Sheila Osorio kicks up a cloud of butter-coloured sand as she twirls to the rhythm of the drums. The wind is high and the beat comes fast – urgent and heavy, like a train rattling over tracks. When the music reaches a crescendo, she sinks low and salutes the pair of drummers, who sit with their backs to a denim-blue ocean. Then she turns to our group and smiles.
“There’s no pressure when you dance the bomba,” she says. “You just feel the beat of the drums. It’s a way to connect with the past and with yourself.”
Bomba is a traditional dance and musical genre in Puerto Rico, a lush rectangular isle dropped between the North Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea. The phenomenon emerged from enslaved Africans, who laboured on sugar-cane plantations from the 16th century, and Osorio is on a mission to keep this fragment of Puerto Rican culture alive.
She performs across the island and offers classes on Puente Herrera beach in the north-eastern town of Loíza. Her lessons are also included in day-tour itineraries, such as the one I am on with Bespoke Lifestyle Management.
“We’re a globalised culture. People listen to electronic music. We’ve got hip-hop, and I love that. I don’t believe in boundaries,” my guide, Francisco Battistini, explains as I climb back in the van. “But I also think we need to realise the special things we have that make us different. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a big effort to promote traditional culture and folklore here, and the bomba is becoming popular again.”
Francisco is driving me through Loíza, a cradle of African culture where twisted mangroves line the coast, and festival-goers don masks made from coconuts during the annual Festival of St James in July.
Island in flux
Puerto Rico’s efforts to reclaim its cultural identity have never been more poignant. The island – originally home to the indigenous Taino – was colonised by the Spanish from the 1500s, and ceded to the US in 1898. In 1952, the territory changed from a “colony” to a “commonwealth” and adopted its own constitution. But it is still an island in flux.
Over the years, numerous referendums have pitted the options of independence and statehood against each other. In 2020, 53 per cent of voters elected to become a US state. But, until now, the referendums have not been binding.
However, in December 2022, a bill to allow the first-ever binding referendum was passed by the House of Representatives. Though it has yet to pass in the Senate, the bill has added urgency to a conversation that has been ongoing for more than a century. And it has also brought proud celebrations of Puerto Rico’s distinct culture to the fore.
“There is no Borikén without Boricuas,” says Fabián A Jiménez Febres of Flavors Food Tours, using Taino terms for the island and its inhabitants. He is leading me on a culinary odyssey through the streets of Old San Juan, the most historic swathe of Puerto Rico’s capital. “The love every inhabitant has for this island, despite events throughout its history, is what makes it special,” he adds.
One reason for the love affair, he tells me, is the island’s gastronomy. Our tour leads us from Café Cuatro Sombras – where we sip espresso made from Puerto Rico-grown beans that are roasted on site – to down-home El Patio De Sam, a veteran San Juan restaurant, where we pound our own mofongo – a traditional dish of mashed green plantains and garlic (and typically salt-cured pork or crackling, though my vegetarian request is accommodated).
San Juan is a stalwart of most travel itineraries, but those who venture beyond are richly rewarded. I steal east for a hike in El Yunque National Forest, whose wooded acres are thick with waterfalls and the endemic coquí frog. Then I strike west, where surf town Rincón has epic swell and brochure-worthy beaches, plus a handful of cool coffee shops and galleries. Finally, the south calls, where the elegant city of Ponce is home of rum giant Don Q and some of the island’s finest cultural institutions.
The city was hard hit by the 6.4-magnitude earthquake that rocked Puerto Rico in January 2020 and some downtown buildings remain cracked and empty. The quake came just three years after Hurricane Maria, a category 5 storm that devastated the island. However, the exhibit halls of the glittering Museo de Arte de Ponce are under repair, and new bars – including offshoots of trendy San Juan – are gearing up to open in previously hollow shells.
“My company started in December 2017, right after Maria, and in those six years, we have been through everything,” says guide Melina Aguilar, as we drive through Ponce’s pastel-washed streets. “But we also had a huge boom in entrepreneurship. Maria pushed us into thinking: ‘I need to start my own thing because we need to give back to Puerto Rico.’”
Aguilar’s tour company, Isla Caribe, is the only one operating in the region and her itineraries often visit Hacienda Jacana, which also opened in 2017 in nearby Adjuntas.
Committed to reviving the island’s coffee heritage (the product was introduced here in the 1730s), the farm harvests 200,000lb of beans and sells products under its Latitude 18 brand; in May, it opened for weekend tours, too. Aguilar and I spend a few hours swilling brews and exploring the hilly surroundings. The plants hang heavy with lime-green “coffee cherries” – by the harvest, they are radish red.
“Aduntas is a coffee town and I come from a coffee family,” owner Jonathan Pérez Marín tells us. “This part of the island was losing its tradition, so I saw an opportunity to rescue something.”
Beyond blockbuster beaches, it is this that makes Puerto Rico one of the Caribbean’s richest escapes: a precious culture and the guardians seeking to save it.
JetBlue offers non-direct flights from Gatwick and Heathrow to San Juan via a number of US airports, including Miami, New York and Boston. Flights are also available with American Airlines, Delta and Iberia.
San Juan’s plant-filled Dreamcatcher by DW hotel has hammock-strewn rooms from £148 and a vegetarian breakfast menu, dreamerswelcome.com.
Also in San Juan, adults-only Condado Ocean Club has a pool and a chic restaurant overlooking the beach with doubles from $240 (£195), condadooceanclub.com.