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75 miles (121km) SW of San Juan

"The Pearl of the South," Ponce was named after Loíza Ponce de León, great-grandson of Juan Ponce de León. Founded in 1692, Ponce is today Puerto Rico's principal shipping port on the Caribbean. The city is well kept and attractive, with an air of being stuck in the past, like a provincial Mediterranean town. On weekday afternoons, men dressed in starched guayaberas and hats play dominoes while uniformed school girls run along the large walkways.

Its historic district underwent a $440-million restoration for 1992's 500th anniversary celebration of Christopher Columbus's voyage to the New World, and improvements have continued. The streets are lit with gas lamps and lined with neoclassical buildings, just as they were a century ago. Horse-drawn carriages roll by, and strollers walk along sidewalks edged with pink marble. Contemporary Ponce has been restored to its former splendor, the city as it was at the turn of the 20th century, when it rivaled San Juan as a wealthy business and cultural center.

Sitting in its sun-bleached plaza on a sunny afternoon, visitors may be struck by Ponce's heat, and the nearly always-dry weather conditions. Threats of rain are most often held at bay by the central mountains; you can see the potential humidity condensing into a violet haze over them in the distance as the late afternoon finally begins to fade.