Moving deeper into the mountains from Ponce, sticking to the famed Ruta Panorámica, Puerto Rico’s landscape takes a drastic turn. Buick size ferns grow out into the road and patches of green bamboo form a canopy over it. Avocados and oranges fall from trees and rot on the pavement, filling the air with a beautifully pungent aroma. The chirps of the coqui are constant. I have flashbacks of Dominica and Costa Rica.
In Jayuya, I get lost looking for my parador. I stop four times and each time I’m told something different. Jayuya isn’t big, but five different highways meet here and twist in a maze of one ways. A kid at the gas station draws me a map with loops and no’s and x’s where the road would end. I lose the trail but pick up the familiar Parador road markers.
Hacienda Gripiñas is a 150-year-old Spanish farmhouse that has been the social center of Jayuya, a coffee plantation, and the home of the founder of the village. The building maintains the history in clapboard walls, red tile roof, balconies overlooking coffee fields & trees. Wooden shutters are all open so the citrus scented air blows throughout the creaky old building. My room on the second level has a rocking chair, beamed ceilings, and a rose bush molded on the drywall. In the dining room the walls are filled with the linear notes of criollo folk songs. As they make my dinner the women, who are dressed in plantation style uniforms and aprons, sing from the kitchen.
“Al-go par-a to-mar,” my waiter asks in a tranquillo, cordillera twang. “Qu-er-ies ar-roz con hab-i-chue-las o pla-ta-nos ma-dur-os?” He says “Buen pro-ve-cho,” as my Asopao is served. The entire time he has this wise smile on his face like he knows some secret to living.
The route through the cordillera is pure coffee land. Puerto Rico was once a coffee powerhouse and its shade grown beans competed with Hawaii’s Kona and Jamaica’s Blue Mountain. On becoming a commonwealth they lost their touch, but appear to be back on the rise. After a quick stop at some Taino petroglyphs I go to Hacienda San Pedro, a coffee plant, just outside of Jayuya. The bodega wasn’t open yet, but the guys at the plant didn’t mind if I wanted to look around. It was more industrial than I expected, so I headed west to Hacienda Patricia, a century old artisanal plant that hand picks and sun dries their beans. A younger man peaks his head out a window when I pull up.
“Can I buy coffee here?” I ask.
He waves me in. I enter a concrete room with a table where there was just a sealed plastic bin and a scale. He opens the bin and the scent of the Arabica wafts through the air. Why don’t they serve this in the hotels? I could taste it without tasting it. At $12 a pound, it wasn’t cheap. He weighed it out, ground it right there, and sealed and stickered the bag. Walking out he asks if I want to take a look around. We go to a room with newly picked green and red beans and then a darker room with drying racks. We step out on a walkway, which sticks out of the side of a hill with a full panoramic view of the lush green mountains, where they place the racks to dry. If quality were related to the beauty of the place it is grown and processed, this would win awards.
I pull over at Maricao’s central plaza to ask a wrinkled old woman in a floral dress for directions. Even before I could ask her directions for Hacienda Juanita, she asked “De donde eres, Papi?” When I tell her she laughs. Then she points me up over the hill.
Hacienda Juanita is a working 24-acre coffee plantation. Like Hacienda Gripiñas, the cooler climate here brings weekend travelers who come to escape the heat of the cities and hike in the nearby Maricao State Forest or kick back in their pool or tennis courts. Their dining room, another of the Mesones, serves criollo dishes, using mostly the fruit and vegetables found on their property, that follows the original 18th century plantation recipes. For the second night in a row I order asopao. The dish is Puerto Rico’s version of chicken soup that mixes rice with sofrito and a list of optional additions like pigeon peas, olives, capers, bay leaves, achiote, and oregano. For the second night in a row it is different.
At check-in they gave me a hand drawn map to a nearby waterfall, Salto de Curet. I have to follow a twisting unpaved mountain road through coffee plantations and then park my car in a dirt lot. The map says to follow an unmarked trail and cross a small stream three times and then turn and walk up the stream until reaching the waterfall. After about twenty sweaty minutes I find a clearing and a breathtaking 50-foot cascade and emerald pool below it. Looking in my bag I realize my bathing suit is still in my room. That pool looked refreshing though. I take a look around and no one is anywhere in sight. The hills are impassable on every side except the way I came. Being a Wednesday morning, no one is coming anyway. When else would I have a chance to do this? I strip down and dive in. It’s bone chillingly cold, but undeniably cleansing.
At dinner, I ask my waitress Rosa if there is a story behind the Pastelón de Guineos Juanita I’m eating. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it before. It’s a sort of corned beef with peas and corn with a bottom and top layer of soft guineos maduros. It looks like a slice of pie.
“A story?” She thinks for a moment. “Well, this is the only place you will find that dish in Puerto Rico. Everyone else uses platano, but we’ve used the guineos ever since the restaurant began. They’re sweeter.”
So there is a story.
IF YOU GO:
Style: The grandeur of an original Nineteenth century plantation. Location:A 24-acre fruit and coffee plantation in the western highlands. Accommodation: 21 typically decorated rooms with poster beds. Rates: From $107 per night. Amenities: Pool, bar, tennis courts, access to hiking trails, and their own Meson Gastronomico. Contact: 787-836-2550; www.haciendajuanita.com.
Style: A 150-year-old Spanish building and village social center. Location: In the Central Cordillera’s coffee growing center of Jayuya. Accommodation: 19 rooms with mountain views. Rates: From $125 in low season ($145 in high). Amenities: Historic plantation style complex with two pools, quaint restaurant, and trails through fruit trees. Contact: 787/828-1717; www.haciendagripinas.com.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.