When I started this site about six weeks ago I foolishly thought that I could help promote Puerto Rico as the amazing vacation destination that it truly is. Boy was I wrong! My idea was simple: write about an initial set of tourist attractions —around 100 at first— and purposefully leave a second group to be added on a weekly basis. That way I would always have new material.
Since most of the places that I left out were not businesses in themselves, I would contact the person in charge, schedule a video interview and add the clip to our YouTube channel and to our blog. All this free of charge!
Well, guess what? It has been like pulling teeth. Every day you hear people complaining on the radio about how government doesn’t support tourism, and how what little help is available goes to San Juan. But when a regular citizen like me tries to help, with no strings attached, those same people play hard to get and even obstruct his/her efforts..
Let me give you a short lesson in Puerto Rican Spanish. In order to get anything done in Puerto Rico you need something called a “pala”. In Spanish the word “pala” means “shovel”. So, it’s sort of a graphic way of saying that in order to get anything done you need to “know” somebody.
Well, I’m not wired that way. Maybe it was the formative years that I spent in New York City, or maybe it was just my upbringing. But when I need something from an institution —governmental or otherwise— my first instinct is to do what any normal citizen would do: call the switchboard; not a contact inside.
So that’s what I did in the case of Ponce. I wanted to visit Tibes Ceremonial Park, the Old Fire Station and the Ponce Museum of History, interview someone knowledgeable about these places and shoot some video. When I called the switchboard I was directed to a pleasant young gentleman (who’s name I prefer to leave out of this article) who said that he was in charge of all three places. I told him what I needed and he agreed to the interviews. We scheduled them for last Friday.
Ponce is Puerto Rico’s second most important city. It is located on the southern part of the Island, about a 70-mile drive from Carolina, where I have my office,
I arrived around 10:30am. I immediately contacted this gentleman and we agreed to conduct the first interview in one of the museum halls. While I was connecting my equipment there was this on looking lady who couldn’t hide her curiosity. I told her why I was there and went on about my business.
The interview went well. Our host was knowledgeable, articulate and had a pleasant personality. The Ponce Museum of History is a beautiful place with abundant information about this seigniorial city. I was also surprised to learn that Ponce has a total of 15 museums and 25 historic sites. That’s more museums than San Juan itself. Oh, and did I mention that admission to this museum is free?
As luck would have it, right after we finished the first interview, a second lady approached our interviewee and told him that he was not authorized to grant such an interview. What’s more, she also told us that we could not go on with our plans for the day without an authorization straight from the major. Good luck with that!
Don’t get me wrong. I understand that there are procedures for these things, and that bureaucrats need to feel in charge. But I never intended to circumvent that process. I started at the switchboard. And if I was directed by mistake to the wrong person it was because of a training problem, not by any fault of mine, which in turn would bring us back to a management issue.
In any case, there I was, with lots of useless footage and nothing more to do for the day. So I did what any reasonable person would have done. I went to lunch with my wife!
I have to admit that I was angry. There I was, 70 miles away from the office, investing my own time and money to interview someone for free. And to top it all off they were giving me a hard time?
That’s when it hit me. I didn’t need the aggravation. I didn’t need to chase people around just to do them a favor. All I needed to do was act like a tourist. All I needed to do was go about like a regular tourist, visit the Island’s tourist attractions and report what I saw; good or bad. After all, isn’t that what regular people do in sites like trip advisor, hotels.com and YouTube? Why should I run around trying to help people who don’t want to help themselves?
So that’s what I decided to do… right then and there.
After lunch we visited the Old Fire Station, located on the east side of Luis Muñoz Rivera Square, in the center of town. This is where we would have conducted our second interview. But, since that didn’t materialize, what can I say? Well, the place was built in 1883, it is well kept and it has lots of memorabilia including an old fire truck that seems to be in pristine condition (I wonder if it actually works?). While I was there, I didn’t see any personnel taking care of visitors. In fact, what I did see was a group of American tourists wandering around the firehouse like they were lost.
From there we took a stroll around Degetau Square. The place is well kept and clean. In fact, now that I mention it, one thing that really struck us about Ponce in general is how clean the city is. I didn’t see garbage on the streets, I hardly saw homeless people and I didn’t see graffiti. And let me tell you, this is something that I always look for wherever I go. If a city is dirty it speaks volumes about its people and its officials.
Now that I think about it, the only homeless person that I did see was sitting right next to the door in front of Banco Popular. I guess he realized that that was where people walked out with fresh cash (not a dumb move at all).
Oh, and another thing! I asked one of the city policemen about how to get to “Castillo Serrallés” (one of the city’s major tourist attractions) and his instructions were right on the dot. Oh, and by the way, even though I speak perfect Spanish I also speak perfect English. So I asked him in English, just to see how well he did, and he passed with flying colors. His instructions were precise and in perfect English. That’s a lot more than I can say for other towns on the Island.
On the flip side none of the water fountains on Degetau Square were working. I don’t know if it’s a budgetary thing, or if they are simply out of order, but the place would have looked a lot more charming if the fountains worked.
Then there were the lions. There are around 10 or 20 lion statues in different corners of the square. Why? Because lions are the city symbol. But then, they’re not regular lions. No. They’re painted in all sorts of bright colors. As far as I know that had to do with some sort of design competition.
On the west side of Luis Muñoz Rivera Square is Ponce Cathedral, dedicated to our Lady of Guadalupe. It’s a beautiful building painted in light gray, white and different shades of brown. One thing that surprised me was the fact that it was closed. Maybe I’m mistaken, but I understood that Catholic churches were open all through the day.
Now, something that distinguishes Ponce from any other town in Puerto Rico is that it actually has two center squares that together form what we all know as Plaza Las Delicias. The northern part (where the Old Fire Station and the Cathedral are) is known as Luis Muñoz Rivera Square. And the southern side is known as Federico Degetau Square. In any case, it all forms a beautiful and huge square.
From there we took a short drive up to “Cerro El Vigía” a mountain to the north of Plaza Degetau. The drive to “Cerro El Vigía” takes about 10 minutes, but the bird’s eye view of the city is spectacular; especially if you climb to the top of the “El Vigía Cross”, a 100-foot structure that’s at the very top of the mountain.
Across the street from “El Vigía Cross” (La Cruceta del Vigía) is the Serrallés Castle (Castillo Serrallés), a four-story structure built on the mountainside in the 1930’s by the owner of Ponce’s Destilería Serrallés, one of the largest rum distilleries in the world.
Both of these places are actually museums and they are open to the public. But since we had visited them both, and it was getting late, we decided to visit them again in the future (as tourists) and cover the visit separately on Puerto Rico By GPS.
Around 3:30pm we decided to head back to Carolina. All in all I can’t say that the day was a total loss for various reasons. First, we were able to take the pretty pictures that you see on this post. Second, we can attest to the fact that Ponce is a beautiful and well-kept town. And finally, the experience drove home the fact that it’s a futile mission to try to help people who don’t appreciate it (Puerto Ricans in general, not just the Ponceños).
So there you have them: my impressions about a wasted day trying to show my beloved Puerto Rico to the world. But don’t worry. I don’t give up that easily. I’ll be back out with my cameras in a couple of days. Only next time I’ll blend in with the crowd!
In the mean time, here’s a map with the GPS locations to the places mentioned in this article.
See you soon…
©2013,Orlando Mergal, MA
Bilingual Content Creator, Blogger, Podcaster,
Author, Photographer and New Media Expert
Tel. 787-750-0000, Mobile 787-306-1590