We got up Friday morning (painfully, since the lack of windows made it seem like it was 3am), and hauled our stuff downstairs on the slowest, tiniest elevator in the world. (It’s the kind with the two gates you have to pull shut yourself.) We found Kris and Orsi’s stuff sitting in the lobby, and Kris texted that they were getting the car. Matt and I walked over to Plaza de Armas. Kris said they were bringing coffee, but the plaza booth sold mallorcas.
I love this giant Christmas tree in the middle of the plaza. At night it’s fantastic.
You see the three wise men all over San Juan. We didn’t figure out what this was about until we got home. Apparently they like to hand out gifts to kids on the 12th night, the Noche de Reyes, when the reyes magos visit.
They arrived with the car and coffee, Matt arrived with the mallorcas, and we were off to Rincón.
Our first destination on our journey was La Ruta de Lechón, i.e. the pork highway. Matt had wanted to go there since he’d learned of its existence long ago, but obviously I was less than excited about visiting a road full of restaurants dedicated to pork. But we figured since there were now three meat eaters, we had to visit. Plus I kind of wanted to see it. (I had lunch backup in my bag just in case.)
When you exit the highway toward Guavate, you end up on a narrow road that winds up and down through the hills. There are restaurants and bars the entire way, and they all specialize in one thing: whole roasted suckling pig, the kind you have to start cooking at midnight the previous day. The lechoneras are up all night, and the places open when the meat is done. And it’s every single place.
For a while there’s a restaurant every half-mile or so, but if you keep going you’ll get to Guavate, which is an ENTIRE TOWN made up of lechón restaurants. It was amazing.
We parked and wandered down the block to find an ATM. We grabbed Medallas and stood around gawking at the sights. Then we went into El Rancho Express, since Kris had read that they were one of the recommended stops. It turns out they just have a pre-made plate, so they decided to cross over to El Rancho Original instead, where they could pick out all the meat they wanted.
The guys went to stand in the food line, and Orsi and I went to get beers and grab a table. We took note of the giant SANGRIIIA sign on the building across the street, because we’d seen that same banner at every single place along the way. (It was even more amusing knowing it’s made by a company called Gasolina, and comes in a pouch like Capri-Sun.)
Matt and Kris arrived with a giant spread that included various kinds of pig and pig skin, turkey, blood sausage, rice and peas, and roasted yam. And Sangriiia, of course. (Sadly, not in a pouch.) I was thrilled, because the rice and peas and yam were really good and I didn’t have to get out my Suncake.
While we ate, we watched the entertainment in the covered area next to us. It was full of picnic tables, and had a big stage where a couple of old guys were singing and playing. We didn’t know exactly what he was singing about, but one of the guys on stage had the old ladies swooning. People were dancing and singing along. It was fantastic. Every restaurant seemed to have their own version of that, too.
After lunch, we got back in the car and headed back to the highway toward Ponce. We hadn’t visited the western half of Puerto Rico before, but the landscape was really familiar since we’d flown over it on the way to and from Vieques. It’s very rural, with rolling hills and a constant view of the ocean.
We exited in Ponce, because Kris had a few stops there on his list. He told us there was a place called Cafe Cafe and another called Ponce Ponce. We found one of them (I don’t even remember which), and went in for coffee and beer. The other place didn’t exist. I think he was making the whole thing up.
Ponce is an adorable little town. (It’s actually second-largest in PR, but the historic downtown is small.) It has the same narrow streets as San Juan, and gorgeous old buildings. The town centers around a large square that features the Parque de Bombas. I’d seen photos of it before, but it was still kind of shocking to see sitting there. It’s such a weird, awesome building.
There’s a museum inside, with this awesome smoking goat in the lobby. (Note the cop not wanting to be photographed in the background.)
We did a lap of the square, picked up some souvenirs, and then headed down a pedestrian side street toward the town market that Kris had read about. The shops along the street were all kind of shady-looking, like stuff that fell off the back of a truck. We found the market, but it was closed. We couldn’t tell if it was closed for the day (it was mid-afternoon) or for renovations, but it seemed like the latter. I’d really like to go back and see it at some point, because it looked awesome. Also, Ponce was really cute.
We walked back to the car and headed toward Rincón. The highway was pretty fast until we hit Mayaguez, which appeared to be a town entirely made up of about 250 car dealerships and the brewery that makes Medalla and its much-crappier cousin, Silver Key. It took forever, between the traffic and the stoplights, since it was rush hour time. We finally made it to the far side of town where the turnoff for Rincón was, and found that the road was closed.
So we got to sit in more traffic, and finally got to the alternate route. From there, it wasn’t far into town. From the second we saw it, I knew we were going to like Rincón.
Orsi had rented a condo for us that was right across the street from the main beach. We drove through the tiny downtown and found the condo complex about a half-mile away. It was indeed across the street from the Balneario de Rincón.
They were quicker into the condo and claimed the master bedroom, so we were stuck with the room with the double bed, and bunk bed. The bunk bed was at least queen-sized, and ended up being fine. It’s a miracle neither of us got a concussion, though.
We unpacked and sat out on the patio while the sun set over the beach. We noted that there was some music and activity at the building right next to the beach, so we decided we’d need to check that out later.
We then went back down to the car and headed into town. We stopped at the grocery store to get supplies for our stay there (stuff to make breakfast, mixers, and snacks). Of course it took us forever to shop because people kept wandering off. After that, we went into the little downtown. The main square was all decorated for Christmas, and was adorable.
We stopped into Rincón Beer Company, where we got a table out on the sidewalk. Unfortunately they didn’t have any of their own beers on tap at the moment, but they had a good selection from other breweries (plus cocktails, and a small food menu).
After a couple rounds there, it was time to get dinner. We decided on La Cambija, because it had really good reviews. I was a little wary because it was a seafood restaurant, but it turned out they could make a few things vegetarian. (If there’s a note about it on the menu, that’s always a good sign.) Their mojitos were good, and the food was excellent. Plus it was just down the block from our condo.
After dinner, we stopped into the little restaurant/bar next door because they had a sign advertising that they sold ice, and the icemaker in our freezer didn’t work. Of course it just made sense to get a beer while were there, so we ended up sitting at the bar talking to the super-nice girl who worked there for a long time. Her name was Stefania, and she was Colombian. (Her English was excellent, and she told us she liked having the excuse to practice.) A couple guys we assumed were local came in, and Kris overheard them saying something about Minnesota, so he asked. It turned out that one of them lived in Maple Grove part-time, so he ended up being mercilessly hassled over that. Before they left, they gave us advice on other places to go in town, but the gist of it was “wait til it’s really late, drink a lot, get in your car, and drive up some winding mountain roads til you find a club”. So that wasn’t going to happen.
We said bye to Stefania and walked over to see what the music was about at the beach bar. It turned out to be a tiny hut with a big patio space full of tables, where old people hung out drinking cheap beer and singing karaoke. It was fantastic.
We grabbed a beer, then went back to the condo to play dominoes on the patio.