July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Exploring Puerto Rico’s Diverse Cuisine

3 min read

I stood peeling plantains in the outdoor kitchen at El Pretexto, a culinary farm and lodge in the mountain town of Cayey, Puerto Rico, an hour south of San Juan. Because it was a clear day, I could see all the way to where the pale sky met the Caribbean Sea.

I was one of five food lovers experiencing the lodge’s new weeklong culinary program. Chef Luis Cabrero was teaching us how to make pasteles, a Puerto Rican specialty that combines stewed pork with a masa of plantains, green bananas, and root vegetables. We spooned the mixture into banana leaves, folded and tied the bundles closed, and put them in a pot of water to steam. Then we all gathered around a long wooden table to taste the fruits of our labors.

A pop-up dinner with a visiting chef at El Pretexto; burrata with grape tomatoes and pesto.

Rafael Ruiz Mederos/Courtesy of El Pretexto Culinary Farm and Lodge (2)

It was quite a change from my first visit to the farm, nearly five years ago, in June 2018. Hurricanes Irma and Maria had devastated the island the previous fall, and when I arrived, El Pretexto had only just opened for business, with two villas. Today, the estate is flourishing, with almost four acres of plantains, breadfruit, coffee, cacao, grapefruit, avocado, and chayote squash, plus flocks of chickens and ducks. Crystal Díaz, El Pretexto’s proprietor, added two more villas, each with a kitchenette and a deck for soaking in the mountain views (one villa also has a heated plunge pool).

Related: Travel + Leisure Readers’ 5 Favorite Puerto Rico Resorts of 2023

Tomatoes from El Pretexto’s garden; guests can help gather eggs from the farm’s chickens.

Courtesy of El Pretexto Culinary Farm and Lodge; Rafael Ruiz Mederos/Courtesy of El Pretexto Culinary Farm and Lodge

Díaz also expanded the outdoor kitchen, where she educates guests about the island through its cuisine. “You can very easily explain our history with each dish,” she told me. Pasteles exemplify Puerto Rico’s cultural mix: in addition to plantains, the recipe includes root vegetables first cultivated by the Indigenous Taino people as well as pork and spices imported by the Spanish, while the technique of steaming food within banana leaves was introduced by enslaved Africans.

El-Pretexto’s main building.

Ghost Edits/Courtesy of El Pretexto Culinary Farm and Lodge

Throughout the week, our group continued to cook Puerto Rican classics, like arroz con pollo. We also explored nearby farms, including one dedicated to coffee; visited the fishing village of Naguabo; and tasted rum at a distillery. The week culminated with a feast of slow-roasted turkey, known as pavochon, flavored with sour orange, cilantro, and another herb called recao. 

As we ate, I contemplated the meaning of “El Pretexto,” which translates to “the excuse.” Díaz chose the name because the project gave her a reason to return home to the countryside. For me, there was no excuse necessary. 

View from a villa at El Pretexto.

Courtesy of El Pretexto Culinary Farm and Lodge

A version of this story first appeared in the November 2023 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Back to the Land.


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