Puerto Rico Awaits, Ready for Visitors

Cueva Ventana has a large window overlooking the valley and the city of Arecibo.
Cueva Ventana has a large window overlooking the valley and the city of Arecibo. Anne Braly photos.

Traveling is Still Rough, but the Island is Ready for Visitors and Mofongo Awaits

By Anne P. Braly

The road across Puerto Rico is pockmarked with signs of wear, with potholes and, in some places, crumbling pavement marks the way.

Fresh juices are prepared and sold outside the entrance to Cueva Ventana.
Fresh juices are prepared and sold outside the entrance to Cueva Ventana.

But the beauty of this mountainous west-central region of the Island of Enchantment comes from its quiet remoteness.

It's a place where horses run wild, crossing fast-flowing streams that thread their way through mountains lush with tall grasses, towering trees, and flowering vines.

Mofongo is made differently from restaurant to restaurant. At Oceano, a Condada Beach favorite, it's made with yuca and served as a side dish.
Mofongo is made differently from restaurant to restaurant. At Oceano, a Condado Beach favorite, it's made with yuca and served as a side dish.

New construction looks out of place next to old cinder-block homes, tropical kudzu eating its way through crumbling mortar.

As our driver and tour operator Carlos Andinos navigates a rain-filled pothole, he informs us, "By the way, this is still a main state road."

One Lane?

A truck narrowly misses us as it passes by. The two-lane road is what we on the American mainland would consider suitable for one lane only.

But in the less-traveled areas of Puerto Rico, once you're off the main highways, all in excellent condition, this is typical of what you might encounter--rough, but passable. And it’s all part of the adventure.

Reconstruction

The island was devastated when hurricane Maria slammed into and engulfed Puerto Rico with torrential rains and winds in excess of 200 miles per hour in September of 2017. Electricity was out for days, if not weeks and months, many homes were left blown away, and if they remained, a majority suffered damage that ranged from severe to moderate.

Doors were ripped from their hinges and many windows were shattered. Simply getting a gallon of gasoline for a generator might have taken hours, with major roads torn apart and long lines upon arrival at the gas station.

Now, 98 percent of the island has electricity. Tour operators are back in business. And the high season for tourism has begun. An island that had no Christmas last year is celebrating once again.

Hijos del Josco restaurant in Puerto Rico.
Hijos del Josco restaurant in Puerto Rico.

A New Chapter

“Maria opened a page for a new chapter for us,” says Will Marrero, general manager of Hyatt House and Hyatt Place, two hotels in San Juan that never closed. “And we know about new chapters. The recovery on the island has been amazing.”

But is the island back to normal? From the look of things upon arrival in San Juan, the sole commercial airport on the island, yes. Query the locals, though, and it all depends on whom you ask. Some say 50 percent, while others say 60 and even 98 percent.

Sitting on the plane on my way home to the mainland I asked the fellow sitting next to me, Luis Martin, a native Puerto Rican, and he might have given the best answer of all.

“I don’t think it will ever be like it was before Maria,” he said. Then smiled. “But the hurricane may just have made it better. It's a new Puerto Rico. We need the tourists to return."

And from my experience, Puerto Rico is ready to enchant visitors with its hospitality, its food,its beaches, it's adventures, and the magical choir of coqui frogs singing in unison after a soft evening rain.

Caves in Puerto Rico have interesting rock formations and were used by native tribes as ceremonial locations.
Caves in Puerto Rico have interesting rock formations and were used by native tribes as ceremonial locations.

The Caves

Puerto Rico has a tremendous network of more than 2,000 caves filled with impressive rock formations, stalactites, stalagmites and, in some cases, petroglyphs showing the art of ancient Indians who once inhabited the island. Only 10 percent of the caves have been surveyed, several of which are open to the public with guided tours.

Cueva del Indio cave, perched on a breathtaking strip of beach near Arecibo, is a good example of the Taino Indian culture. Hollywood took notice, too, and used the setting in movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean. The ocean floor is rocky, so the beach is best left for sunbathing and walking.

But as I walked over a small hill and gazed out on the Atlantic, I pictured it as the Indians might have centuries ago: azure blue waters lapping against a beach strewn with bits of nature and palm trees towering overhead; giant limestone boulders as big as small islands standing guard not far from shore.

The road to get there is a good one, about an hour west of San Juan. Four portable outhouses, located to one side of the parking lot, are hosed down regularly, so take advantage. The self-guided tour, which you’ll pay $5 for before leaving the parking area, takes about 45 minutes over rocky terrain, so wear sturdy shoes.

There is no longer a ladder to descend into the cave, so you stand and look down into an open room where the Taino people held meetings and made numerous carvings on its walls. Petroglyphs pre-date Columbus' arrival to the island in 1493.

