Originally inhabited by the aboriginal Taíno people, claimed in 1493 by Christopher Columbus for the Kingdom of Spain, today Puerto Rico is officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a 100 by 35 miles “Island of Enchantment,” and an United States territory (Puerto Rico along with United States Virgin Islands are two Caribbean Islands where American’s can still visit without a passport).
The Tainos, called the land “Borinquen”, “Land of the Valiant Lord.” Even today, Puerto Rican’s endearingly refer to themselves as “Borinqueña“. Despite being on the verge of bankruptcy, Puerto Rico’s spirit remain unwavered, feverishly enjoying the island’s bounties including tropical climate, diverse natural scenery, and endless array of beaches.
Speaking of beaches, there are 78 municipalities in PR, of which 44 have a coastline with the government officially recognizing 248. The island is truly a beach lover’s destination offering hundreds of beaches from simple sun-bathing, snorkeling, to even world-class surfing destinations.
An exhaustive list hard to name all, here are a few highlights. Flamenco Beach, designated the second-best beach in the world by the Discovery Channel. La Playuela includes a wildlife nature reserve with salt flats, an informative welcome center, and a bird sanctuary. The “Blue Beach” (Bahia de la Chiva) renowned for it’s myriad shades of blue on the island of Vieques a snorkeling paradise. Escambron Beach, a rocky beach walking distance from Old San Juan. Island’s surfer’s beach on the West coast of Puerto Rico is Sandy Beach and Rincon. Enjoy a 2 for 1 trip by combining Luquillo Beach with a visit to El Yunque Rainforest. Loiza, the local suburban beach for families with small children includes the bustling Pinones street food scene. A Blue Flag beach, award bestowed for cleanest and environmentally friendly spots, Balneario de Boqueron, managed by Parques Nacionales.
PR boasts an array of historical monument and nature adventures for thrill seekers of all ages. A walk on the narrow cobbled streets of Old San Juan’s is where one can appreciate the colorful history of the Americas through the well-preserved colonial architecture. Bookmark visits to Unesco world heritage sites. El Morro the fortress built by Spanish colonists against attacks from the sea and San Cristóbal, built against land attacks offering breathtaking views of PR’s expansive coastline and Old San Juan.
Set among the Luquillo Mountains in Puerto Rico’s northeast corner is El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest Service system, with 250 inches of rain annually, boasting a plush 28,000 acreage of exotic plant and tree species. Home to the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot and the rarely seen tiny tree frog Coquí, native to the island. Stop by La Coca Falls and La Mina Falls to capture Kodak memories. Some of the most dramatic plant life can be viewed at Palo Colorado Interpretive Center. With a natural affinity to mountains, we could not resist flying like a bird on one of the world’s longest single run zip-line the Beast, with a length of 4.745 feet (1.446 km) approaching speeds up to 60MPH. For our safety no cameras were allowed.
The Rio Camuy Cave Park, a 90-minute drive west of San Juan is a big cave system, formed by the Camuy River, one of the world’s longest underground river. For water lovers, a kayak or boat ride at Las Cabezas Nature Reserve in Fajardo’s bio-luminescent lagoon, shimmering by millions of microscopic dinoflagellates, is a sight to behold.
No Primlani Kitchen adventure is complete without exploring the local flavors. PR cuisine or as locals describe “Cocina Criolla”, is a smorgsboard of Spanish, African, Taíno, and American influences, utilizing indigenous and humble ingredients as coriander, papaya, cacao, nispero, apio, plantains, and yampee.
Staunch advocates of local businesses, our focus remained entirely on local chefs and mom and pop shops to taste the essence of Puerto Rico.
You can’t get anymore Puerto Rican than their highly addictive traditional breakfast pastry called Mallorca, a sweet bread topped with powdered sugar. At Cafeteria Mallorca, the freshly baked buttery Mallorca stuffed with ham and cheese topped with a generous sprinkling of powdered sugar had us squealing like little girls. And yes, we ordered doubles. Primlani Kitchen is planning on attempting to bake these airy delights this coming weekend.
