Puerto Rico was always on my “must visit” list; however, it wasn’t the highest priority. That is, until, Anthony Bourdain visited Puerto Rico’s Pork Highway on his show No Reservations. That’s right, a PORK HIGHWAY. I’ll come back to this tasty road in a bit but I assure you it’s a gastronomic party. Now, while Puerto Ricans love their pork and it is used as a meal centerpiece, in side dishes, vegetables and its skin fried up for chicharones, there are many other regional specialties using local ingredients like plantains, seafood, fruits, legumes and leaves. Puerto Rican cuisine is influenced by Spanish, African and the indigenous Taino people making the food especially delectable. There is also a huge contingent of Puerto Ricans in Hawaii due to the increased demand in Hawaiian sugar after Puerto Rico’s sugar industry was distressed by hurricanes in 1899. Being that my family is from Hawaii and the local cuisine is a mix of the best offerings from all of the immigrant communities plus my husband is part Puerto Rican (and Hawaiian), the food from this Caribbean island has been a lifetime favorite.
Since I like to take lots of vacations, I tend to do short and very regiment trips to maximize weekend travel. I travel alone for pleasure and work, with my husband, friends or family. My traveling companions for this trip was my mom and my auntie, both world travelers; however are now in their 70’s so I make sure transportation is going to be easy for them. Puerto Rico was a last minute, short trip landing us in San Juan on a Friday evening and leaving on Monday morning so I took a chance and didn’t book a hotel room until the day we left on Hotwire (a subsidiary of Expedia). I know this seems risky but there were a ton of rooms available for our weekend of travel so I took a chance and got the four-star Wyndham Grand Rio Resort for only $100 per night. Pro-tip: most hotels use websites such as Hotwire or Hotel Tonight to get rid of their unsold rooms anywhere from 24 to 72 hours before so if you play your cards right, you could get a really amazing deal. I only do the last-minute hotel option if my travel isn’t during a high-traffic season or holiday because this could backfire and you could be stuck at a one-star hotel overlooking garbage-filled alley because nothing else was available. For the majority of my travel, I book through Expedia but always check on Kayak and Google to see if I’m getting the best rate (which is usually the case). Expedia is great because it’s easy to use, offers special discounts and perks the more you use it (yep, I’m at the Ministry of Magic gold level), offers additional discounts when using their mobile app and has amazing customer service.
As I really only had two full days in Puerto Rico and I’m with my feisty senior citizen mom and auntie, I had to be strategic on what we did. There are some cool things to do in and near the ocean like snorkeling and cool sea caves but since my family is from Hawaii (another tropical island), it didn’t appeal to them. Our first day I planned to star in the countryside and the second was to hit all of the tourist destinations in Old San Juan.
Friday, Day 1
We arrive at San Juan airport at about 8pm then we picked up our rental car and drove to the Wyndham Grand Rio Resort located at the base of the El Yunque rain forest, about 35 minutes from Old San Juan. We weren’t hungry for dinner so we just grabbed cocktails, ate some free bar snacks and headed to bed since we had an early start the next day.
Saturday, Day 2
We headed to Rio Grande, the small town close to our countryside resort in search of the infamous quesito, a pastry filled with sweetened cheese topped with a sticky, sugary glaze and strong island coffee for breakfast. Yelp guided me to La Familia Bakery, a small bakery and restaurant off the main highway. I knew it was going to be delicious because there was a line of locals out the door to get in. Pro-tip: if locals are willing to stand in line, it’s gonna be good. Not only were the quesitos good, the guava cheese pastry, rice pudding and their café con leche (latte for you Muggles) were delightful.
After breakfast, we took the road up the mountain to El Yunque, the only rain forest in the United States national forest system. El Yunque is one of the smallest rainforests in the world covering 29,000 acres of land and is home to over 100 unique animal, plant and insects that are unique to this forest. As you go higher up the mountain, the road becomes darker with the overhang of beautiful trees and plants surrounding you on both sides. When we arrive at the El Yunque visitor’s center, we find that it is closed and the road further up the mountain was blocked off. Before we arrived in Puerto Rico, the island received a deluge of rain and some of the trails and viewpoints were unsafe. Broken-hearted, we turned around and headed down the mountain towards the beach to our lunch destination.