Horses run wild along the river that flows alongside Hijos del Josco in Otuado, a town in the west-central region of Puerto Rico not often visited by tourists.
Horses run wild along the river that flows alongside Hijos del Josco in Otuado, a town in the west-central region of Puerto Rico not often visited by tourists.

Cueva Ventana offers a window to the world. Translated as “window cave,” the guided tour ($19) takes helmeted spelunkers through two caves, the first of which is a flat, easy walk with interesting rock formations. The second cave is connected to the first and takes a little more muscle to maneuver boulders and archways, ends in a magnificent opening that overlooks Arecibo and the canyon below. Slippery when wet is something to remember, so wear boots or tennis shoes.

You’ll pass bathrooms on the path leading to the cave entrance, as well as a hut where a woman sells fresh juices, coconut milk, tamarind and mavi among them.

Find Chinchorros

Cueva Ventana is more of a commercial enterprise than Cueva del Indio, but it doesn’t take long to drive to areas of the island less-populated by the tourism trade _ those towns and villages known mostly to the locals where restaurants cater to the local palate in large restaurants and small chinchorros, hole-in-the-wall eateries where you’ll find rustic foods, such as tostones, grilled meats, and fried plantains.

Chinchorros are so common, a noun has been turned into a verb. The act of visiting a chinchorro is called chinchorrear, and it’s something you must do at least once before leaving the island.

Since Puerto Rico is an American commonwealth, no passports are needed, as are no roaming or international data plans Just plug in the address and follow the directions. Some cell phone carriers work better than others. You’re in luck if you have AT&T or T-Mobile. Don’t count on Verizon getting you where you want to go.

Puerto Rico Island Experiences

Bacardi rum distillery.
Bacardi rum distillery.

When planning your trip to the Island of Enchantment, here are five things you don’t want to miss:

  1. Visit Old San Juan. It’s a small island off the coast connected by a bridge to the mainland. San Cristobal Fort, built by the Spanish in 1521, is a fortress that wraps around Old San Juan, an island now filled with shops, rum bars, and historic sites.
  2. Experience salsa _ dancing and music _ at La Placita de Santurce in San Juan.
  3. Take a tour of the Bacardi distillery, sample the spirits and learn its history _ how it became one of the legendary rums of Puerto Rico.
  4. Hit the beach. Puerto Rico is surrounded by the Caribbean Sea to its south and the Atlantic Ocean on the north. Among the most-popular beaches found around the island is Rincon on the west coast and Isla Verde Beach in San Juan.
  5. Zipline through the rainforest at Toro Verde in Orocovis. It’s the tallest and longest zip line in the world.

Searching for Mofongo

Mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish, is made with plantains at Hoecho en Casa in Old San Juan and served as an entree with chicken and white wine sauce.
Mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish, is made with plantains at Hoecho en Casa in Old San Juan and served as an entree with chicken and white wine sauce.

Mofongo is a beloved dish for Puerto Ricans, one that pays tribute to the island’s culture. Visit any restaurant, and you’re likely to find it on the menu _ but don’t count on having the same recipe from place to place.

In its most traditional form, you’ll find it made with mashed plantains and garlic, perhaps dressed up with a Creole sauce and stuffed with seafood or chicken.

Cassava root and yucca are also used. It’s a starchy side dish much like mashed potatoes, only with a sturdier texture.

The farm-to-table movement has taken hold in Puerto Rico, with millennials going back to their roots, opening restaurants in the larger cities, and older restaurants in smaller towns attracting a new wave of diners interested in learning more about foods, such as mofongo, indigenous to the island.

Oceanside at Oceano

My first night in Puerto Rico, we found ourselves relishing the warm air of Condado Beach, sitting on an oceanside terrace at Oceano. It was packed that Tuesday night with locals and tourists, a good indication of the return of business and tourism to the island.

The restaurant specializes in fare that marries modern Caribbean cuisine with that of the island’s heritage. Here, you’ll find mofongo made with yuca and served as a side dish to colossal shrimp. It’s also made into a vegetarian entree mashed with carrots, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, snow peas mushrooms, tomatoes, and roasted pepper coulis.

The next day, our group found mofongo served with chicken and a white wine sauce at Hecho en Casa in Old San Juan.

And, if you find yourself off the beaten path in Utuado, dinner at Hijos del Josco is an experience that might include mofongo made with plantains and sauteed vegetables.

The open-air restaurant is along that road freckled with potholes--that same old road that Andinos reminded us was the main road in town-- you’re in for an afternoon of music, dancing and some of the most authentic food in the area, along a river where the horses run wild.

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