Salsa to surf: a Puerto Rican road trip

In Puerto Rico, we find an island of people who are reclaiming their heritage through art, music, food and culture, even as they infuse the old with the new.

Every day, chef Jose Enrique roams the old Mercado in the Santurce area of San Juan, holding ripe pineapples to his nose, feeling avocados and limes, inquiring about yuccas or sweet potatoes, greeting the farmers. He picks fragrant coriander, turmeric and mangoes, grabs ripe plantains from hanging bunches and walks back to his tiny kitchen in a nearby colonial house painted a bright fuchsia. Along with two assistants, he whips up tangy ceviches, crisp salads, whole fried snapper and recipes he poetically adapts from his country's traditional cuisine, such as mofongo, an iconic dish of mashed roots topped with stewed meat or seafood, or the rice and beans dish most Puerto Ricans eat every day. The fish comes daily from the north of the island.

“I have to work harder to find the best local ingredients,” says the tall, broad-shouldered 40-year-old, wiping the sweat around his thick glasses. “Everything tastes so much better.”

Enrique is part of a generation of young Puerto Ricans reclaiming their heritage – chefs, artists, mixologists and musicians who are drawing from the traditions of their island and its tropical landscapes. Paralysed by a looming debt crisis and a historical struggle with America, which took over the island from Spaniards in 1898, Puerto Ricans are celebrating the essence of their identity, a blend of Native Indian, Spanish, African, Dutch and American influences. With limited means they have taken over makeshift galleries and ghostly alleys, rundown theatres and repurposed shacks.

Old San Juan overlooks the sea. Ricardo Arduengo / AP Photo

With a dense and complicated past, and a lush tropical landscape, Puerto Rico remains a fiercely independent Latin enclave on American territory. Despite an invasion of “gringos” buying up houses and land in the city, along its coastal resorts and on its islands, and an unpopular government jacking up taxes and disrupting local initiatives, Puerto Ricans resist every day, promoting local culture, protesting massive developments and raising environmental awareness.

Salsa, a mix of West African beats and ancient folk traditions, is the soul of the island, a constant inspiration for the island’s musicians and DJs, blasting from roadside shacks and historical theatres, underground clubs and car radios.

Once a working-class neighbourhood and the birthplace of salsa legends Ismael Rivera and Tito Rodriguez, Santurce is now the home of independent art spaces, tattoo parlours, bookstores, trendy coffee shops and artisanal bagel and cupcake boutiques. Its narrow alley walls are splattered with bright murals painted by local and visiting artists, particularly in the art district of Calle Cerra. Nearby, at the recently opened Lote 23 market, a dozen stalls offer creative takes on local staples such as mofongo or tamales in a repurposed car park filled with palm trees. Not far away at Hacienda San Pedro, the island’s prized Arabica beans are served pour-over or espresso style to the young creatives who work nearby.

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If you go

The flights Emirates (www.emirates.com) flies from Dubai to San Juan from Dh4,980 return, including taxes, with connecting flights from New York, Orlando or Fort Lauderdale with its code-share partner Jet Blue. Renting a car is the best way to get around the island (www.herz.com; www.avis.com).

The hotels

Ocean View rooms at Condado Vanderbilt Hotel (www.condadovanderbilt.com) cost from US$328 (Dh1,205) per night. Rooms at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, (www.ritzcarlton.com) cost from $1,890 (Dh6,942) per night. Rooms at The St Regis Bahia Beach Resort (www.stregisbahiabeach.com) cost from $759 (Dh2,788) per night. Ocean view suite at The Horned Dorset Primavera (www.horneddorset.net) cost from $560 (Dh2,057) per night. Lofts at Hix Island House (www.hixislandhouse.com) cost from $135 (Dh496).

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Most of the American tourists who flock here still prefer Old San Juan, with its pastel colonial Spanish or French revival architecture, perched over the sea. Music producer and entrepreneur Pablo Rodriguez has energised the area, opening nightlife venues Don Pedro across the Hotel El Convento, then La Factoria and La Cubanita a few blocks away. Upstairs at La Factoria, his festive hostel offers bunker beds, private rooms and weekly dinner parties. Live bands and DJs there attract young, bright visitors who come in for tropical cocktails, small bites and to practise their salsa swings.

“Puerto Rican culture is rich because of our music,” Rodriguez tells me as we watch a colourful crowd fill La Factoria from the bar. He has also opened a punk club and a coffee shop that sells records and books, in the student neighbourhood of Rio Piedras, a gritty up-and-coming zone filled with bold political murals.

The next day, as the heat begins to fade, Rodriguez leads us down the cliff to the La Perla favela, a jumble of rustic houses piled up seemingly to the horizon. The area was once barred to outsiders. We follow the ocean scent to the waterfront promenade, where La Perla Bowl rises. The skatepark was built by artist Chemi Rosado, who is part of this year’s Whitney Biennial. Painted by fellow artists, the crumbling structure sometimes hosts live music shows. As we walk back up towards town, a few old-timers in straw hats are relaxing on plastic chairs by a giant speaker, listening to salsa beats and munching on alcapurria, a stick of fried mashed green plantains and taro roots.

To escape the city, I take the motorway around the coast to the northern tip of the island, around Rincon, where surfers from around the world come to spend the winter. They camp along the sandy beaches under towering palm trees or rent rooms in small towns, rising with the Sun as the swell hits the secret beaches of Aguadilla, Isabela, Jobos or Rincon. The surfers drive to local shacks for French pastries, arepas and fresh fish tacos before a nap, and hit the sea again at sunset before meeting at a reggae show.

Concealed by a lush garden on the side of a coastal road, The Horned Dorset Primavera in Rincon is one of the island’s most elegant, exclusive retreats. It is a succession of white villas planted on the beach and decorated with antiques. At the restaurant, as the sky turns a bright pink over the horizon, I order grilled spiny lobster, one of the island’s delicacies. After sunset and a dip in the villa’s private pool, I open the windows onto the ocean to listen to the whisper of the Caribbean from my king-size canopy bed.

In Old San Juan, the area near the 16th century fort of El Morro is a popular place for a stroll. Ricardo Arduengo / AP Photo

For the last two nights of my journey I take a six-person plane to the island of Vieques, legendary for its bioluminescent bay, Mosquito Bay, wild horses running free and scenic beaches on the southern coast. The island, first inhabited by indigenous fishermen and hunters 10,000 years ago, served as a United States military base for 60 years until 2003, during which the local population was moved and missiles tests were conducted.

My hotel, Hix Island House, a modernist concrete bunker with subtle curves that sits on the top of the hill, is built by John Hix, an architect trained by Louis Kahn. My room opens out onto the sky, chirping tropical birds, the horizon and starry nights. I take a short ride to the coast, order fresh conch empanadas and head to the secluded Glass Beach for one last sunset swim. I sit on a log to dry and contemplate the peaceful scenery. A man in a white beard appears, ceremonially stirring seashells and branches of wood in the air and mumbling chants. His name is Charlie, the shaman of Vieques. He says he is trying to equalise the water surface and purify the beach of negative vibrations. He has many stories to tell. Indeed, in these perfectly turquoise seas and golden sandy shores are buried centuries of bloody and dark history.

Shirine Saad is the author of Boho Beirut: A Guide to the Middle East’s Most Sophisticated City.

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