Visiting Puerto Rico's Bethlehem:
Juana Díaz is a small town on the southern coast of Puerto Rico, part of the Porta Caribe tourist region. A quaint and quiet destination, it also happens to be the proud standard-bearer for one of the most iconic symbols of Puerto Rico and the Christmas tradition in Spanish and Latin American culture: the Three Wise Men, or Los Reyes Magos.
The Three Kings are an integral part of the holiday season in Puerto Rico, but beyond that, they are part of the cultural fabric of the island.
Walk into most souvenir shops any time of year and you're likely to see santos, or hand-carved figurines, of the three kings. Representations of Gaspar, Melchor and Balthasar can be found prominently displayed in local arts and crafts, and in many of these cases, the features of the Wise Men have been modified to symbolize the three ethnicities of the Puerto Rican people: Caucasian (Spanish), Taíno (Native) and African (the slaves who were brought to the island and remained to form part of Puerto Rico's social DNA).
The municipality of Juana Díaz was founded in 1798, and in 1884, it celebrated its first Fiesta de Reyes. The celebration has come to be considered Puerto Rico's national Three King's Festival, and the town takes its annual responsibility quite seriously. During the season, the Three Kings depart from Juana Díaz for a journey throughout Puerto Rico, visiting towns across the island before returning on January 6 for the town's annual parade.
The entire town takes part, with many residents appropriately dressed as shepherds. The Kings themselves are carefully chosen and have to embody their chosen roles, right down to their costume and dialogue. In the past, their travels have taken them far beyond the borders of Puerto Rico, and even to the Vatican, where they were blessed by the pope.
As you enter the town, you'll see one of two monuments to the Three Kings, right at the intersection of Route 149 and the Luis A. Ferré Highway. From here, head to the town's central Plaza Román Baldorioty de Castro. On On the western side of the plaza, notice the second monument to the Three Kings, a sculpture above an arched entrance to the plaza that was built for the centennial Three Kings Day Festival in 1984. Other landmarks include the orange and white alcaldía, or City Hall, the seat of the municipal government. The adjacent pastel-blue building was originally the town's fire station. Directly across the Three Kings monument is the elegant San Ramón Nonato Church.
One of the town's cultural highlights is the relatively new Museo de los Santos Reyes, or Three Kings Museum. A small homage to the Wise Men contains artwork, folklore and photography. In particular, don't miss the museum's collection of santos by local master craftsman (note, the museum is closed Monday and Tuesday).
But by far the more significant cultural and historic attraction at Juana Díaz is the Cueva Lucero, or Lucero Caves, which are known for their size, geological formations, and above all, carvings. Note the date, 1822, carved into the cave wall by an anonymous traveler, one of numerous carvings, writings and petroglyphs on the walls here, some of them quite ancient (sadly, many of these are mixed with more modern, and far less beautiful, graffiti.
Many symbols are Taíno in origin. Tours are now offered only with the assistance of a guide, which can be organized through the Juana Díaz tourism office (787-837-2185).
A small destination on the southern coast, Juana Díaz comes alive during the Christmas holidays, but you can plan a visit any time of year to feel a bit of the magic of the Magi. And while you're here, make sure to check out a true archaeological gem.