Puerto Rico VII: Higher and Higher

Reading this week:

  • Fuzz by Mary Roach

One thing we had been wondering as we wandered around Ponce is where all the tourists were. The plaza around Parque de Bombas wasn’t exactly crowded, we had the Music Museum to ourselves, and Tibes Indigenous Site had as many stray horses as guests. But today we found our answer: Castillo Serrallés.

Castillo Serrallés is the former residence of Don Juan Eugenio Serrallés, who made it big in the sugarcane business and founded Don Q rum. It is perched high up on the hill overlooking Ponce and is quite the architectural feat. We were stunned to find the first two morning tour slots sold out and had to settle for noon (we spent the morning strolling along a beach, the only time we touched the ocean). We arrived to find probably 20 or so other tourists already waiting. My theory here is that they were almost all on some version of a rum tour, seeing various rum sites around the island. Which is sad, because there are a lot of other cool museums and sites in Puerto Rico and as we saw yesterday they could do with some tourist dollars.

View over the garden.

The tour of the mansion however was pretty good. The house itself is an excellent architectural example, made of concrete and looking like a Spanish villa or something. It is as luxurious as you would expect the home of a rum baron to be, and you’ll have to take my word on it because they didn’t allow pictures inside. The main attraction is probably the garden, which is a sculpted landscape cascading down the hill with a fountain and trees and all that. At no point in the tour did they discuss the sugarcane industry itself, except to show some pictures, which had me concerned because we were celebrating wealth built on the back of an industry which to put it mildly didn’t have great labor relations. But they had a butterfly garden that despite the lack of butterflies was pretty enough to distract from little questions like that.

From there we crossed the street to go up the Cruceta del Vigía. This is a big cross-shaped building that it turns out is not religious at all, but is instead modeled after a yardarm flagpole that was historically on the spot that displayed the flags of the ships in the harbor for the convenience of people who didn’t want to bother with the half-day drive into town (at that time) if their ship hadn’t come into harbor. Included in the ticket for the Castille is a ticket to go up into the building, which offers views even more sweeping and panoramic than those you got from the Castille. It is very nice! There’s also a bar. Then next door to that is a “Japanese garden” which is not as nice as the garden in front of the Castille but someone is training those bonsai trees and it is peaceful in its way.

At this moment, since it was late but not too late in the day, we continued our now tradition of showing up at the last minute to Taino sites. We had planned to go at some point to the Caguana Indigenous Site, especially after our guide at Tibes told us that Caguana was modelled after Tibes. We wanted to complete the set. Maybe we should have gotten the hint, however, that it would be a doozy to get to when Google Maps informed us it would take an hour to go the 30 miles or so to get there. Unburdened by knowledge, we set off, thinking crossing the mountains would be as easy at the trip between San Juan and Ponce.

This was not accurate. We were unprepared. In this area of Puerto Rico the roads rapidly become these well-paved but tiny, windy, and steep paths the curve up and down mountainsides, letting you easily imagine plunging to your sure death if you take the turn wrong. I eventually got pretty okay at driving these, but on this first trip we just kept waiting for it to end. And my poor super amazing girlfriend, whose stomach was not ready for what we were going to put it through. The only saving grace here was that the drive was gorgeous. Stunning mountain valley after stunning mountain valley, overrun with lush vegetation. Honestly with all these roads you don’t really need to go to El Yunque at all. We still have some lingering questions after the drive, like, how on earth did they get those roads there, and also what do the people who live on these roads perched on the side of a mountain do for a living, and most importantly why did all the other drivers tailgating me think that was going to help the situation???

Luckily, we survived at made it to Caguana (not before Google tried to take us on a dirt road up the side of a mountain, but we resolved that eventually). It was really nice! Again, we pretty much had the place to ourselves. Where Tibes was at the base of the mountains on the plain, Caguana is nestled firmly in the mountains and is surrounded by gorgeous peaks that the nice people at the site said might be the inspiration for the characteristic cemi stones. And the sounds! It’s worth going just to hear all the birds and other animals making the spot serene but alive. The site didn’t take too long to explore. They have a very tiny museum and then you were off to see the stone-lined courts. These were lined with larger stones than at Tibes, and here the petroglyphs were marked and easier to see. We basically walked around long enough to get our land legs back while I tried to imagine a whole crowd of people there watching a ball game and performing ceremonies, and then got back in our car for the return trip we were no better prepared for. Again we survived and for dinner back in Ponce we had Mexican food and ice cream in the plaza and it was a perfect evening.

Here you can see half the museum.