Last updated: 11:00 PM ET, Tue April 26 2016

Opinion Home | Far-Sighted Field Notes

  • Rosalind Cummings-Yeates | April 26, 2016 11:00 PM ET

    Capturing Creole Traditions in Caguas

    Capturing Creole Traditions in Caguas

    PHOTO: El Reloj Flores or "Floral Clock." (photos by Rosalind Cummings-Yeates)

    From salsa music to pina coladas, Puerto Rican culture has been quickly absorbed into the awareness of many fans that have never even visited the island. But to really experience the essence of Puerto Rican traditions, a trip to the town of Caguas, just an hour south of San Juan and the cradle of criollo or creole culture, is a must.

    San Juan may be the place for trendy restos and bustling tourist activities, but I discovered that the old school charm of Caguas will show you even more of the Puerto Rican experience.

    Rice Balls and Flower Clocks

    We started out early to arrive in Caguas in time to sample Don Juan’s almojabanas, served hot from his cart. Not to be confused with the Colombian cheese bread, Puerto Rican almojabanas are fried rice balls stuffed with cheese. They’re a breakfast staple in Caguas and Don Juan has been selling them from the same corner in front of the plaza for 40 years.

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    The savory treats are filling and typically sell out in a few hours, so I was excited to munch a few as we headed to Santiago R. Palmer plaza. Accented with a fountain, a pond and a fragrant ylang ylang tree, the pretty green space is the focal point for the small town.

    Caguas was founded in 1775 and much of the town developed around the plaza. A floral clock constructed from bronze, El Reloj Flores, is a popular local attraction; it was created in the ‘60s and boasts a poem dedicated to the town. The landmark is also lined with the faces of 12 famous caguenos or citizens.

    A carousel complete with music and lights, sits across from it. If you want to grab some coffee to go with your almojabanas, Cafe Palmer offers expert baristas who serve up flavored coffees topped with pretty designs, (mine was an angel). I learned to order my cup clarito, which means mostly milk with a little bit of coffee. Sitting under a tree at one of the cafe’s tables is the perfect people watching spot as you sip your coffee. Across the street, the Cathedral Dulce Nombre de Jesus contains the tomb of the first Puerto Rican to be beatified, Carlos Manuel Rodriguez.

    Santos, Sangria and Tobacco

    PHOTO: Chef Carlos from Orujo Taller De Gastronomia.

    One of the most appealing aspects of Caguas is that it’s a very walkable, accessible town. You can even stop by the tourism office on the main plaza to get a map of the local attractions, which are lined up in a path called La Ruta del Corazon Criollo or “the route for the heart of Creole culture.” There are mosaic tiles scattered along the sidewalks to point the way and the office also supplies audio tours in English and Spanish.

    My first stop was at the Museum of Popular Arts, Museo de Artes Populares de Caguas. I love the handcrafted exhibits and colorful artifacts that fill the space. You’ll glimpse carnival masks, instruments for the folk music, bomba, wooden carved saints or santos, lace mantillas and displays about the island’s original Taino settlers. Across the street, the Tobacco Museum will lure you in with the scent of drying tobacco leaves. Tobacco was once a big business for the region and the exhibits illustrate the history and process. The highlight is the room where artisans invite you to roll your own cigar.

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     Refresh yourself at Los Hermans Sangria Factory, where tastings of the handmade sangria will have you scooping up bottles to take home. The company offers dozens of flavors including guava, tamarind and mango, but my fave was passion fruit. Top off your Caguas visit with a gourmet creole meal from Orujo Taller De Gastronomia. Chef Carlos takes traditional Puerto Rican ingredients like the spice mix of sofrito, plantains and rice and whips them into sublime dishes — like seafood risotto, ceviche and mofongo with delicate scallops. You’ll leave with an unforgettable taste of Caguas on every level.


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Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Far-Sighted Field Notes

Rosalind Cummings-Yeates Rosalind Cummings-Yeates is a journalist, author and blogger who specializes in travel and culture topics. She loves guiding readers through the richness of various cultures and discovering the essence of a destination. Her travel and culture blog, Farsighted Fly Girl, offers travel insights through the music, food, art and history of various countries and cultures. Join her on the journey at www.Rosalindcummingsyeates.
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