A journey to the island that takes the holiday to heart, and to the table.
It is a feast of feasts, on Christmas day.
I'm sitting on a narrow wooden chair near the entry to a sprawling, open-air shack. A corrugated metal roof shields me from the tropical rain that's just blown through and the hot sun that's emerged. Behind me: jungle. On my lap: a Styrofoam takeout box mounded with potato salad, pigeon peas with rice, and pork. Nearby: a bottle of Medalla Light. Luis Ramos has tucked a paper napkin into the top of my beer for some holiday flair; popping out as it does, it looks like a tiny mitre atop a skinny brown Pope.
But that is not what's holy about this day. It's what I'm tucking into with my white plastic fork, which is this mound of lechón asado, the most succulent, most complexly flavored roasted pork I've tasted in my life. It has been carved by Luis's short and sturdy father, Apá, with his broad machete at a massive table at the shack's center. Luis returns to handling the long line of customers snaking out into La Ranchera's dirt parking lot. His sister and cousin ferry groaning takeaway tins of the meat as they're packed up for Puerto Rican families to bring home to their own holiday tables. Felicidades, I hear over and over again, the Puerto Rican contraction of feliz and Navidad. Felicidades indeed, I think to myself. What a happy Christmas this is.
I came to Puerto Rico for Christmas because I had heard there was no more beautiful spot that was so crazy about the holiday. First, about the beauty: more than 300 miles of sun-bleached beaches, with deep azure Atlantic pounding the northern shores and jade Caribbean lapping the southern. Few people, endless palm trees—these are vistas that seem unchanged since Columbus came ashore in 1493.
I arrived expecting natural gifts, but I had no clue what civilization held. With luminous blue cobblestones and colonial streetscapes in sherbet hues, and with a massive, 16th-century cathedral at its heart, Old San Juan occupies the peninsula guarding its harbor with historic, opulent style. It's almost impossible to remember you're in American territory; the city feels utterly European. And with views out to harbor and ocean in every direction, the capital is as stunning as any worldwide.
Finally, Puerto Ricans are, in fact, crazy for Christmas. Grounded in the country's devout Catholicism, the holiday stretches from mid-December right on through Epiphany, or Three Kings' Day, on January 6th, celebrated here as Día de Reyes. Punctuated by masses and embellished with customs—food, drink, parades, and even a special fringe-brimmed straw hat called a pava—this extended holiday is a welcome, authentic antidote to what can feel rushed and overly consumerized at home.
In a land devoted to holiday food and drink, then, where am I to begin? Rum, of course. I become an instant fan of coquito—eggnog that's a rich blend of rum and spices with coconut and condensed milk. When I learn that some coquitos are made with pitorro, a higher-proof moonshine rum that is often homemade by bartenders, I start enjoying small pours of that, as well.
But more than I drink, I eat—in the bustling cafés of Old San Juan and out in the city's farther-flung neighborhoods. I taste arroz con gandules, one of the season's most traditional rice dishes, served with the roasted pork that is the king of the Puerto Rican holiday feast. I fall in love with alcapurria, a root-vegetable fritter with meat at its center, and pasteles, the labor-intensive cousin to tamales, where a seasoned paste (often featuring mashed cassava) is cooked with shredded chicken inside a tightly wrapped banana leaf. I carve soft bites of tembleque, the flan-like holiday custard perfumed with coconut.
I discover chefs who take traditions and reimagine them. At his eponymous restaurant, José Santaella produces plates like gifts from the Magi: the traditional holiday morcilla—blood sausage—minced and wrapped in a crunchy, tender spring roll. His alcapurria is filled with blue crab; his pasteles, with tender bites of codfish. At nearby Casita Miramar, Leonard Perez wows me with sweets: tembleque made with local pumpkins, tres leches cake infused with coquito, and flan sitting brazenly in a pitorro-laced sauce.
I see why Puerto Ricans stretch their Christmas out for weeks: The food is too good, too varied, to enjoy on only one day. How fortunate that Old San Juan makes for such good walking—my holiday eating alternates with explorations on the crest of its fortress walls, along its romantic waterfront esplanade, and up and down its steep and narrow streets.
The city obliges with holiday finery: Doorways are dotted with wreaths and garlands, while parks and squares are home to Nativity scenes that light up at dusk in displays from reverent to riotous. Hundreds of locals come into Old San Juan every night just to see the splendor: packs of jostling, flirty teens, pairs of lovers old and young, and families pushing strollers of sleeping babies bathed in the shimmering, iridescent light.
On my last night, I spy a gang of singers and musicians amassing on the cathedral's broad steps. It's a parranda, I realize with delight, the Puerto Rican tradition that adds Halloween mischief to Christmas caroling. Parrandas traditionally group late at night to sing, loud and clanging, outside friends' homes, to haul them from their beds. Hosts are often obligated to invite the revelers in, and long parties ensue, often till dawn.
I follow the parranda into the streets, when a sudden cloudburst sends them laughing and hollering for shelter under narrow balconies and arched doorways. While the fat raindrops fall and glisten on the blue cobblestones, I think of the nearly 500 Christmases that have marked this byway, and how many feet have trodden this route before me. I think of three kings bearing gifts, and an island that reveres and laughs while it prays and cooks and eats and drinks. I think of Apá Ramos, who wields his machete in the mountains, and José Santaella, who wraps his pasteles in the town. And I think of how the palms of the Holy Land bend toward their brethren on these beaches, so far away by ship, but under the same glistening stars. And how joyously sacred it is.
The historic Condado Vanderbilt Hotel offers commanding views of the sea and luxe rooms. Rates start at $350; condadovanderbilt.com. O:live Boutique Hotel is a charming European hideaway with an excellent in-house restaurant and a rooftop bar. Rates start at $209; oliveboutiquehotel.com.
EAT & DRINK HERE
For the best eating in San Juan, allow Spoon Food Tours to show you around, from drinking tours to insider dinners with chefs; spoonfoodtours.com. During the holidays, La Ranchera runs nearly around the clock. Off-season, the pork is only available on weekends. Route 173, Km. 6, Guaynabo; 787-789-4706. Santaella is a welcoming and sophisticated eatery with excellent cocktails; shop.santaellapr.com. Casita Miramar serves traditional dishes made modern in a romantic setting; facebook.com/casitamiramarpr. Papillon Bistro whips up a traditionally delicious and ample holiday feast; 787-919-0500.
SMART APP Travel like a local in Puerto Rico with Google Translate, which can translate signs with your camera and has two-way automatic speech translation in 40 languages. Download: iTunes, Google Play