Puerto Rico was a Catholic Spanish colony for over 400 years. Christian influence is everywhere inspiring most of our christmas traditions and customs. One such tradition is Three Kings Day. The three kings or magi were originally mentioned in Mathew 2 as wise men who followed the star of Bethlehem bringing gold, myrrh, and incense to the baby Jesus. Later the tradition became more elaborate naming the kings as three: Melchor, Gaspar, and Baltazar, who traveled on camels from different parts of the world.
In Puerto Rico young children gather grass on January 5th and leave it in a box for the camels to eat while the three kings come and leave their gifts under their bed or christmas tree. On the morning of January 6th they wake to find their gifts while the grass they gathered is gone and sometimes tossed about. The camels (or horses) are a bit messy.
This tradition is so strong a set of real life Magi, Los Reyes de Juana Díaz actually travel through various pueblos of the island spreading cheer, joy, and hope as they go. The Governor traditionally holds a special celebration where children receive gifts. In some households, Santa never arrives, only the Three Kings. Most families have some sort of celebration and many versions of the magi appear all over the Island. This year, the magi brought gifts and a small carriage to give the kids a ride. They loved it!
We ate, we sang, we drank, we joked, and just when we were about to leave… the Parranda arrived.
Nestled in the mountains of Rincón, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, is a small guest house unlike any other. The entrance is almost invisible, hidden among long green bamboo, but once you cross that threshold, it’s like being transported to another place. The dry, golden hills of Rincón disappear beneath a tall bamboo forest canopy. A doorway leads to a path and a wooden house. Beyond that is a small fountain and the path continues towards the Luna Hooch.
A Hooch is a bamboo structure built like a tree house. It runs on solar panels, making it self-sustainable, and it’s equipped with a full kitchen (with cooler for a fridge), bathroom, and queen-sized bed.
The Luna Hooch has it’s own little private porch and beyond that lies the Sunset Hooch: a slightly bigger version of the Luna. To the left of the Sunset Hooch is a path leading to a large bamboo swing. The path connects to other paths throughout the property. One of those leads to the Buddha Hooch, a large-scale version of the hooch. I suspect the view must have been magnificent.
The grounds are full of all kinds of bamboo, some over 20 feet tall. Take your time to explore the paths, look at the spiders and taíno inspired decorations.
Old San Juan is different from any other place in Puerto Rico. Colorful colonial buildings with tall windows line the cobbled streets of blue. It’s filled with life. The walls are infused with centuries of history, the plazas filled with old men in guayabera’s (typical shirt), artisans, neighbors, workers, and tourists. Delicious restaurants of all kinds mingle between shops, hotels, and government offices.
The Governor’s house is there. La Fortaleza or Palacio Santa Catalina, was named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, as it is one of the oldest palaces in use in the Americas (finished in 1540).
El Morro and San Cristobal Forts have daily tours and house more history reminiscent of pirates and rum runners. In fact, a famous Puerto Rican pirate El Pirata Cofresí, was executed on El Morro grounds in 1825. The castle walls still bear the wounds of old cannon ball hits.
The Parque de las Palomas(Pigeon Park) is a classic to visit and great for the kids. The Museo del Niño, also great for kids, is right next to el Hotel Convento, while the jewelry shops are supposed to have some of the best discounts. Personally I’ve always wondered about the Underground Tunnels, rumored to traverse the entire city from La Fortaleza, to El Morro, to San Cristobal Fort.
Take your time to leisurely walk the streets and notice the peeled plaster in some of the abandoned buildings, the tiny plants growing between the cobblestones, the old man carrying a bundle of white flowers “aaazucenas”… buy some.
I suspect every culture has a very peculiar and personal way of celebrating the New Year. As traditions go, this celebration is quite universal, even if very different from one place to another. An interesting life goal could be to experience a New Year celebration in a different country every year. But in order to get the real experience you need to celebrate with locals, otherwise you’ll just be in a hotel with cheesy music and muted versions of the real thing. So here’s a taste of what it’s like to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Puerto Rico:
The Menu: Some items vary depending on who’s hosting the party, but certain things will always be there.
Lechón (pork), usually left with the skin, is a favorite of all. A traditional way of preparing it is to roast the entire pork “a la vara” in a pit occasionally turning it.
Arroz con Gadules (rice with pigeon peas). Of course pork must be combined with arroz con gadules!
Pasteles: This is a typical dish made with plantain or yuca batter and stuffed with pork or chicken and wrapped in plátano leaves (plantain leaves), then boiled. It’s not officially the christmas season until you eat one.
Morcillas. This plate is peculiar… there’s some rice in there with spices. It kinda looks like a dark sausage. Just try it!
The Alcohol: You can’t have a New Year’s celebration without
alcohol can you?
Pitorro, the old-time favorite that just keeps getting better. Pitorro is home-made spiced rum, cured over time. You’ll find large bottles like in the picture filled with colored liquid and chunks of various fruits. As traditions grow, people keep getting more creative with the recipes: pear, passion fruit, tamarind, coconut and pineapple, coconut and almond, papaya, etc. It’s really strong, but washes down warm and you sip it (at least I do).
Coquito: An eggnog like drink made with rum, coconut milk, condensed milk and other spices. It’s served cold, and it’s sweet and delicious, although usually strong so they serve it in a shot glass.
The Music: Although some houses will have music playing from a speaker, at some point live music simply happens. Whether a parranda arrives (a group of people singing with guitars, güiros, maracas, and anything that makes noise. It’s a loud, merry version of caroling… boricua style), pleneros (group of people playing panderos and singing Plena), or simply someone grabs an instrument and everyone starts singing, sooner or later it’s bound to happen.
Pyrotechnics: When the clock strikes midnight it’s essential to make a lot of noise. Firecrackers and cherry bombs used to dominate, but ever since fireworks became mainstream this is one tradition that, like the Pitorro, keeps getting more elaborate. The skies alight with sparkles of different colors and everybody cheers: ¡Felicidades!
The party continues well into the night… or morning, if the neighbors don’t mind, and you can bet you’ll be eating left overs on Jan 1st. No worries, those are the kind of leftovers that make it a very Happy New Year!
Welcome to Pueto Rico Yarari! We’re finishing the year with a brand new blog. In case you’re wondering what “yarari” means, we figured the best way to start was explaining that name in the first place, so here it is.
Yarari is a Taíno word. The Taínos were the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico when Christopher Columbus arrived on our island. They were descendants of the Arawakan Indians who arrived in the region from South America.
“Yara” in Taíno means “place”, and “ri” means “brave, valiant, or fine spirit”. So “yarari” means “fine place”. Puerto Rico is yarari. It’s actually a really fine place. This blog will be all about why Puerto Rico is a fine place. I hope you like it, come visit, and discover all the beautiful places the yarari I call home has to offer.