Years before I took my first trip to Puerto Rico, I’d heard about the food. Mofongo, asopao, tostones—such lyrical names—were part of my partner’s life growing up with a dad born on the island. But it wasn’t until we traveled to Puerto Rico with her family—her dad’s first trip back since he was a boy—that I truly fell for the cuisine and the island that created it.
We savored mofongo, that garlicky mashed plantain dish, while looking over the Caribbean, and dipped into bowls of asopao, rich with chicken and olives, at a little cafeteria in Old San Juan. The streets of Santurce, where street art thrives, are linked forever in my mind to José Enrique’s addicting fried fish. I think of the soft-sand beaches east of San Juan and remember the intoxicating smoothies we’d order each morning from street vendors. And we only recently polished off the last few bottles of pepper-infused vinegar we picked up in Ponce, the island’s second-largest city.
Just because we can’t visit the island right now doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy the best, and tastiest, parts of a Puerto Rican vacation. With the help of local writers and other Puerto Rican hospitality experts, we’ve created an itinerary for recreating the perfect day in San Juan right at home. I promise you’ll eat well.
8 a.m. Perfect your café con leche
Most Spanish-speaking countries have their own version of the milky coffee brew, and Puerto Rico is no exception. Making a traditional cup requires a colador, or coffee sock, a reusable net-like filter that sounds . . . footy but makes a wonderfully smooth cup of coffee. Here’s how to make the perfect brew, according to Amanda Muñoz, a barista at Hacienda Muñoz, her family’s coffee plantation 40 minutes south of San Juan.
Use two tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water. In a small saucepan, bring the water to a simmer, add the coffee, and simmer while stirring for one minute. Remove from the heat and let sit, stirring occasionally for one minute, then filter through your coffee sock.
Flair comes in the form of leche: “Milk is a more personal touch,” Muñoz says. “The amount used will depend on the person’s taste, but the temperature is important.”
You want to keep milk below 120 degrees F (for reference, milk simmers at 195 degrees F). Heat milk on the stove—whisking to create foam—or in a microwave for two minutes. If using a microwave, stir the milk every 15 seconds to keep it from boiling. Pour milk into coffee until it meets your required look—I like mine a dark taupe—sit back and caffeinate.
8:02 a.m. . . . Then pair it with an iconic pastry
Hear that? It’s your café con leche begging for a buddy. In San Juan, you’d go to a panadería or a diner, such as Cafeteria Mallorca, for its namesake pastry: a pillowy bun shaped like a Princess Leia coil and dusted with powdered sugar. So why not get your mallorca on at home? You’ve got nothing but time, baby. Saveur has an excellent recipe. Just be prepared: They need at least 2.5 hours of rising time.
Eat your hard-won buns plain; split, buttered, and griddled like writer Mireya Navarro; or as a traditional breakfast sandwich with ham and swiss cheese. If you go savory, don’t skip the powdered sugar, strange as it might sound. And if you’re feeling lazy, and have extra dough to spend, you could always order mallorca from another San Juan institution, Panificadora Pepin.
Buy now: Panificadora Pepin Mallorca, from $5 (plus very expensive shipping), mallorcastogo.com
9 a.m. Soak up the street art
On our trip, we’d wake up early to wander the San Juan streets, admiring the colors, the doors, and the street art before it got too hot in the day. It’s no secret that some of the most interesting art can be found in the neighborhood of Santurce. Recreate that experience at home by going deep into the Instagram feeds of some of San Juan’s best artists, many of whom have created murals in Santurce.
Shitty Robots: This anonymous street artist sprinkles robots in various positions—say, facedown on a pool float or texting on a surfboard—throughout San Juan.
Street art soundtrack: The BBC Art of Now episode devoted to the island’s creative response to Hurricane Maria.
10 a.m. Create a holiday work of art (and gift a tree frog)
The island boasts the longest-running (45 days, from the end of November through mid-January) holiday season in the world. Gift a little Puerto Rican magic this holiday season, to yourself and to others.
Send or purchase an artisan craft kit from Plantitas Fancy—options include a Puerto Rican flag with a string of holiday lights and sweet, festive ornaments. Kits include the clay shape, paints and paintbrushes, and information about the artist.
