The 4th of July weekend, and I’m off to Puerto Rico. It’s just a 1 hour flight but, with all the waiting at the airport and the grind through US immigration, the whole thing took around 5 ½ hours door to door.
On arrival in San Juan, it strikes you as any other US city – tall buildings, good roads, new cars…except everything’s in Spanish. It’s amazing how a place can be American and Spanish at the very same time.
I have never understood the difference between Puerto Rico and other Latin American destinations, so here goes.
Puerto Rico is a Caribbean island northwest of St Kitts, just east of the Dominican Republic. Until 1898, it was wholly Spanish, but after the Spanish-American War, the US inherited it as a territory under the Treaty of Paris. Residents of Puerto Rico are US citizens, although they don’t vote for the President. But then again they don’t pay federal taxes either, so would you complain? They struggle between wanting their independence, and not at all minding the financial support that the US gives them. Plus, their no 1 industry is tourism from the US.
It’s famous for its coffee, and inventing the pina colada, the salsa (the dance, not the dip) and Selma Hayek.
I decided to splurge and stayed at El Convento, a converted Carmelite convent (one taxi driver described it as “Caramelised” at which point I had Masterchef withdrawals). It’s in Old San Juan which, as you would expect, is the old part of town. El Convento was established back in the day that unmarried women were regarded as financial burdens on their families (boo!) and if they wanted to enter a convent had to travel to Cuba or even farther flung destinations. A rich widow established the place, became mother superior, and invited in poor unmarried souls to stay. After the nuns left, it became a dance hall and ultimately fell into disrepair until Woolworth (of the US Woolworth dynasty) bought it and spared no expense converting it into the most famous hotel around, attracting Hollywood and actual royalty. Even today it’s the No 1 hotel in Old San Juan, and the service was charming and incredibly friendly.
San Juan is renowned in the Caribbean for its cuisine: not just Puerto Rican or Spanish, but great food from many different regions. On my first evening, I had a reservation at Pikayo, one of the top restaurants on the island, famous for its neuvo Puerto Rican food. The decor was all bright and modern lighting, and waiters fled by in their crisp white button-up shirts. I ordered the tasting menu, which was 5 courses.
Each course came out of the kitchen as if it was on speed – my head span as all 5 of them were served within around 50 minutes, often one dish arriving just as its predecessor’s empty plate was whisked away. The meal kicked off with perfectly cooked fois gras, then a beetroot and cream cheese salad with hazelnut sauce. It kind of went downhill after that, with prawns and chorizo sausages in a combination I was assured would work, but didn’t. Oddly, all savoury courses were accompanied with sweet sauces, something that was fine on one or two dishes, but a little much on all of them. Even the butter was flavoured with honey and toasted sesame seeds. Then, in a strange twist, dessert was two mini soufflés, one of which was gruyere cheese and guava sauce, which didn’t 100% work either.
I did find out later that Puerto Rican cuisine is traditionally a mix of sweet and savoury, so that probably explains it. Even so, I found the meal a tad odd and enjoyed other meals there more.
It really didn’t matter, though; it was exciting being somewhere that was so Spanish. Luckily, in Old San Juan at least, people are able to switch from English to Spanish and back again with no effort. However, by the end of my first day of rather sad “Ola’s” and “Gracias’s” I realised that, if I stood any hope when I finally visit Cuba and Mexico, I’m gonna have to get me some Spanish under my belt.