The south of Puerto Rico is a totally different experience from the North, and particularly from San Juan. The landscape changes and even the cities and towns have a different character.
The lovely colonial town of Guayama captures the best of the south, even though it’s off the beaten path for most tourists. Located near the Caribbean coast and east of Ponce, Guayama is a small, laid-back town with quite a history. Founded in 1736, it town that evokes the island’s aristocratic past, and revels in the laid-back, good-natured vibe you find in the south. It also boasts delicious local seafood, and a place that is known far and wide for its pastelillos, a type of turnover.
As you approach Guayama, the solitary, abandoned red-brick tower rises from the land, a silent sentinel and reminder of the many sugarcane haciendas that once dotted this region. Sugar was king in Puerto Rico in the 1800s, and the hacendados, or landowners, amassed vast fortunes from its cultivation. You’ll find a wonderful example of this wealth in the town center.
When you reach the main square, take a moment to soak in its pristine beauty and marvelous blend of neo-classical and Puerto Rico criollo architecture. Painted in soft pastels, the main buildings around the square, along with the lovely Iglesia San Antonio de Padua (Church of Saint Anthony of Padua). A bubbling fountain adorns the center of the square, and trees and benches provide welcome respites on a hot day out (and it can get hot here!). You’ll often find locals playing dominoes or relaxing here, and you might be tempted to join them.
Still, you can’t leave Guayama without visiting its cultural jewel: The Casa Cautiño. This masterpiece of 19th century architecture was built for one of the area’s wealthiest landowners: Genaro Cautiño Vazquez. The colonial mansion recalls the life of the nobility at a time when agriculture ruled the island, and even has a noteworthy historical anecdote: U.S. troops made the home their headquarters in 1898, under the command of one General Ulysses S. Grant.
Little remains of his presence today, but what you will find within the decorative walls of Casa Cautiño are all the elements of what was considered 19th century opulence in Puerto Rico. The state-of-the-art (for its time) kitchen, marble floors, Persian rugs, and fine furniture made this one of the most elegant houses of its day.
After visiting the town center, it’s time for lunch, and for lunch, you’ll want to head for the coast, to barrio Pozuelo. Here you’ll find a string of rustic eateries along the water that specialize in seafood salads. These aren’t typical salads, but rather succulent chunks of marinated conch, fish, octopus, or other seafood placed on a courtesy leaf of lettuce, tossed in a light vinaigrette and served with a side of tostones, or savory slices of fried plantain. Or you could head to La Casa de Los Pastelillos, which has quickly become a local institution. At this no-frills eatery by the sea, order a pastelillo stuffed with crab, seafood, meat or a variety of other fillings, and then see if you can’t stop yourself from running to the counter and ordering another one. When you’re done, feel free to relax in one of their hammocks, let the Caribbean breeze wash over you, and reflect on a day spent in lovely Guayama.