98 miles (158km) W of San Juan; 15 miles (24km) S of Aguadilla

Approaching from the north, where Hwy. 2 swoops down along beautiful coastal overpasses, it's easy to dismiss Mayagüez at first glimpse as a rather drab commercial port city, but the so-called "Sultan of the West" tends to win over visitors who give it a chance to show off its charms.

Despite outward appearances as a city, Mayagüez makes for a convenient stopover for those exploring the west coast.

If you want a big-wave beach with dramatic coastal cliffs, you can head north to Rincón, Aguadilla, and Isabella. And if you want white sand and palms, with tranquil aquamarine water, head south to Cabo Rojo, Lajas, and Guánica.

Famed for the size and depth of its harbor (the second largest on the island, after San Juan's harbor), Mayagüez was built to control the Mona Passage, a route essential to the Spanish Empire when Puerto Rico and the nearby Dominican Republic were vital trade and defensive jewels in the Spanish crown. Today this waterway is notorious for the destructiveness of its currents, the ferocity of its sharks, and the thousands of boat people who arrive illegally from either Haiti or the Dominican Republic, both on the island of Hispaniola.

Queen Isabel II of Spain recognized Mayagüez's status as a town in 1836. Her son, Alfonso XII, granted it a city charter in 1877. Permanently isolated from the major commercial developments of San Juan, Mayagüez, like Ponce, has always retained its own distinct identity.

Today, the town has been hit by the closure of its tuna packing industry (which once packed 60% of the tuna consumed in the United States) and its manufacturing plants, victims to the exodus of jobs to countries where labor can be bought at a cheaper price.

But the town has a future in tourism and in some of the life science and high-tech manufacturing springing up around the fine University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez campus, which specializes in engineering and the sciences. The university community adds much to the city's cultural life. The city has also been abuzz with construction of a $400-million public-works project in preparation to host the 2010 Caribbean and Central American Games. New sports facilities, an athletes' village, and a pedestrian park along the city's west coast have all sprung up.