Caguas is a late-comer by some standards; San Juan, 30 miles away, was already 250 years old when Caguas was settled by Spain—and yet it proudly calls itself “La Ciudad Criolla” and “El Corazon de Borinquen,” the Creole City and Heart of Borinquen.
I can’t rule on its claims, but a short day’s visit showed us a pleasant city center with a wealth of small museums and cultural sites (all closed, sadly, on our day), a wonderful accidentally-modern cathedral and what many consider Puerto Rico’s best home-made ice cream. Sadly, we also saw signs of economic stress, with quite a few stores just off the main square unoccupied.
Caguas is an easy drive, on a sometimes-jammed highway south from San Juan; it’s almost equally distant from both the north and east coasts of the island. It takes its name from Caguax, a local Taino chief who was an early convert to Christianity.
The town grew over time into a city whose economy was based on agriculture; both pineapples and sugar have been important. In recent years, the city has spread outward from its original core; the population is nearly 150,000.
We visited on a warm day between Christmas and New Years (that sounds odd to my New York ears) and found Christmas decorations and reminders of Three Kings Day to come in the lovely park that occupies the center of the city and on the walls of the municipal buildings.
Since the museums were closed (no warning online!), and we were too early for lunch, we enjoyed a stroll around the center, following the markers set in the sidewalks to guide visitors along the Ruta de Criollo to the museums.
Aside from these colorful buildings and the museums, we found markers set into the walls to commemorate local historical and popular figures. We didn’t find one, though, that I’m told is there: a plaque for Roberto Clemente, who was a star of the local pro baseball team, the Criollos de Caguas, before he came north to play. Not the only local sport specialty; there’s also a women’s volleyball team that consistently places near the top and has won 9 national titles.
The Casa del Trovador was once the home of Luis Miranda, an important figure in traditional Puerto Rican music, and programs at the Casa include teaching, study and performance of "jibara" music.
And then it was time for lunch. We had lots of online lists of places to go—but we also had asked the hostess at the Caguas visitor bureau where to go. Just seemed simpler, and it turned out to be a good choice. Right across from the Casa, we found it. And the sign on top confirms it—"Aqui es que es...Gusto's!" or "Here it is!" And it was good.
After lunch, we visited Caguas Cathedral, officially Cathedral of the Sweet Name of Jesus. I called it accidentally modern above; the original was built as a small church in the late 1700s, and replaced in 1830 by a bigger church. That church suffered severe damage in a 1928 hurricane, and the present church is a combination of repair and new construction. Built in the 1930s and finished after World War II, it has a lighter, more open and modern feel than most others. It became a cathedral in 1964.
Much of the artwork in the church has a fresh and contemporary feel, especially the simple depictions of the Stations of the Cross. It's almost possible to believe they depict contemporary people and events.
Across the street from the Cathedral, a few more scenes of the park and its decorations:
And then on to the other important feature of Caguas: Away from downtown, and on a busy street lined with small shopping center, we found the reigning king of artisanal ice cream in Puerto Rico: Jendy’s. More on that another time…for now, let’s just say it was hard to choose flavors, and all were wonderful.