One of the best ways to see how people live in a place that you are visiting is to get out of the tourist center and visit some of the smaller towns and cities. It is one of my favorite things to do when I travel. On a recent trip to Puerto Rico I took a day and traveled twenty miles south of San Juan to Caguas.
The city of Caguas, founded in 1775, sits at the entrance of the Cordillera Central, the mountain range that crosses the entire length of Puerto Rico, as you travel south from San Juan. During the late 1700’s British and Dutch privateers raided San Juan on several occasions, and many colonialists fled to the mountains inland for protection. In 1874 Caguas was designated as a city, and its position on main road between San Juan and Ponce made it a major stop and trading point for travelers, farmers and businessmen moving goods between the north and south coasts.
The Jardin Botánico y Cultural de Caguas William Miranda Marín is a lovely place to explore the nature, culture and history of Puerto Rico. Covering about 60 acres, it opened in 2007 on the grounds of an old sugar mill. You enter through the Fuente de la Libertad, and arrive at a highly manicured area which includes the Exhibition Center, outdoor Auditorium, artisan’s shops and the Garden store. Nearby, among the ruins of the old sugar mill, is a lovely, outdoor café. Set under trees, and serving burgers, tacos and salads this could be a nice place to stop for a bite to eat, but I would suggest waiting, there is a better choice ahead.
The Garden is organized to highlight different aspects of Puerto Rican history and culture. The Orange area is gives some of the history of the sugar business on Puerto Rico. Walk around the lake and past La Isla de la Identidad, shaped as a 3-leaf clover to represent the European, Taino and African cultural roots of Puerto Rico, and cross the bridge into the Blue area. This section is dedicated to the farmers who produced the fruit and vegetables that the island relied on.
There is a grove of fruit trees and native plants, but walk up the hill to the Casa Jibara del Siglo XXI (House of the 21 Century Farmer). Here you will also find my recommendation for lunch - El Guariquitén, an outdoor café with criollo dishes cooked on a plancha over an open wood fire.
When you are done with lunch stroll across the suspension bridge (try to ignore its bounciness) to the Purple Area, which is dedicated to the Taino history of Puerto Rico. Along the river you will find rocks with native petroglyphs, and across the path and native batey. This is an open area that was set among the houses that made up the towns. It was used for ceremonial and religious activities.
The path continues into the Yellow section, a tribute to the Africans that were enslaved by the Spanish and brought to Puerto Rico. It is also home to main reason I wanted to visit the Botanical Gardens. I have long been a fan of Samuel Lind, and Afro-Puertorican artist. He was commissioned to create a piece for this section when the Garden and I have come to see this phenomenal statue – Osain. This larger than life figure represents both spirits of the Africans brought here against their will, and the spirit of Africa itself. It is a beautiful piece that literally springs from the ground.
When you come to Caguas, make sure that you visit the Plaza de Recreo in the center of town. It is an excellent example of how some cities have improved and modernized their town plazas without losing the charm of the original. They have kept the old trees that provide shade to benches and walking paths, while adding modern fountains and artwork. It is a wonderful place to come and sit and people watch.
Finally, bring your day to a delicious close with a stop at Jendy’s Heladería Artisanal. This ice cream shop serves a tremendous selection of flavors. Beyond vanilla, and strawberry, you can find traditional island flavors like tamarind and ginger and many more.
There is so much more to Puerto Rico than San Juan and Ponce, so get out and explore.
To get to Caguas take Route 18 to route 52 south from San Juan. Exit onto route 196 west. Travel 2 Km to route 156. The entrance to the Garden is straight ahead.
The entrance fee is $12 for adults and $3 for children under 3.