Story and photos by Alicia Kennedy
Alicia Kennedy is an impassioned food & travel writer based in Brooklyn and loves sharing everything from recipes to fascinating conversations from interesting people. To learn more, check out her blog, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Amid economic turmoil, entrepreneurs breathe new life into communities.
As my plane landed in San Juan, I noticed the crystal blue ocean on one side and a square factory printed with a roof-sized Goya logo on the other. It was cliché, too easy a juxtaposition: the beach, a plate of rice and beans — here is the popular understanding of Puerto Rico laid out for you. But the culture here is shifting. As a younger generation has begun to take over, they’ve naturally moved toward a new way of doing things. This way involves a local focus and a more nuanced, historical approach to what Puerto Rican culture is, with an eye toward keeping money circulating on the island. “Local” and “sustainable” might seem like buzzwords, but here it’s a day-to-day way of life. So whether you fly in or arrive on a cruise ship to Old San Juan, you will be missing out on a wealth of experience if you spend your trip only eating mofongo and drinking piña coladas at Barrachina.
By all means, you should do those things and more: hike the beautiful El Yunque rain forest; enjoy frozen drinks on the beach; eat at chef-driven, truly farm-to-table restaurants; wander to Santurce to look at massive, political street art; and take a day trip to the west coast to visit surf towns and businesses run by locals enriching their communities. From bohemian guest houses to galleries to innovative designs, San Juan and other areas of Puerto Rico are being revitalized at the core — even amid economic turmoil — by the artists, writers, chefs and entrepreneurs who want to see their home flourish. To travel to the island without immersing yourself a bit deeper would be doing yourself a disservice.
Ocean Park’s Dreamcatcher Guest House is the perfect home base for seeing and doing more. It opened in 2012 by interior designer Sylvia de Marco, who had been living and working abroad for 15 years before returning to the island. What began as a home and retreat for her friends turned into a thriving business, providing an iconoclastic escape. It’s a vegetarian bed-and-breakfast with no TVs, and there are quiet hours after 10 p.m. There are yoga classes and bike tours for guests, who are also given a hand-drawn map of the local area and small businesses. The Guest House is a scene of tranquility with hammocks hanging from the porch and in rooms. A quiet ocean beach is just one block over and only short drive to other, livelier, areas of the city as well.
Old San Juan, for example, is a quick 15-minute drive. While it can feel overwhelmingly touristy, with its gift shops and chain stores, it’s easy to spend a day in San Juan enjoying the candy-colored colonial architecture and supporting locally owned businesses. Make your way to Cuatro Sombras for locally sourced Puerto Rican coffee and sandwiches; a perfect place to fuel up for walking around. Cool down with a paleta, or ice pop, at Señor Paleta and take in incredible ocean views.
You also must stop by designer Matilsha Marxuach’s shop Concalma, which sells her own line of handbags as well as products by other local designers. Marxuach started her handbag line in 2006 because she wanted to create high-quality, fair trade, and locally manufactured products. “These were non-negotiable,” she told me. There isn’t much manufacturing left on the island, but its legacy of sewing continues. In fact, Marxuach’s bags are produced at a co-op in a mountainous region. The store opened in 2008 and now stocks other local designers — like Tres Tristes, which creates nostalgic, tropical housewares and accessories with illustrations by artists such as Lorraine Rodriguez. Because of the shop’s central location, it has become a platform for promoting fair trade. “It’s not just a store to buy something beautiful; it has a mission behind it. It’s also been a lab for other designers to launch their products,” Marxuach said.
La Factoría’s Cofresi is dedicated to that ideal. In addition to La Factoría, he has taken over his father’s former pottery studio-turned-bar La Alcapurria Quemá, located in Santurce’s La Placita. Although the area is known as a place where people come after work to drink and dance in the streets, more upscale spots like Jose Enrique and Santaella have opened. It’s at La Alcapurria Quemá, though, that you can order pasteles and enjoy the traditional meat-stuffed plantain fritter known as alcapurria, formed in large leaves and made to order. Cofresi and chef Pedro Andrés Cruz are using the space as a platform to elevate traditional cuisine; they even bring in outside chefs to do special dishes, making them commit to $8 plates and a hectic pace.
The 25-year-old Cruz had been cooking in Spain at two- and three-Michelin star restaurants and staged at Grant Achatz’s Next in Chicago, where he was offered a job. “He’s absurdly good at such a young age,” Cofresi boasts. He turned it down to return to Puerto Rico, where he and Cofresi are working to build a restaurant group that seeks to enhance the experience of dining out on the island. For them, the economy isn’t a challenge but an opportunity. “The economy is bad so people aren’t going to invest in restaurants,” Cofresi says. “People who are creative are going to just do it — in the most basic, naked way possible. The economy’s bad, maybe for government, banks, but people are always gonna eat and they’re always gonna drink.”
Here, at the bar in La Placita making traditional food, Cruz is learning the business and using the knowledge he’s acquired to impart both discipline and deeper flavor into the cuisine that every Puerto Rican is already intimately familiar with. They’re also using as much local produce as possible, buying up 1,000 pounds of green bananas per week from various farmers.
These efforts are a part of a wider movement toward true farm-to-table food on an island that has seen its native agriculture mowed down for exported sugar and industrialization. Xavier Pacheco, chef at the not-to-be-missed La Jaquita Baya in Miramar, is president of the Asociación Gastronómica Puertorriqueña. Its membership began with four chefs and now it numbers in the hundreds. The mission: fighting to get more Puerto Rican–grown food into the island’s kitchens. They’ve made great progress, even getting hotels on board, which is a huge boon because of how much product they buy.
Pacheco uses 80 percent local ingredients, with which he makes “humble, simple food with nice techniques,” like local beef heart fricassee, poached free-range eggs and white rice with ajies dulces. There is also a stall in the restaurant where you can pick up produce for yourself. “I’ve been in Spain, I’ve been in Miami — but the best part is when you start traveling in your own house and you start rediscovering a lot of really cool stuff and using it here,” Pacheco says. “It’s like a very big playground.”
The idea that Puerto Rico can be a playground for its people has gained traction. While the agricultural renaissance on the island has been a focal point, other areas of cultural life are also flourishing. In writing, art and more, Puerto Ricans are finding out what is possible when they work with what the island has to offer.
From bookstore owners to bread makers, working people are redefining the culture.
Make the best of your Puerto Rico trip, and check out these recommended shopping, food and entertainment spots from renowned travel writer Alicia Kennedy.