Or give the gift that keeps on ribbiting: Through the island’s new Adopt a Coquí program, you can donate $25 to “adopt” a tree frog for that special someone. (All proceeds go to support Conservación ConCiencia, a Puerto Rico–based environmental nonprofit.)
11 a.m. Take to the jungle
The beach is coming, I promise. But first, it’s time for a little trip into the jungle (and a bioluminescent bay and a cave). Jorge Montalvo, founder of Patria Tours, created a series of Google Earth tours in partnership with Discover Puerto Rico that are as gorgeous and insidery as you can get in the world of armchair tourism. In his first, Montalvo highlights the natural wonders of the island, such as the El Yunque rain forest, the Cueva Ventana (or “window cave,” so named for its view of the Rio Grande), and the black-sand beaches of Vieques.
12 p.m. Lunch on the classics
Mofongo, mofongo, mofongo. The rhythm of my heart beats to the name of this garlic and plantain dish. So, yes, we will be making it together, because it’s fun to say and even more fun to eat.
It’s also a favorite comfort food for chef Juliana Gonzalez, who opened Caña in the iconic El San Juan hotel in 2017. It’s “like a piece of heaven in your mouth,” she says. At Caña, her elegant mofongo involves pork belly and duck broth, but she shared a recipe for a more simplified version that even quarantined chefs can’t butcher. Let’s (mofon)go!
- 3 green plantains
- 3 garlic cloves
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 oz. pork rind
- 2 oz. chicken stock
- Salt to taste
- 2 cups frying oil (grapeseed oil, sunflower seed oil, canola oil, or vegetable oil)
- Peel plantains, cut in 3/4-inch slices, and keep in water to prevent oxidation.
- In a sauté pan, add the frying oil and cook the plantains until golden and cooked inside.
- In a pilón (a wooden mortar and pestle—see suggestion for where to buy below), smash the garlic and add the fried plantains, olive oil, pork rinds, chicken stock, and salt. Smash everything together until all the ingredients combine.
- To plate, use an oiled cup, compact the plantain mix inside, then unmold.
- Serve mofongo with chicken broth on the side or with your choice of protein.
Oh, yes. I suppose you need a protein. If you can get your hands on pork, that would be the classic—in honor of Puerto Rico’s La Ruta del Lechón, the “pork highway” that cuts through the center of the island. Mark Bittman’s recipe for pernil, roast pork, is simple but takes a half-day to prepare. Or just eat your mofongo with a fried egg for a more breakfast-like take on the dish.
1 p.m. Hit the beach, please
Even though we can’t visit Puerto Rico’s heavenly Ocean Park Beach or La Monserrate Beach in person, we can don a pair of chancletas (flip-flops) and get ourselves in a sandy state of mind. Here’s what you need to create the perfect beach day at home:
Beach towel, flip flops, and swimsuit (or go au naturel—a quarantine perk!)
Pool float: Choose from a giant pineapple, a palm tree (back support!), and my personal fave, this retro convertible float, which puts me in mind of the Hollywood glam set of yore and comes with a drink chilling station.
The perfect music: Cue our AFAR-curated Spotify list, a blend of salsa, Reggaeton, and contemporary Puerto Rican hits.
A good book: Simone, by Puerto Rican author Eduardo Lalo, is the mysterious tale of a cynical writer who begins to discover personalized, but anonymous messages left for him around the barrios of San Juan.
A better cocktail: Let’s go classic with a piña colada from bartender Roberto Berdecia of La Factoria, arguably the best cocktail bar in Puerto Rico. “The piña colada was created in Puerto Rico, and I think it defines Puerto Ricans,” he says.
- Mix 2 ounces Don Q gold, a Puerto Rican rum, with 2 ounces of pineapple juice (ideally fresh-pressed, but bottled works fine) and 1.5 ounces of coconut cream (he suggests Coco Lopez).
- Add a dash of angostura bitters and a dash of lime juice, shake, and then strain into a collins glass or wineglass.
- Garnish with a pineapple wedge, a little umbrella, or a cherry.
Plop your float and towel in the sunniest part of your home. Put on your suit (or not, heyyy). Shake your cocktail. Get comfy on the float, launch the playlist, and open your book. Welcome to paradise.
