“Why are we here?” I asked my host Harry. “Wait, just wait” was his reply.
I loved going to Puerto Rico. I would plan these trips in winter when the snow was deep in New York and that bone-chilling wind was trying to kill me. My favorite moment was when doors of the plane opened and that warm, humid, tropical air wafted in.
La Ruta del Lechón
An hour’s drive south from San Juan in the direction of Ponce takes you through the mountains to the town of Guavate. The days to go are Saturday or Sunday. The time, very early because something magical happens in this town and if you don’t get there in a timely manner you will be stuck for hours in a traffic jam while your mouth is salivating from the smell of food.
In English, La Ruta del Lechón means “The Pork Highway.”
Whole roast suckling pigs (Lechón) are slow-cooked over charcoal. It is impossible to count the number of restaurants that flank the road as you drive through the winding thoroughfare. At random we stopped at one of them and sat down. The menu scratched on a blackboard read something like this:
Lechón Asao directo desde Guavate (barbequed pork)
Pollo Asao (Barbequed chicken)
Arroz con Gandules (Rice and beans)
Morcillas (blood sausage)
The portions were massive. A large chunk of melt-in-your-mouth pig served on the plate with all the sides cost around $10 per person. If you asked nicely you could get an ear or, even more delicious, the snout. (A favorite of mine. It tastes a bit like tongue but chewier.)
During lunch a band started to play playing merengue and salsa music. People got up to dance and after a few beers, I joined in.
It is hard to describe just how joyous a meal like this can be. I have eaten in many fine restaurants around the globe but this simple meal, in this setting, perfectly prepared, brings happiness to my heart.
On one trip I visited my friend Harry, who, along with his business partner Mike, ran a cool hi fi store in San Juan called Precision Audio. After doing business Harry said “let’s go out for dinner but I have to first visit my advertising agency.”
The agency was located in a building in one of these lovely painted streets in Old San Juan. While I was waiting for Harry to finish, I noticed a large amount of deep-fried pork rinds packets strewn around the room. The meeting over, I asked the woman who ran the agency why she had all these packs of pork rinds. She laughed and said, “we have been tasked with promoting them as health food. And, if you think that’s funny, I’m Jewish.”
After dinner we strolled over to this grungy dive bar called El Batey. Located on Calle del Cristo in old San Juan, it is small and dark with lamps covered with years of faded business cards taped to the shades. We ordered some Heineken. In those days (the late Eighties), for some reason Heineken was shipped to Puerto Rico in large casks and bottled locally. I was familiar with the original brew bottled in Holland, but this local version tasted odd and after far too many of them a sour, slimy, almost nauseous taste colonized my mouth. At this point I asked, “why are we here?”
Sometime after midnight a car drew up to the door and two of the most beautiful women I have ever seen entered. A short while later, they were joined by another three women of equal beauty. When yet another group of stunning women arrived, Harry smiled, turned to me and said, “now you know why we are here.”
The elegance of the pelicans, dive bombing the water to feed, contrasts with their ungainly waddle on land. They hit the water with such speed that you wonder why they don’t kill themselves. They rise from the sea, spit out the seawater and swallow the fish caught in their pouches.
We would watch them early in the morning as we sipped our café con leche and ate tropical fruit for breakfast.
The Horned Dorset is the luxury hotel in Rincon, a town on the far west of the island. Our villa was on the edge of the Caribbean Sea and it had a plunge pool on our porch. Every morning I would dive naked into this mini pool and let the water wake me up. Breakfast was on the beach under coconut palms ringed with bougainvillea. The sea was calm and the only life on the beach apart from the pelicans was a lonely fisherman who each morning threw his cast net into the sea. His casting was so flawless and precise that he always landed a good catch of small fish.
Rincon is best known for its surfing in winter when the wind drives the currents from the Atlantic to the Caribbean Sea. Not a surfer, I preferred the bars that service that part of town, especially during the spectacular sunsets that draws crowds.
One morning, instead of eating breakfast in the hotel we took a drive up quite a windy road to La Rosa Inglesa (The English Rose). It’s a tearoom/bed and breakfast, perched on the side of a mountain with the most incredible vistas of the sea. It serves real (i.e. strong English) tea and among many other offerings, a wonderful English breakfast: two eggs, sautéed spinach, pork sausage, grilled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, skillet potatoes and homemade toast.
It was so authentically British that the only thing missing was the cold and rain.
One of the things I love about Rincon is its lack of a tourist “downtown” filled with souvenir shops and lousy restaurants. It is just a regular Puerto Rican community that caters to its population while also welcoming tourists.
We have visited Rincon twice. Both times were before Hurricane Maria devastated the island and eroded at least half of Rincon’s eight miles of beach. I hope the beaches and the town can be repaired but knowing the state of both the local and island-wide economy, I doubt it will happen soon.
Header image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Oquendo from Freeport, NY.