Puerto Rico: A Highland Life
by Island Expert H.H. McKinnon
Who doesn’t love the beach, right? Having grown up along the coast of Florida, a day in the sand is as familiar as breathing. However, I love the mountains just as much. It must be genetic. That’s why spending time with relatives in Puerto Rico means country life rather than coastal, seaside frolicking for me. It is all about the food, the culture, family, neighbors, and the mountain environment.
(1. Puerto Rican mountains)
My family is from a small mountain town called Cayey. My grandmother grew up in a lovely valley near the road to Guavate, which is an even smaller town in the highlands famous on the island, and now the Food Network circuit, for its weekend lechón festival. In other words, it is an Eden for lovers of roast pork. Any drive from San Juan south toward Ponce on the weekend should involve a detour to Guavate. Punto final.
(2. A sign for roast pork in Guavate)
La Ruta del Lechón, or Pork Highway, is probably unique in the Caribbean, but to me, it was simply where my family’s coffee farm used to be, and our weekend destination for Sunday brunch. Lechón, murcilla, maduros, yucca con cebolla, pasteles, arroz con gandules, canoas, tembleque, maví champan, and alegría. This is the culinary lexicon of Cayey and Guavate, and my personal mantra whenever I visit.
Memories of island life in the highlands bring back hot, steamy days where I would take the local guagua to the plaza in Cayey to have tamarindo piraguas (shaved ice) under the flamboyán trees, and slightly cool, breezy nights on the terraza eating coconut alegría with my bisabuela after dinner while watching little cotton candy Caribbean clouds floating overhead. We would study the Milky Way, gossip about family and the naughty neighbors, and listen to coquí frogs singing nearby in the palms while merengue music played in the distance.
(3. The tiny coqui frog, much beloved in Puerto Rico)
It sounds idealized, but that was life in the country. Each meal was a sacred ritual, terraza time was mandatory, and everyone was intimately familiar with everyone else’s business in the neighborhood.
The gardens around any country house in Puerto Rico are a microcosm of an entire worldview and lifestyle. My family’s house was no different. Telma, my step great-grandmother (it’s complicated), had one of those truly traditional Caribbean kitchen gardens that I loved to explore the second I arrived. Even in her eighties, she managed to maintain her coffee plants, culinary herbs, cubanelle peppers, fruit trees, coconut palms, guinea hens, and every medicinal plant imaginable.
(4. The author's family walking down toward the lower gardens below Telma's house)
Neighbors stopped by for one ingredient or another every day. I was in and out of the side door whenever we cooked, snipping some oregano or achiote for arroz con pollo or a sweet pepper for traditional pink beans and rice with pumpkin. Telma would quiz me about the plant names when we walked the garden together. I learned to pound coffee beans with a wooden pilón. The fact that I don’t drink coffee never seemed to matter.
(5. Coffee growing on the bush)
The neighbors lovingly called me ‘la nena’ or ‘la Americana,’ had no idea of my real name, and never really considered me Puerto Rican at all. Even though the church my great-grandfather built was just down the road, and he sold everyone in the ‘hood the land they lived on because he owned most of the valley, I didn’t mind so much.
During the week after my classes at the local university, I was a frequent customer of Doña Massimina who owned the local frutería down the street. No one liked her. Most days I ate more pineapple than one really should. I think she appreciated me. And I felt for her, having such a bad reputation for selling overpriced fruit and all.
On the weekends, after our lechón brunch, we sometimes drove further into the highlands to see the sights, collect herbs like Juana la Blanca, or visit cousins whose location on the family tree was always lost to me. Telma’s elderly gentleman caller would come to the house to cut the grass, with a machete. She rebuked him with regularity. Her ninety year-old sister would stop by and ask if I wanted to go salsa dancing, to which I would invariably demure. My exercise circuit included a round trip to the local gallera, or cock fighting ring, up the hill, carefully avoiding the gauntlet of vicious street dogs along the way. I never once peeked inside as a sign of solidarity with the cocks and guinea hens that woke me up every morning.
I never roamed too far afield from the house because everything I wanted was right there. Telma and I lived in a little country bubble of food, friends, and family, and I loved it. It was a good life, a highland life. With no beach in sight.
Thank you for this wonderful post, H.H! Readers can learn more about H.H. McKinnon, an anthropologist and curator, on our Island Experts page.
(Photo credits: 1. Mercedea, Puerto Rican mountains; Geoff Gallice, Homegrown Pig, Guavate, PR; 3. Jose Armando Serrano, coqui; 4. Courtesy of the author; 5. Michael Allen Smith, Impact of Climate Change. All except #4 from Flickr. Consult photographers' Flickr pages for specific rights requirements.)