4 p.m. Write your own rum diary
Now that you’ve worked hard all afternoon, it’s time to relax with the taste of Puerto Rico. Yes, we are talking MORE RUM. Specifically, a rum tasting. With Ramon Diaz, brand ambassador for Rums of Puerto Rico, as our guide. He suggests three Puerto Rican rums: Don Q Gran Anejo, Bacardi Gran Reserva Limitada, and Ron del Barrilito 3 Estrellas.
“We are going to focus on the aged rums, which you can taste alone or with ice,” Diaz says. “Sometimes I like to drink [them] with coconut water ice cubes. But that is another story!”
Step one: Observe. Fill three snifter glasses (wineglasses will do in a pinch) with 1 to 2 ounces of rum. First, “admire the color of the rum,” Diaz says. “In most cases, the darker the rum, it means that it is more aged.” Then, swirl the rum and watch for the “tears” that flow down the sides of the glass. The slower the tears, the more full-bodied the rum.
Step two: Smell. Bring the glass slowly to one side of the nose and sniff, then center your nose over the glass and inhale. “Smell the rum through the nose and mouth at the same time,” Diaz says.
Step three: Taste. Take a sip and place it in the center of your mouth for two seconds before swallowing. “You will feel heat in the center of the chest,” Diaz says. “[Then] you will start to taste the flavors in your mouth.”
Sipping soundtrack: Luiz Guzman’s YouTube guide to PR slang. You’ll need a bit of it later tonight when we hit the town.
7 p.m. Create a Puerto Rican farm-to-table dinner
I didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived in Santurce to search for José Enrique’s restaurant. (He has since moved it to Condado.) All I knew was to look for a hot pink building—there was no sign—and that it would be a crime to miss out on his cooking. Enrique is one of the chefs pushing Puerto Rico’s farm-to-table movement forward—he was also instrumental in feeding Puerto Ricans during and after Hurricane Maria and was recently nominated to the 2020 James Beard Award finalist list.
We loved his food so much that we returned the next night—and would have continued to visit for the rest of our time if we hadn’t left San Juan soon after. My favorite dish was his signature fried chillo (snapper) with avocado, papaya, and mashed batata, or white yams, but since it’s unlikely most of us have access to fresh-caught snapper or a deep fryer, we’re going to create a variation on that.
Any white fish will work for this, though make it the freshest fish you can get your hands on. Enrique dips one side in cornstarch and then deep-fries it to create a nice crust, but if you don’t have a fryer, a pan fry will do. Serve your creation with an avocado and papaya salsa and whole or mashed yams.
9 p.m. Dance the night away
Evenings are when San Juan really blooms. As the sun and temperature drop, the streets fill with people, and music, including salsa, seems to stream out of every corner. Salsa is to Puerto Rico like croissants are to Paris: essential, iconic, delicious. If we were there, we might explore the salsa scene at Cambio en Clave or in La Placita, an iconic market and nightlife hub in Santurce. But since we’re not, why not take an hour-long class with salsa celebrity and choreographer Tito Ortos and his partner Tamara Livolsi? No partner required. ¡Wepa!
10 p.m. Treat yo’ self, then let a frog sing you to sleep
Ayy, your feet must be killing you. If you’ve got a smidge of energy, draw a bath using aromatic salts inspired by the dreamy Spa Botánico at Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve. To make your own, spa director Jeanette Haua suggests mixing 1/2 cup sea salt, such as Himalayan salt, with 1/4 cup oil, such as coconut, olive, or avocado. Add 3–4 drops essential oil (lavender and chamomile both promote sleep) and an optional 1 tablespoon of herb, such as lavender.
To up the spa vibes, Haua recommends candles, an eye and neck pillow (or rolled-up washcloths), and a post-bath glass of water infused with ginger and lemon “to enhance your immune system.”
While you soak, meditate to the sounds of the island’s most famous inhabitant: the tiny tree frog known as the coquí. If you’re too wiped out by the day, hop into bed and put on this 10-hour (!) version of the sounds of the El Yunque rain forest. Buenas noches!
>>Next: Puerto Rico, Revived