coast line and colorful homes of old san juan puerto rico

Foodies delight. With its fresh seafood, spicy flavors, ripe-from-the-tree fruits, and abundance of coffee and cacao beans, Puerto Rico is food heaven. Pescatarians, vegetarians, and vegans too can easily find their fix. One of the best ways to indulge in the country’s diverse culinary scene is via an immersive food tour, which is exactly what we did recently in Old San Juan. Our two-hour Flavors Food Tour was fun, informative, and yes, immersive — starting with the tour company’s meet-up instructions: “Your guide [Itzel] will be wearing a green shirt and a smile.” Which indeed she was.

First Stop: Coffee

Winding along Old San Juan’s narrow, cobblestone streets, Itzel pointed out the city’s colorful Neoclassical, Spanish Colonial, and Baroque architecture, before ushering us inside Cuatro Sombras, one of the city’s most popular coffee houses. The vibey shop is most known for its farm-to-cup operation and high-quality (100% Arabica) coffee beans from Yauco in the southwestern part of the country.  Seated on a long table, sipping flavorful cortaditos (macchiatos),  Itzel explained the country’s deep-rooted passion for coffee drinking. 

“In Puerto Rico, we drink coffee in the morning, at noon, in the afternoon, and of course, with dinner,” said Itzel. “Most children begin drinking coffee between the ages of 4 and 6; some in their baby bottles. I’m serious.” Coffee, she continued, is not native to Puerto Rico, but was brought to the island by the Spanish and French. Today, coffee plantations dot the country, espresso is served everywhere, and at breakfast time, often alongside flaky croissants, loaded with a secret ingredient — guava butter.

Next Up: Paleta

Even before Itzel’s wide smile led us to the sweet Señor Paleta (‘ice lolly’) shop, we’d seen the beautifully crafted, creamy, frozen desserts on a stick. In fact, we’d already tried a velvety coconut ice pop (reportedly the most popular flavor). But that didn’t deter us from trying the also-popular, slightly tart passion fruit, speckled with edible seeds. Founded in 2014 by childhood friends Jennifer Serrano (a physician) and Ramón Ortiz (a pharmacist), with a single tricycle-cooler in Old San Juan, the all-natural popsicles have taken the country by storm. Today, the couple oversees eight stores in Puerto Rico, an outpost in Orlando Florida, and 100 employees; while churning out 48 flavors — including favorites strawberry, orange, chocolate, pistachio, lime, and mango — all made with local fresh fruits and vegetables. There are also uniquely Puerto Rican flavors and variations including a churro ice pop (fried homemade dough dusted with sugar in the center); birthday pop (cake in the middle); and the Christmas trilogy based on Puerto Rico’s traditional coconut pudding (tembleque), nougat (turrón), and rice pudding (arroz con dulce).

Third Stop: El Patio de Sam

Make way for tostones. If there is a food synonymous with Puerto Rico, it is tostones (a.k.a. twice-fried plantains) — crispy yet savory and salty — and typically served with ‘special’ dipping sauce (that on this tour, we learn is ketchup and mayonnaise, with a splash of hot sauce on the side). Our delicious ‘gold coins’ were served at  El Patio de Sam, an institution in Old San Juan, and the former haunt of expat Hunter Thompson, who wrote his first book, The Rum Diaries, based on his time here. El Patio is also reportedly famous for its American burgers, although this pescatarian didn’t try.

Mofongo at Cafe El Punto

By the time Itzel brought us inside the popular Cafe El Punto, known for its authentic Puerto Rican and South American (the owner is Chilean) cuisine, our bellies were full. But as the handcrafted mojitos (Bacardi, lime, mint, sugar syrup, and soda water) ceremoniously appeared, we somehow made room for Puerto Rico’s most traditional dish, Mofongo — made from deep-fried, green plantains. With a wooden pilón (a mortar and pestle), made from a local Guayacán tree, we mashed our own plantains — mixing in coarse violet salt, garlic, and spoonfuls of chicken broth — then added chef-prepared chicken crillo (creole) to the plantains; beans (prepared with sofrito and fresh local herbs) to the rice. No two Mofongo recipes are ever the same — varying from chef to chef, household to household, and even region to region. All begin, however, with the same base of green plantains (typically fried but sometimes boiled).

Where to Stay in San Juan:

San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino

Image Courtesy of San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino

Located on Condado beach, not far from Old San Juan, the stylish 527-room San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino offers the perfect homebase for foodies. Start mornings at La Panaderia, the hotel’s signature coffee house, serving freshly brewed, locally sourced Puerto Rican coffee and pastries (with guava butter). End the day at Red Coral Lounge over live music and signature dragon berry mojitos. For a change of pace — from traditional Puerto Rican fare  — slip into Ohan Sushi & Poke Bar for red tuna poke and pork gyozas.

Casa Sol Bed & Breakfast

Old San Juan’s first-ever bed & breakfast, the historic Casa Sol — identifiable by its goldenrod exterior, and red wrought iron door — offers five elegantly romantic rooms, and quite possibly the best breakfast in Puerto Rico. Owner Eddie Ramírez, a retired Hilton executive (who grew up on the same street as Casa Sol) meticulously restored the 18th-century Spanish Colonial building, exposing beams and even frescos. While the result is stunning, it is Ramirez’s homemade breakfasts that keep guests coming back. His menu includes specialties like Mallorcas with ham, cheese and eggs (a very traditional Old San Juan breakfast), and Eggs Casa Sol —  a take on eggs benedict, featuring grated potato and pumpkin, tomato,  basil, poached eggs, and cheese.

More Food Tours To Love:

Drive Around Food Tour, San Juan

On this 3-hour, driving culinary tour of San Juan led by The Spoon Experience, learn about mangoes, plantains, and local peppers; sip on island rum and coffee; and explore up-and-coming neighborhoods, while savoring tasty dishes along the way.

Cacao Walking Tour, Fajardo

Enjoy this two-hour “Cacao Walking Tour” of Hacienda Chocolat, a working cacao farm in the rainforest. See where the cocoa tree is grown and pod processed. Taste the cacao fruit, indulge in a chocolate tasting, sample cheese and crackers with cacao marmalade and drink hot chocolate with spices. Note: medium to moderate intensity trails.

The Pork Highway, Guavate

Pork lovers will want to rent a car and self-guide their way through Guavate, a neighborhood in the mountain town of Cayey (about 30 miles south of San Juan). Known as the Pork Highway, Guavate is lined with lechoneras (roast pork restaurants and cafes) including favorites El Nuevo Rancho and El Mojito. The area was long a secret held by locals, until The Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern and the late Anthony Bourdain put it on the map.