We arrive at the Luquillo Beach food kiosks, an entire block of independently owned seaside food stands specializing in local Puerto Rican and seafood favorites. And best part of it all? The food is good and cheap! Pro-tip: some of the best food is located away from the major tourist areas and is usually a lot more affordable. At first glance, you’ll see many of the stands with deep fried small football looking treats in their cases called alcapurrias. These plantain fritters are stuffed with seasoned meats and seafood and run you about $1 to $2 a piece. You’ll also see empanadas of all types and bacalaitos, hand-sized flat fritters made of seasoned salted cod. Don’t get too full off the fritters because they are just the appetizers to the main event. At the end of the kiosks is La Parrilla, your entrance to seafood bliss. When you walk in, you’ll see multiple tanks holding varied sizes of spiny lobster. Don’t get too attached though, they are the star meal. My aunt and I split the lobster stuffed with grouper and shrimp in a creamy cheese sauce and it came with beans, rice and salad for about $30. Now, where else can you get a meal of that quality for just $30 feeding two people? The lobster meat was light and sweet bathed in lemon and butter while the grouper and shrimp stuffing was decadent swimming in a cheese bath. The buttered rice, pork-infused beans and lightly dressed salad were the perfect accompaniment to the lobster. One of the best meals I’ve had on my travels, I cannot wait to come back! PSG2 rating.
Since our El Yunque rain forest adventure didn’t pan out and had some time before our next destination, we went to the local grocery store and picked up local snacks like chicharones, plantain chips, spice mixes, coffee and candy to bring home then headed back to the resort. Pro-tip: get your souvenir snacks at a grocery store; it’s usually cheaper than the tourist area stores with more selection. After a few hours of relaxation, we drive the 90 minute trek to the infamously delicious Pork Highway. As we exited the freeway, we see signs for PR-184 leading up a mountain towards Cayey, our flavortown destination. Halfway up the mountain, you’ll start seeing and smelling the roadside pork stands taunting you to stop but don’t give in! Head to the mountain top to Lechonera Los Pinos, the ultimate palace of porky goodness.
As you pull into the ample parking lot on a Saturday evening, you’ll hear the lively tunes of neighborhoods band while locals and tourists alike are strutting their stuff on the dance floor in the middle of this food stand. As you enter the establishment, you’ll see glistening deep mahogany roasted pigs (lechons) on a spit beckoning you to come close. As you wait in line, scope out the lechons and determine your top choices of pig parts if that’s what you’re into. Pro-tip: lechon cheeks often are the first to go. We opted to get a little bit of everything on the lechon and added some sweet plantains, tostones (deep fried savory plantains), pastele (local plantain, yautia and pork tamales steamed in banana leaves), empanada, pink beans and arroz con gandules (rice with pork and pigeon peas). As our lechonero whacked his machete, you can hear the sweet sound of crunchy skin cracking under force and you are suddenly ravenous. I didn’t ask any prices nor remember there being a menu, I just pointed to all of the delicious things I wanted and it was dished up. I didn’t care about the cost, I was at the pork palace of dream and my body was ready. We took our tray to the cashier thinking this is at least $40+ worth of food but it came out to only about $20! To enhance the flavor and cut through the fattiness of the pork, Los Pinos offers mild and spice garlic, herb and spiced vinegars that I encourage you to try. The spicy vinegar sauce was so good, I ended up dousing everything with it. The lechon skin was absolutely heavenly; a mixture of salty, crispy and chewy all in the same bite while the meat was soft and unctuous. All of the side dishes were fantastic and we even had leftovers to enjoy for the long drive back to our resort. The Pork Highway is a must-do for any foodie headed to Puerto Rico. PSG1 rating.
Sunday, Day 3
Our first order of business in Old San Juan to eat breakfast so we made our way to the most well-known and beloved bakeries in the area, Kasalta. Known for both the pastries and sandwiches, Kasalta is a breakfast and lunch staple for locals and tourists alike that even President Obama has his own bronze placard table there! Quesitos were already a given but I needed some extra sustenance for the day ahead so I also got a mushroom omelet to punch up the protein. While the omelet was a solid one, it wasn’t anything special but let me say the quesitos were to die for. I truly understand why the sweet baked cheesy pastries at Kasalta are voted the best on the island. PSG1 rating.
