Far from touristy San Juan, Southern Puerto Rico is full of history, culture, art, outdoor adventures, and more. Read on to see what you must experience when you visit Southern Puerto Rico.
For me, the thought of visiting Puerto Rico started and ended with San Juan. I wanted to stroll the streets of Old San Juan, explore the historic fort overlooking San Juan Bay, and sip Piña Coladas at the bar that invented them. So when the opportunity came to visit Southern Puerto Rico, I wasn’t sure what to expect especially since I’d have no time to spend in San Juan.
Always up for an adventure, I decided that a visit to San Juan could wait in favor of getting to know the southern part of the island first. I’m glad I did. Southern Puerto Rico is full of history, culture, and art.
Guánica and Its Dry Forest
My three days in Southern Puerto Rico began in Guánica, nearly 100 miles southwest of San Juan. Although the city doesn’t look like much, it has a fascinating history thanks to the bay where it is located.
Once a caldera the bay offered a hideaway for pirates and a safe harbor for explorers. Ponce de Leon landed here and founded a short-lived colony in 1508. But Guánica’s role in the Spanish American War fascinated me even more. Knowing that an attack on San Juan would be costly, the United States chose to land in Guánica and fight from here. A rock on the shore commemorates their landing spot.
That’s not the only reason to visit Guánica. Just outside the city limits is Bosque Seco de Guánica, a United Nations International Biosphere Reserve. This rare subtropical dry forest totals 9,000 acres and features 12 trails. It also contains 48 endangered animals, including the coquí frog, Puerto Rico’s national animal.
Coffee and Art in Yauco
One of the premium coffee regions in the world, Southern Puerto Rico produces Alto Grande, known as “The Coffee of Popes & Kings.” You can sample a cup of regional brew at one of the coffee shops in Yauco before checking out the city’s public art. Keep in mind that coffee in this part of Puerto Rico is typically served stronger than what you might be used back home.
After grabbing a cup of coffee to go, our group drove to the Yuaco neighborhood of La Cantera, once one of the toughest parts of the city. Today it is one of the most Instagrammable places on the island after local artist Johnathan “Pito” Hernández transformed its drab walls with bright colors. Other parts of the city took note, and you’ll find art throughout Yuaco.
Tip: Don’t miss the Finca de Girasol (Sunflower Farm) located between Guánica and Yuaco. It’s a popular stop for locals and, depending on when you go, makes a great backdrop for selfies.
Puerto Rico’s Bioluminescent Bays
I’ve wanted to visit a bioluminescent bay since I first heard about them. Inhabited by plankton-like microorganisms, these bays look like any other at night until you agitate the waters. Then the microorganisms begin to glow turning the water bright turquoise.
Three of the world’s five bio bays are in Puerto Rico. But of those, La Parguera in Southern Puerto Rico is the only one you can swim in. At the other two—Laguna Grande near San Juan and Mosquito Bay on the island of Vieques—you can only kayak through the bioluminescent waters.
Swimming has its advantages. First, you’re in the water so you can control how agitated the water gets. Even better, if you wear a light-colored bathing suit, you can run your hand over it when you get out of the water, and it will glow. But there’s a downside. At La Parguera the water doesn’t glow turquoise no matter how much you stir it up. Instead, it sparkles with pinpoints of light.
More History to Discover
When it comes to history, San Germán delivers. The small Southern Puerto Rico community has several museums, including the San Germán History Museum, Religious Art Museum, and my favorite, the Pharmacy Museum. It’s a preserved pharmacy, La Farmacia Dominguez, and gives you a glimpse of what life would have been like for its customers as well as the Dominguez family that operated it.
In the Timbes Valley near Ponce, the Indigenous Ceremonial Center showcases indigenous artifacts found in the area from pottery to tools. There are even skeletal remains on display in the small museum. Out on the center’s trail you’ll see ancient ruins, mostly stone walls one rock high. An onsite botanical garden introduces visitors to native plants as well.
Sugar and rum made the city of Ponce rich, but you’ll see little evidence of these industries as a tourist. You can sample Ponce-produced Don Q, the island’s most popular rum, at the restaurants lining Ponce Plaza. (The distillery doesn’t have a tasting room.)
Spend some time walking the famous plaza filled with beautiful fountains and statues and surrounded by four historic hotels. The plaza is home to the most photographed firehouse in the world, the red-and-black-striped Parque de Bombas. Come on Sunday to hear local bands play as they have every Sunday since 1883. Visit any other day of the week as it’s a great place to people-watch under the shade of a tree.
Where to Stay in Southern Puerto Rico
While Ponce would make a great base for exploring Southern Puerto Rico, I stayed at Copamarina Beach Resort & Spa. It’s a favorite with Puerto Ricans who come to relax on the half-mile of private beach near Bosque Seco de Guánica. Like most beach resorts, the rooms and suites have tile floors and either a balcony or patio. Mine had a balcony overlooking the gardens and the distant beach.
Copamarina has several perks you won’t get at the historic hotels in Ponce. For starters, Copamarina has the beach and offers kayaks, paddle boards, and Hobie Cat rentals for its guests to enjoy on the water. You can also book a private sailboat tour through the resort.
Copamarina also has live music, cocktail classes, and other activities. And it has an excellent spa, Ni Spa, which incorporates indigenous rituals into its treatments. (I enjoyed a body scrub followed by a Vichy shower and massage.)
Because the resort is on the outskirts of Guánica, you can’t walk off the property to a nearby restaurant. You’re limited to the dining options at Copamarina. However, the good news is that the food is excellent at the resort. Plan to sample local restaurants as you visit neighboring cities in Southern Puerto Rico.
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Visit Southern Puerto Rico
Southern Puerto Rico boasts a plethora of historical and outdoor discoveries. When planning a trip to Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, or another island destination, let Wander With Wonder be your go-to guide.