Travelers are experiencing Puerto Rico’s re-emergence as a popular destination following the island’s makeover since Hurricane Maria’s devastation.

While San Juan, the beach resorts on the northeast coast, and El Yunque Rainforest are popular draws, I discovered the south side of the island during a Tourism Cares event centered in Ponce, the second largest city in Puerto Rico.

Tourism Cares is the philanthropic organization for the travel industry bringing together all segments of the industry, as a community to help build sustainable tourism, help destinations recover from natural disasters, and preserve and restore historical sights. Puerto Rico is building an environmentally conscious tourism program not only to protect the natural diversity of the island but to also ensure that local communities benefit from tourism.

The work group I was assigned went to a farm that was building a bio-processor that converts cow manure into fuel. This farm was located in the hills above the town of Yauco. 

Yauco is a town of steep hills intersected by several small narrow rivers that require 40 bridges just to get around. Most noticeable is the color palate created by the beautifully painted houses seen across the landscape and hills as you enter town. The local citizens are quite proud of their farming heritage centered on coffee, sugar cane, bananas, plantains, oranges, and dairy products. Coffee is the biggest crop. The locals like to think of their coffee as similar to Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Coffee. Tobacco was big at one time, but most of that production has shifted to the Dominican Republic. The south side of Puerto Rico receives less rain than the north side of the island, so warm, blue skies prevail more often.

During my short stay in the Ponce area, I was able to enjoy a visit to Serralles Castle, a hilltop mansion overlooking the downtown area. It was built during the 1930s for Juan Eugenio Serralles, son of businessman Juan Serralles, founder of Destileria Serralles also known as Don Q Distillery, maker of fine Puerto Rican rums. The beautifully furnished house and well-manicured gardens is a special place to visit, made even more special if you happen to be invited to a social event or destination wedding at the castle and the surrounding grounds. The property is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was featured in the American TV series America’s Castles.

I was also fortunate to tour the Don Q Distillery, which is only open to private groups and does not offer commercial tours. The making of rum in this location began in 1865 and continues today in the same way the family started generations ago. The process uses water originating in Puerto Rico’s volcanic mountains which is an ingredient in their heavily guarded secret recipe using molasses, their own yeast, and aged in oak barrels. The rums are smooth and distinctive and have become the largest selling rum in Puerto Rico outselling Bacardi.

I would recommend a visit to the south side of the island when you visit Puerto Rico. Ponce is only a two hour drive from the San Juan Airport and a delightful place to stay overnight or visit for the day.

John Werner

As a 45 year veteran of the travel industry and the President of MAST Travel Network since 2002, John’s career has included 14 years as a travel agency owner. He has served in various capacities on the Board of the Midwest Chapter of ASTA including Treasurer and Vice President. John has also held several positions on the Board of Directors for MAST including Vice Chairman and Board Chairman during the years he owned Travel Group International, a MAST member during the 1990s.