Puerto Ricans are proud of and passionate about their culture, which blends indigenous, Spanish and African traditions. You can taste the melting pot of influences in dishes like mofongo and arroz con gandules. You can hear it in the music, from bomba to reggaeton.
On previous excursions to this balmy Caribbean island and U.S. territory, I hiked through the El Yunque rainforest; toured the colorful, cobblestoned streets of Old San Juan; and snapped Instagram-worthy photos of the street art murals in San Juan’s trendy neighborhood of Santurce. Most recently, on a holiday season trip, I explored a few smaller Puerto Rico provinces, notably the mountainside town of Cayey and the seaside town of Loiza.
Nicknamed “The City of Fog,” Cayey is about an hour from San Juan and its elevation of 1,500 feet above sea level makes it cooler than Puerto Rico’s beach towns. Pork lovers flock to the neighborhood of Guavete for its Ruta del Lechon, a winding strip of cafeteria-style restaurants that sell roast pork by the pound, as well as hearty side dishes like fried plantains, pastels and cassava, and picnic staples like macaroni and potato salads.
In Cayey’s town square, there’s a striking blue Spanish colonial church, a muraled amphitheater and three distinctive stone carvings representing the Three Kings. Across from the plaza, music flows from the Casa de la Música en Cayey. An upstairs wall in the historic building is adorned with covers of albums by local artists and a Menudo album is casually displayed on an old record player. This community organization’s mission is to retain the town’s music history, and it offers free music classes and workshops.
On the sunny December day I popped in, a group of festive seniors dressed in holiday flair hosted a Christmas party. A welcoming woman offered me a cup of coquito, Puerto Rico’s traditional holiday cocktail made with creamy coconut, rum and warm spices. Another amiable elder named Carmen told me she was a native New Yorker who has happily lived in Cayey for more than 40 years.
A short drive from San Juan, Loiza is perhaps best known for its chill beachside community of Pinones, a popular place to eat fritters, drink fruit frappes and hang out on weekends. It’s also where visitors can soak up the island’s Afro-Caribbean culture through art and dance. Loiza was settled in the 16th century by enslaved people from the West African Yoruba tribe, and the town still has the largest Black population on the island. For me, it felt like an ancestral homecoming.
Samuel Lind’s art studio (Estudio de Arte Samuel Lind) is a great place to start a cultural heritage tour. Through visceral sculptural works and vibrant portraits and screen prints, the talented yet humble artist pays homage to the island’s Black and indigenous people. In addition, you’ll see a collection of the area’s trademark: horned vejigantes masks fashioned from coconuts. These jarring symbols are peppered throughout Loiza and play a central role in the annual Festival of Saint James, which takes over the town in July with a weeklong flurry of parades, processions and live music.
A bomba dance class on the beach was a highlight and gave me a glimpse of festival life. Led by lovely teacher N’Zambi (Taller de Bomba N’Zambi), I danced in a circle of diverse women, all of us wearing billowy skirts and moving to the rhythmic beat of live drumming. Ashe.
Tours to take:
Sofrito Tours (https://www.instagram.com/sofritotours/) for historical and gastronomic tours of Cayey and other areas.
Bespoke Lifestyle Management (https://bespokeconcierge.com/tours/) for the Loiza Heritage Tour. Ask for Frankie, an animated guide and history buff.
Food and drink recommendations:
Chef Natalia Vallejo’s Cocina al Fondo in Santurce is set in a cozy backyard with chirping coquis. The menu favors traditional flavors with an upscale twist.
La Unidad is a sexy speakeasy hidden on a residential street in San Juan’s Miramar nabe. Go for the model-esque servers and creative cocktails.
Operated by a handsome couple, El Grifo is a vegan eatery in the urban center of Caguas that even non-vegans will love. The restaurant will reopen in early January, and plant-based cooking classes are also available.
Where to stay:
The beachfront San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino in the lively Condado neighborhood boasts refreshed rooms and suites with ocean views. Pick up freshly baked breads and pastries from the lobby cafe.