Puerto Rico: the Taíno and Tibes

Are you planning a trip to Puerto Rico? On our recent visit to PR, we wanted more than the typical "tourists sipping piña coladas on the beach" experience. So when Smithsonsian's "What Became of the Taíno?" article (here) piqued our interest, we were ready to leave the resorts behind, and delve into Puerto Rico's history. After all, understanding a culture's past makes its present much more clear.

And so it was with great enthusiasm that we left our home-base of Luquillo, PR, to head 90 minutes south to Ponce, where we visited the Tibes Indigenous Ceremonial Center (Centro Ceremonial Indígena de Tibes). Tibes is the site of the remains of indigenous ceremonial meeting and burial grounds, dating back to AD 25. The remains were unearthed by Hurricane Eloise in 1975.

The Tibes staff treated our family to a private tour in English, during which our fabulous guides detailed what is known of the indigenous Taíno people who were living in Borikén (their name for Puerto Rico) at the time of Columbus' arrival in 1493.

replica of a Taíno bohío (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

replica of a Taíno bohío (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

The Taíno lived in yucayeque (villages) of as few as 80, but sometimes up to 3000 people.

Most villagers slept in family groups of 8-10 people in a bohío, or a small round thatched roof hut. Inside the bohío, the Taíno slept in jamaca (hammocks).

replica of a Taíno caney (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

replica of a Taíno caney (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

A caney, or square shaped, somewhat larger bohío, was home to the village cacique (chief) and his 4 or 5 wives. One wife would have the designation of "favorite wife," which would earn her such privileges as a special seat during an areyto (ceremony). Unfortunately, the status also came with the obligation to be buried alive with the cacique, should he die first.

remains of a Taíno canoa (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

remains of a Taíno canoa (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

The Taíno crafted canoa (canoes) by hollowing out the trunk of a single tree. All canoa building was done with stone tools, shells, and fire; the Taíno had no metal tools prior to European contact.

The Taíno built smaller canoa from the saman tree for river travel. The ceiba tree was better suited for larger sea-worthy canoa, which could carry up to 100 people on voyages between islands of the Antilles, and possibly beyond.

unearthed Taíno batey (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

unearthed Taíno batey (Tibes, Puerto Rico)

Nine batey, or ceremonial plazas, have been found at Tibes. A batey could serve as cemetery, astronomical tracker to mark time, tribal or inter-tribal meeting place, or playing field for a ball game that was both a form of entertainment and a means of resolving disputes.

This ball game, called batey like the grounds on which is was played, was of special interest to the Spanish when they first witnessed it. They were especially intrigued by the batu, the rubber-like ball, made of wax from the cupey tree rolled together with grasses, and weighing up to 25 pounds. Rules of the game allowed for movement of the batu by any body part except the hands.

Although the Taíno were all but extincted by the Spanish, traces of their culture can be seen to this day. Words like hammock, canoe, hurricane, and iguana, come from their language. And some of their cooking methods, such as barbacoa (barbecue) and use of a pilón (mortar and pestle) to pulverize yucca and corn, continue to be used in Puerto Rican cooking today.

Our entire group of 5, from 70-somethings down to a 7 year old, highly recommend a visit to Tibes to augment your Puerto Rican experience.

Logistics:

  • Tibes is a 15-20 minute drive from downtown Ponce, on Route 503, km 2.2. 
  • Tibes is open Tuesday through Sunday; closed Mondays.
  • Posted hours and online travel forums disagree on the hours of operation; 9:00 to 3:30 was our experience. 
  • Admission fees are $3 for adults, $2 for children 5-12, free for under 5 and over 75. 
  • Tours are offered in English and Spanish, and are included in the admission fee. 
  • As with any event or attraction in outlying areas of Puerto Rico, we recommend calling ahead to confirm times and prices. Call (787)840-5685.