Highly accoladed restaurant Jose Enrique located at La Placita de Santurce was on our lunch bucket list. A native Puerto Ricon, Chef José Enrique, CIA graduate returned to PR in 2007 to open his eponymous restaurant incorporating natural and organic products, focusing on fresh Puerto Rican produce.
One bite of the Deboned Yellowtail Snapper was all it took to recognize Chef Jose’s culinary brilliance. Staying true to his roots, each dish is an exemplary example of PR’s tropical flavors. Served with creamy yams, papaya, avocado, mojo, the local fish yellowtail snapper was freshness served in a plate with a side of island flavor. Healthy and delicious, the avocado salad drizzled with EVOO, garnished with thin red onions and coriander was the ideal pick me up. We thoroughly enjoyed the house made Pork Sausage and Steak with Chickpea Rice. Chef Jose’s philosophy of “fresh is flavorful” resonated in each dish. Bookmark restaurant Jose Enrique to your must do list.
We came for the infamous Spanish sweet pastries, but stayed for their well-dressed Octopus Salad at Kasalta. Apparently President Obama graced Kasalta with a quick visit.
Smack across Kasalta is the locals favorite hang out Pirilo Pizza Rustica located in the upscale neighborhood of Ocean Park. One should laud Ms. Rossana, house mixologist for her brilliant cocktail concoctions. Her unique innovations Genevevo, Pirilo style Sangria seasoned with ginger, almonds, and sesame seeds and Margarepa, Pirilo style Margarita made with Quenepas (sweet luscious fruit with a jelly like consistency), tequila, triple sec, lemon juice, and Don Crispina spicy cocktail with pisco, lemon juice, egg white, campari, and jalapeno were beautifully seasoned, balanced, and vibrant. Bravo Ms. Rossana!! Satisfy your munchies with an array of Italian-Caribbean Fusion dishes.
Speaking of bars, add La Factoria in Old San Juan for happy hour or late night stop while dancing to the beat of salsa or merengue. Whether it’s the beat of bomba y plena, salsa, or reggaeton, there’s a party going on here 24/7. It is the wine bar that has put Puerto Rico on the cocktail lover’s map. Rum is the national drink of Puerto Rico, and you can buy it in almost any shade. Because the island is the world’s leading rum producer, every Puerto Rican bartender likes to concoct his or her own favorite rum libation.
We ended our eating excursion with street food. Pinones steeped with traditions handed down from Puerto Rico’s African heritage, is synonymous with beach shacks and street food, available in fried, grilled, and live treats such as oysters/crab cooked to your liking. We noshed on Beef Alcapurria (stuffed yuca fritters), Pinchos (grilled chicken or beef), and Bacalaitos (flat cod fritter) while cooling down with chilled Medallas (local beer). For under 21, Piraguas shaved ice cone doused generously with island flavors of guava, passion fruit, tamarind, coconut, a cool respite from PR’s blistering sun.
Without a car at our disposal, we had to skip the Pork Highway, La Ruta del Lechón offering open fire roasted pork stands or lechoneras for suckling pig delicacies.
It is understandable how some can view Puerto Rico as a step child of the Caribbean Islands in comparison to the glitzzy and glamorous St. Barts or Turks and Caicos. Blessed with towering mountains, plush rainforest, white sandy beaches, and a vibrant culture forged from a mix of Caribbean, Hispanic, African, and U.S. influences, one can capture the essence of Puerto Rican soul in their national anthem, “La Borinqueña,” which describes the island as a “flowering garden of exquisite magic, the daughter of the sea and the sun.”
Puerto Rican’s dance to their unique beat, hearts filled with patriotic pride, excel at living life large. Perhaps we American’s could learn a lesson or two how to relish and savor each day. Did I mention they can play ball, especially volleyball!