The first impression of Puerto Rico is not the sight of sandy beaches or the smell of suntan lotion. Rather, it is of a chorus unlike any other: a sweet singular song coming from tiny tree frogs endemic to the 100-mile-long island. This mating melody makes it easy to understand why the commonwealth is called the Enchanted Island of Rhythms and Flavors, a symphony only enhanced by the pounding muddle of mint for mojitos and the snap of flip-flops on the streets of Old San Juan.
Want to see those coqui frogs up close? Start with a tour of El Yunque Rainforest, less than an hour’s drive from Old San Juan. You could rent a car to quickly get around, but then you wouldn’t get the expertise of local guides like Ricky from Castillo Tours, who explains a bit about the Taino native peoples and expertly chases those elusive inch-long creatures. He’ll introduce you to culantro, a cilantro-like herb used in lots of local dishes, and explain that many of the rainforest’s treasures are used in the pharmaceutical industry that’s taken a strong foothold in Puerto Rico.
The industry close behind is tourism. And the waterfront Ritz-Carlton, a short ride from the airport, is a popular spot for its candlelit meals, fun-filled days at the beach and spa-induced relaxation. Take one of JetBlue’s daily direct flights in the afternoon and you can arrive just in time for dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, BLT Steak. The steakhouse offers far more than its name suggests, serving fresh-caught fish alongside prime cuts of beef, while signature dishes like jalapeno mashed potatoes and coconut bread pudding with rum ice cream put a fun spin on traditional steakhouse fare by spotlighting local products. This won’t be the last place you’re offered mofongo, Puerto Rico’s famous dish of thick soup with garlic and onions; you’ll also encounter what natives wish their friends when each dish is delivered swiftly with a smile—“buen provecho” loosely translates to “bon appétit.”
That same flavor and warm feeling can be found all across the island, especially on a Spoon Food Tours culinary and historical exploration, a five-course extravaganza led by guides such as Pablo Garcia, a walking encyclopedia with a true zest for all things Puerto Rico. You’ll meet at Quincentennial Plaza in Old San Juan in the cool shadow of Tótem Telúrico, which was inspired by ancient pieces of Taino cookware unearthed on the site. You’ll start off this Sunday brunch walk right, with a stop at the Don Ruiz roastery. Puerto Rico’s coffee growing days are mostly in the past but there are still a few artisanal producers, and the Don Ruiz museum and cafe offers specialty brews to pair with pan de mallora, elevated ham and cheese sandwiches on sweet buttered bread. Save some room for locally caught snapper at a later stop, served in a savory tomato Creole sauce, alongside passion fruit sangria or a piña colada. The latter tipple was purportedly invented on the island, and you’ll pass by Barrachina, the restaurant laying claim to it; make plans to visit later, or check out La Factoria, one of Old San Juan’s hottest craft cocktail and wine bars.
It’s good to get the lay of the land during a daytime tour—including an explanation of the iron-rich ballast lining the capital’s streets—so you can follow this blue-brick road at night for a popsicle. The line of both locals and tourists snaking out the door at Señor Paleta’s is a solid indication of the can’t-miss treats-on-a-stick here, and the sound of live music from the nearby bandstand enhances the experience. For adult fun, head to Marmalade, where you’ll get a rise out of the cocktail list with names as creative as the drinks. The tequila-spiked Global Warming, which heats up as its three-chili spherical ice cube melts, goes down well with almost everything on the extensive tasting menu.
There’s unforgettable marmalade of a different kind back at the Ritz, where club-level access grants you three meals a day—including a killer homemade pineapple jam at breakfast—and unlimited beverages for those who prefer to simply chill out at the waterfront. Staff members are all too happy to whip up a piña colada as well, so you can take it down to the adjoining beach or recently renovated oceanfront pool. And if you’re afraid of overdoing the sun, check out the spa, where “farm to table” extends to the massage table—many of the treatments include local produce or elements, including a coffee body polish, guava pedicure and hot-stone rubdown featuring waterfall-smoothed El Yunque Rainforest rocks. ◆
El Yunque Rainforest elyunque.com; Marmalade marmaladepr.com; Ritz-Carlton ritzcarlton.com; Señor Paleta facebook.com/srpaletaoldsanjuan; Spoon Food Tours spoonfoodtours.com
Puerto Rico has three of the world’s five bioluminescent bays. Tours are best scheduled during cloudy or moonless nights, but if it’s tops on your agenda, avoid booking a stay five to eight nights prior to a full moon and two days after. The Ritz-Carlton offers discounts on stays of three or more nights in deluxe rooms or suites through Dec. 22.