Not as popular as San Juan or Vieques, the south is a region full of underrated attractions, fine food, and a laid-back, authentic vibe that is hard to come by elsewhere. From lush tropical mountains to arid seacoast plains, Puerto Rico's southern region lets you sample the island from a local's perspective.
Though rich in history, the area also provides ample opportunities for golf, swimming, hiking, and cave exploration. Snaking roads between major highways reveal a glimpse of how rural Puerto Ricans enjoy life. Every mile or so you'll see a café or bar, which is the local social center. The only traffic jams you'll likely encounter will be caused by slow-moving farmers taking their goods to the local market.
At the center of everything is Ponce, the "Pearl of the South." Farmers attracted to the rich soil in the area, which was perfect for growing sugarcane, founded Ponce in 1692. Evidence found at the Tibes Indian ceremonial site, just north of the city, suggests that people have been living here since 400 BC. Many residents still carry the last names of the dozens of European pioneer families who settled here during the 19th century. The region's largest city, Ponce is home to some of the island's most interesting architecture, excellent restaurants, and one of its most important art museums. Nearby San Germán, the second-oldest city in Puerto Rico, is known for its two historic main squares, well preserved in a wide variety of architectural styles.
On the coast, Guayama and Patillas show off their splendors as little-known destinations for beachgoers. But the real party is at La Parguera, which attracts a young but noisy crowd. If you're willing to explore beyond the casinos, high-rises, and daily traffic congestion of the island's capital, the south is a wise escape from Puerto Rico's usual tourist fare. Don't be surprised by the help many of its residents will offer whether you ask for it or not. Southern puertorriqueños are known for their friendliness as well as their hospitality.