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Beyond the Beaches of Puerto Rico

Andrea Gross | photos by Irv Green | Nov 2, 2012, 1:02 p.m.

It’s Sunday afternoon, and I’m in the mountains of central Puerto Rico, munching barbecued pork under a tin roof. “This reminds me of Sundays when I was a child,” says our guide. “Except instead of eating in a lechonera [restaurant specializing in pork], we ate in my grandmother’s kitchen.” She heaps some arroz on my plate. The rice is seasoned with sofrito [onions, garlic and peppers] and has a yellow color and nutty flavor from annatto seeds. It’s a plain, hearty meal, the kind the grandmothers of Puerto Rico have been serving for generations.

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Puerto Rican meals are a unique blend of European, African and Latin American flavors.

Puerto Rican meals are a unique blend of European, African and Latin American flavors. While the early inhabitants of the island survived on corn, fruit and fish, their diet expanded when the Spaniards came in the early 1500s, bringing with them pigs and cattle as well as wheat, rice and olive oil. Later when the Africans arrived, people learned to combine these foods into exotic dishes, such as pasteles [meat, green banana and spices wrapped in plantain leaves] and mofongo [fried plantain stuffed with pork or seafood]. The grandmothers suddenly had more options.

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Piña colada stands are a common sight in Puesrto Rico. The piña colada is the official beverage of the island.

I take second helpings of pork and arroz, all the while tapping my feet in rhythm with the high-energy salsa music that drifts in from outside. I feel as if I’m at a neighborhood party as children play in the street, adults gossip with friends and almost everybody over a certain age sips frosty piña coladas, the deceptively innocent drink that was dubbed the official beverage of Puerto Rico in 1978.

Like most visitors to the island, we had whiled away our first days in Puerto Rico strolling on the beach, wiggling our toes in the warm sand and taking occasional dips into the water. But we knew that Puerto Rico is more than the sun, rum and grand hotels that line the coast. It also has a vibrant culture in the interior, one that is most easily experienced through a relatively new series of “epicurean pilgrimages” or “themed trails.”

Therefore, thoroughly stuffed by our pig-feast on La Ruta del Lechón [The Trail of the Pig], which had taken us into the high country south of San Juan, we opt for a caffeinated high by going on La Ruta del Café. This brings us to Ciales, a small town in the mountains west of San Juan. Coffee has been produced in this area since the early 1700s.

Don Pello Maldonado, the third-generation coffee roaster at Café Don Pello, teaches us how to curl our hands around a cup of steaming brew, sniff deeply and sip slowly in order to detect subtle differences in aroma and taste. Then he tests our newfound knowledge by serving us cups of several top-ranked coffees. Without prodding, each person on the tour chooses his or her favorite. The winner: Puerto Rico’s Alto Grande, one of only three coffees in the world to be designated as “super-premium.” It’s so rarefied that it’s been served in the Vatican for more than 200 years.

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