel brochures on sights in the area and an interactive electronic display board provide directions and hours of operation for many of the city’s sights.

Hanging around Plaza de las Delicias at night is probably not a good idea, if the armed police in bulletproof jackets who patrol it after dark are any indication.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Puerto Rico.