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SMALL AND MIGHTY PUERTO RICO
 
(2016 - Spring/Summer Issue)

Writer: RENA GODFREY



As the pink sun sets over Las Croabas Park, past the breathtaking El Yunque rainforest and more than an hour’s drive east of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, children are still playing in the ocean and watching the waves roll in.

I pay for my savoury crescent-shaped cheese empanada in American dollars from a small kiosk nearby before joining a kayaking excursion to Laguna Grande (Big Lagoon). I hear parents calling to their kids in Spanish, “Ven aqui” (Come here), as they hold up enticing bags of churros—traditional Spanish tubular-shaped donuts powdered in cinnamon and sugar. While I know I’m in the USA, it sure doesn’t feel like it.

Into the Darkness

Soon, I’m paddling like mad, steering my kayak against the stubborn current through a canopy of mangroves, already feeling anxious about finding my way back. In darkness, we reach a bioluminescent bay, filled with microorganisms called dinoflagellates. We line up our 12 kayaks side by side and cover ourselves with a tarp. Starlight sparkles start to appear as we sweep our hands through the warm water.

Our Zen moment is interrupted when Manuel, our group leader, shouts out “Follow me back.” On our return trip through a narrow passageway, I can’t see anything in front of me other than the faint blue light dangling from the stern of his kayak. Manuel turns on his jumbo flashlight only for a minute but long enough for us to see hundreds of bats crisscrossing over our heads.

Nancy, my kayak mate, shrieks, “I can’t paddle anymore, I need to close my eyes.” My adrenalin kicks in, I’m now kayaking like a pro but manage to stay calm thinking about a warm shower and malanga croquetas (fritters made from a local root vegetable) I’ll soon be enjoying at the Marriott Hotel where I’m staying, in the trendy Condado neighbourhood.

Spanish Roots

I came to this lush island eager to check out its beautiful beaches, fascinating historic sites and exciting food scene. What I didn’t expect to find was that Puerto Rico, only 160 kilometres long and officially known as the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico as well as an unincorporated territory of the United States, has a unique flavour all its own—one that reflects a dynamic blend of its African, Spanish and indigenous Taíno and Carib Indian heritage.

Staring at the Caribbean Sea and a cream-coloured sand beach from my balcony, I try to imagine what this island must have looked like when Spanish explorers first set foot on shore. Christopher Columbus (1493) named this archipelago, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, San Juan Bautista, in honour of John the Baptist. It later became known as Puerto Rico (Rich Port) under Juan Ponce de León, the first governor of the island. The Spanish ruled here for four centuries until 1898, when, following the Spanish-American war, Puerto Rico became a territory of the U.S.

Condado Beach Fun

I’m famished from hours of kayaking, and not shy to eat everything on the tasting menu at La Vista Latin Grill in the San Juan Marriott & Stellaris Casino. Just as I’m finishing my first nibble of chicken alcapurrias (another type of Puerto Rican fritter), Italian-born chef Cesare Biancalana delivers a delicate shrimp carpaccio in a lemon vinaigrette. The pappardelle pasta is surprisingly light with an osso bucco ragout and I manage to make room for some pan-fried local sea bass served over sautéed garlic spinach and cherry tomatoes cooked in a white-wine reduction. Dessert is a mind-blowing crêpe filled with mascarpone cheese in a berry sauce.

Although I’m exhausted from my adventurous day, I’m persuaded to hang out at the Coral Lounge in the hotel lobby with friends for some nighttime enjoyment. It’s already midnight and the dance floor is still filled with locals of all ages expertly salsa dancing to the energetic band playing until the early morning hours.

Old San Juan

I only have one day to explore colourful Viejo San Juan (Old San Juan) and Spoon Food Tours seems like a perfect fit for me, with promises of a deliciously packed morning that combines eating and sightseeing. Caroline, our dynamic guide, transports us back in time, sharing stories of Puerto Rico’s complicated past as she leads us through the quiet cobblestoned streets shaded by giant willowy trees. 

Our tour begins at the Plaza del Quinto Centenario, a square erected in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the new world. In the centre stands a magnificent 12-metre totem pole made of black granite and pottery. The red-clay pottery is rumoured to come from a Taíno archeological dig; Taíno are the indigenous people of Puerto Rico.

Our first stop involves a quick breakfast at Café Don Ruiz, a family-owned roastery that’s been growing its coffee beans since the late 1800s. This sleek café is located in the Ballaja, a mid-19th-century army barracks built for the Spanish troops. I can’t resist their beautifully prepared café con leche (coffee with steamed milk) and pan de Mallorca (savoury/sweet sandwich layered with ham and cheese, cinnamon inside and powdered sugar on top).

En route to our next meal, we pass by Jorge Zeno’s whimsical sculptures of cats and vibrant murals painted on the sides of old buildings by art students. At El Convento, a charming boutique hotel that once served as a 17th-century Carmelite convent, we settle in the courtyard under a century-old Nispero tree bearing beautiful large pink flowering globes of fruit.

I dip my spoon into a glass of bright green gazpacho and taste puréed fresh spinach, sweet avocados and a hint of tangy green apples. I’m impressed with this inventive version of the traditional Spanish tomato-based cold soup. Bite-sized croquetas follow and I’m loving them. This time they are filled with mashed potatoes, beef and peppers.

 Although dessert is offered, I’m more interested in a small plate of fried plantains that comes my way—sweet and decadent just on their own. The tradition of frying plantains originated with the West African slaves who inhabited the island under Spanish rule. Many Puerto Rican dishes include plantains as a main ingredient.

Living Landmarks

Aside from sampling fabulous Puerto Rican food on the itinerary we visit Cathedral de San Juan built in 1521, the second oldest cathedral in the Americas, and dramatic Castillo San Felipe del Morro (a.k.a. El Morro) that guarded and defended the port of San Juan. Named in honour of Philip II, King of Spain, the 400-year-old windswept fort overlooks the bay.

Our final snack is at the Princesa Gastrobar, in the gardens of the old city jail. After sipping Puerto Rican rum we still manage to make our own mollete criollo, an open-face sandwich with most of the top piece ripped out. I load mine up with pork picadillo (olives, almonds, raisins and capers), place a small slice of brie over the filling, hand-torch the cheese on top and devour my bubbling melted masterpiece.

Just as we are about to leave the Princesa, I’m distracted by the lively conversation at the table beside us. I catch enough English to understand they are arguing about where to find the best mofongo on the island. Thankfully, my server Jorge explains that mofongo is a Puerto Rican dish made with green plantains mashed in a wooden mortar and pestle and then topped with meat or seafood. The chatter finally subsides after much discussion and they agree that Pinones, an area well known for its many food stands, and only a short cab ride away, is where to go for this tasty treat. Guess that’s where I’m headed next.

Travel Planner

American Airlines (aa.com) offers service from Toronto to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with a connection in Miami. For more information, visit:

The Puerto Rico Tourism Company: seepuertorico.com

Café Don Ruiz: donruizstore.com

Hotel El Convento: elconvento.com

Island Kayaking, Las Croabas: kayakadventurespr.com

Princesa Gastrobar: princesapr.com

San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino: marriottsanjuan.com

Spoon Food Tours: spoonfoodtours.com

 
 
 
 
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