How to Travel Like a Local in Puerto Rico
As told to Addie Ladner | photos by Doreen Colondres
Vitis House owner Doreen Colondres shares tips for visiting the tropical island where she was born, which has its own unique food and culture.
Vitis House Wine School owner Doreen Colondres has traveled all over the globe, from appearing in cooking shows from France to the Caribbean, to attending culinary schools in New York, California and Florida. Today, she’s settled in Raleigh, but she was born in Puerto Rico and still visits often — and lucky for us, you can get direct to San Juan from RDU! We asked her to share her insider tips for traveling the Island of Enchantment.
When you think of your home in Puerto Rico (PR) what comes to mind?
Definitely family and food. My grandpa was a professional chef from my Dad’s side and on my Mom’s side, they were extraordinary cooks with a huge passion for farming. We used to have more than 30 ingredients in the backyard, even our own fruits and eggs. The Spanish influence on the island is huge. We love to eat and the menu is planned even before setting the date and the time of the get together.
RDU offers a direct flight to San Juan and you grew up just outside of the city, can you give us your local’s travel guide?
Eat here for breakfast:
For a true local experience, go to Kasalta, Sobao in Condado or La Ceiba. You will immediately notice the Spanish influence in all three spots. My mouth is watering now just thinking about it. You have to try a Mallorca, Puerto Rican sweet buns that are dusted with powdered sugar. These delicious treats come from Mallorca, Spain and while they’re called Ensaimadas in Spain, they’ve always been known as Mallorcas in PR.
Eat here for lunch:
You have to taste our beach menu. Any little spot between the road and the beach in northeast area is covered by what we call “chinchorros” [small outdoor kitchen that could be under a tent or sink panel]. Those chinchorros make the most Puerto Rican menu you can get: Bacalaitos (cod fritters inspired by the ones created in southern Spain), alcapurrias (fritters with yucca and plantains), seafood empanadas (that we call empanadillas like in Spain) and mofongo, our most typical dish (inspired by the African cuisine) made out of fried green plantains, fried pork skin and garlic. A superb casual restaurant in San Juan that sells a few of these dishes is Jose Enrique. Jose Enrique is a fantastic chef with the best beef stew on the planet. Get ready to gain a few pounds.
Eat here for dinner:
You can’t visit PR and leave without tasting our “lechon a la vara”. Anthony Bourdain always said it was his favorite dish in the world. Lechón means roasted whole pork, which is slow cooked for hours over hot coals or an open flame, allowing the skin to get crispy while the meat remains tender and juicy. This is a dish you can typically only get in the town of Cayey, the area is called Guavate. You can go there to enjoy traditional food, live music and then to burn the calories, you can also dance. It becomes more like a party during the holiday season. We love to eat lechón, almost every day if possible. I cook a similar version just using the shoulder and it is probably one of my signature dishes.
Bring the kids here:
Toroverde at the Distrito T-Mobile (an entertainment center).
Although you can find crystal clear waters all over the island, the best ones are in the little islands around the main one. They are Culebra, Vieques, Caja de Muerto, Palomino and Icacos, try at least one please. On a regular basis, locals go to an area called Ocean Park in San Juan.
Best places to hike/explore nature:
I love these adventures. Go to the rainforest. Make sure you spend at least half a day, although you can have a full day experience. The cave expedition in the city of Camuy is absolutely amazing. They have light adventures and some for the brave ones. And the last one, visit a coffee farm, we have so many. Our coffee is absolutely extraordinary, the best in the world to be honest and I am not saying this because I am Boricua [from Puerto Rico].
Any shops worth checking out?
Puerto Ricans love to shop so if you like the intense crowd of a mall, there are plenty of options. We have everything on the island, including all the top designers – you will be impressed. Personally I prefer to shop in the little artisanal stores in the Old San Juan district.
Best place for wine or cocktails?
We are into wines. You can go to any bar or restaurant and you will find fantastic wines, again, it’s part of the gift the Spaniards left us. But a great wine bar can be Bottles or Entrevinos. For cocktails, we are very proud of La Factoria in the heart of the colonial Old San Juan. It is s a surprising labyrinth of six different bars/rooms where they play different music in each one. They have made the list for The World’s 50th Best Bars for many years in a row.
Best places to stay overnight for a couple or parents with kids?
A couple has to experience the Olive Hotel, a beautiful chic and classy boutique hotel owned by a lovely Puerto Rican couple. With or without kids, you have to stay at the Conquistador Golf Resort on the east coast, just 45 minutes from San Juan. It’s near the best beach spots and the rainforest.
Any other travel tips for visiting Puerto Rico?
Rent a car and make sure you spend at least five to seven days. Also, try to visit the tour at the Serralles Rum Factory in the beautiful city of Ponce. They produce the famous Don Q rum brand, among others.