He lived his life to the fullest, and wanted nothing, not even age, to stop him. So Ponce de León – soldier, conquistador, and the first governor of Puerto Rico – set off on a voyage to find the legendary Fountain of Youth. Born in the 15th century in San Servas, Spain, Juan Ponce de León saw much of the world and made his fortune from it. The words on his grave describe him as a “valiant Lion, mightier in deeds than in name.” Here we follow the path he took, and take a current look at the places he visited.
Granada, Spain. At the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains is a province which has been greatly influenced by Arab culture: Granada, home to the Alhambra, the “fairy palace of the Moors,” according to American novelist Richard Ford. There are still a number of hammam baths around, where a combination of steam, hot water, and massages do wonders for the body. Cave-houses are another interesting feature of Granada, where families sleep in modernised spaces excavated from hills, rocks, and gorges.
Haiti. Art, dance, and music – Haiti has all these to offer, as well as a tropical climate, stretches of stunning beaches, and a number of historic citadels to visit. Come during Carnival season for Haiti’s street theatre scene, vibrant costumes, and parades. Don’t let its voodoo traditions scare you. Rather than sorcery and spells, this belief is actually rooted in the Haitians’ conviction that their ancestors’ spirits will take care of them. To appease these spirits, they offer gifts.
Dominican Republic. Whether you wish to immerse yourself in the native flora and fauna, lie by the beach with the sand between your toes, or try your luck at the casino, Hispaniola has something for you. See a crocodile, play some golf, or visit the oldest city in the Americas, Santo Domingo. Here, you can walk around the Colonial City, the first settlement built by Europeans; Plaza de la Cultura, which presents local life through its museums; and the Columbus Lighthouse, where Christopher Columbus’ tomb lies.
Caparra, Puerto Rico. Caparra, Puerto Rico’s first capital, is where de León was buried after he died from a poisoned arrow. Ruinas de Caparra is now a National Historic Landmark where his house can be found, as well as the remains of a fortress. The Museum of the Conquest and Colonization of Puerto Rico is also located here for those who want to learn more about the country’s history. Caparra is in Guaynabo City, where an abundance of fruit grows all year long.
San Salvador, Bahamas. Perhaps it is the dazzlingly turquoise sea, offering divers visibility up to 45 metres deep, which first captivates holidaymakers on this island. It could also be the privacy and seclusion it promises, where travellers can have the beaches all to themselves. Whatever it is, San Salvador is a spot where you can chill out, forget about your woes, and lose yourself whether above the sand or beneath the waves. There are a few monuments to see as well, like the one which housed the Olympic flame in the 1968 games in Mexico.
St Johns River, Florida. Before it was called “the Sunshine State”, de León named it “Pascua Florida” (“flowery Easter”) after arriving on Easter and finding it brimming with brightly-coloured blooms. The plant-eating manatee, often mistaken for a mermaid in the old days, thrives in Florida’s waters, especially in the swampy St Johns River. The area is especially great for bass fishing, canoeing, and swimming. You can also have a picnic or go camping in the Blue Spring and Wekiwa Springs state parks on the banks.
Havana, Cuba. The rum, the salsa, the cigars, and the vintage cars; there's something both thrilling and romantic about Havana. Havana pulsates with energy that fuses the stories of the past with the opportunities of the present, and tourists are glad to take part in it, whether they’re in Old Havana, looking at the Baroque buildings, or in La Vigia, browsing through the books in Ernest Hemingway’s home.