We drive to Castillo de San Cristobal, the largest Spanish built fort in the New World. All the forts on Puerto Rico are part of the San Juan National Historic Site, maintained and operated by the U.S. National Park Service. Same-day entrance for Castillo de San Cristobal, Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, Fort of San Juan de la Cruz, San Juan City Walls and the Devil’s Sentry Box is only $5. Additionally there is a free tourist trolley that picks up at all of the major tourist destinations in Old San Juan so you don’t have to walk in the intense humid heat to each fort. Stepping into these forts transports you to the time of colonial America, pirates and wenches. Incredibly well-preserved structures harkening to days past with breathtaking views, relics and history. The San Juan National Historic Site is a must-do tourist destination in Puerto Rico. PSG4 rating due to lots of stairs, steep ramps, uneven surfaces.
We take the trolley to the main tourist area off of Calle Forteleza to peruse the shops and grab a snack. Since cruise ships were in-port, there were lots of street performers, bands and street vendors selling handcrafted merchandise and local food favorites. I wasn’t extremely hungry so I purchased some dulce de coco, a soft brown sugar and coconut candy that is Puerto Rican favorite and a chicken empanada from street vendor and sat on a bench to enjoy the warm breeze and live entertainment. We took the trolley heading back to our car at Castillo de San Cristobal, waved at La Forteleza, the Governor’s mansion as we passed by and jumped in our car. PSG2 rating.
Casa Bacardi is about 25 minutes away from Old San Juan and when you enter this lush complex you’re greeted by the infamous bat logo on the gates. In addition to ample free parking, the open-air welcome center has a bistro, multiple bars and clean restrooms. There are three different tours you can take at Casa Bacardi, a historical, rum tasting and mixologist. We opted for the $15 historical tour which gets you a souvenir Bacardi glass, a rum cocktail of your choice and a walking tour in their lovely air conditioned museum building. As we waited for our tram to take us to our tour, we grabbed our rum-filled drink and relaxed. The humid heat of Puerto Rico in the late spring can tucker you out so be sure to hydrate with plenty of water! The walking tour was only about 30 minutes and you learn about the how Don Facundo Bacardi grew is Cuban rum empire in the late 1800’s, relocation of the distillery to Puerto Rico and all of the different offerings this brand has to offer. As with most tours, it ended in the gift shop where you can sample the rum of the day, purchase some rum and swag to bring home. Really cool experience for a mere $15. PSG2 rating.
It’s dinnertime and our last night in Puerto Rico so we head to the most well-known restaurant in Old San Juan, Raices. There is a parking lot right across from the restaurant and they have a nice sitting area outside to accommodate for the lengthy waits. I noticed that there weren’t a lot of locals eating, this could be because Old San Juan is extremely touristy and the cruise ships were in-port so I was a little concerned but I was hungry. Pro-tip: if locals aren’t eating at the establishment, it’s either not the best food the area has to offer or the price is too high. After about 45 minutes, we were seated and it took forever for someone to take our order, bring our food and they never really checked on us after service. I’m not being a jerk here, I understand it was busy but in reading other Yelp reviews it was on-par. I can actually forgive crappy service if the food was stellar but I have to say, it was only about 3 out of 5 stars. We ordered the mofongo (fried plantains mashed with pork fat, skin and garlic) topped with skirt steak and mofongo topped with garlic shrimps and a roasted chicken plate. The chicken was dry and had no flavor but I won’t fault Raices for that. My mom was over eating pork and wanted something lighter and ordered it despite it not being one of their specialties. Pro-tip: always go for the restaurant specialties, they are often the best items on the menu. The mofongo; however, is what the restaurant is known for but it was incredibly disappointing. The plantain mash was extremely dry with no flavor and needed more pork fat and garlic and the skirt steak and garlic shrimp were just average. I’ve had better mofongo in Miami! How could this be the most well-known restaurant in Old San Juan? I think it’s because the tourists come here aren’t familiar Puerto Rican food and give Raices a rating that is higher than it deserves. The food at the inexpensive Luquillo food kiosks and lechoneras on Pork Highway blew this food out of the water. Don’t let me deter you from trying this, I told you I grew up on this food so I have a pretty high standard to which I am holding Raices to. I shan’t be returning to Raices. PSG 1 rating.
The next morning, we flew back home. I hope to bring my travel-hesitant mother-in-law who was born in Hawaii but is full Puerto Rican someday so she can see the land of her forebears, savor the flavors and explore the aina (Hawaiian for land). Plus, I need more lechon!
See you at the next delicious destination!