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The Perfect Old San Juan Food Tour.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, food tours are one of the best ways to explore a new city. Food is essential to any culture, so sampling local cuisine provides a window into a people and place.
During a recent visit to Puerto Rico I jumped at the chance to join an Old San Juan food tour. And while all good food tours should provide a history lesson, this tour was exceptional when it came to educating us about Puerto Rico in general, and Old San Juan in particular. Our guide, Pablo, with Spoon tours, was the most informative and passionate guide I’ve ever met.
About Old San Juan
The island of Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, and its capital city is San Juan. Perched on the northwest tip of the city, surrounded by water, is its oldest neighborhood called Old San Juan. Streets paved with blue bricks are bordered by brightly colored buildings. Small plazas are filled with benches and pigeons while tourists stream through the streets enthralled with its well-preserved charm.
I describe Old San Juan as a better Havana. While I loved my visit to Havana, Cuba, I was disturbed by the poor state of much of the city. Even Old Havana–a major tourist attraction–was rather sad with dirty, crumbling buildings and few shops. Old San Juan on the other hand exceeded my expectations.
I learned from Pablo that there are strict guidelines for the buildings in this area so that the character of the neighborhood remains. Even the colors of the buildings must be selected from a pre-approved list. It isn’t perfect. There are some crumbling and abandoned buildings here too, but there are also abundant shops, restaurants, and hotels, most of which are clean and well maintained.
Be sure to read, Why You Must Go Ziplining in Puerto Rico!
Spoon was founded in 2012 by Paulina Salach and Gustavo Antonetti. Their team of guides are all well versed in Puerto Ricanhistory and gastronomy. They offer a variety of food tours, cooking classes, and even a mixology class. I had the chance to take their three hour Old San Juan food tour, but next time I’m in Puerto Rico, I will certainly try one of their other offerings.
Spoon has partnered with over a dozen different restaurants and cafes in Old San Juan, so each tour may vary a bit. If you have the chance to experience this while visiting Puerto Rico, I highly recommend it, but keep in mind your food offerings may differ.
First Stop–Chocobar Cortes
After listening to Pablo provide some history of Puerto Rico, our first food stop of the afternoon was at Chocobar Cortes, a cafe specializing in sweet and savory chocolate food and beverages. Founded in 2011 by the Cortes family, this is a farm-to-bar operation. Every step of chocolate production is overseen by the family and sustainability is a top priority.
We sampled their chocolate rum martini and mallorca bread. Rum has been produced on the island since the 15th century and today is an important export. In fact over 70% of the rum consumed in the United States comes from Puerto Rico. Mallorca bread is a slightly sweet white bread that’s considered comfort food for locals. This was the perfect first course.
Second Stop–Filtrado Coffee
After the rum in my chocolate martini, I needed a caffeine boost to wake up, so I was delighted that our next stop was at Filtrado Coffee. This was also a great opportunity to learn about coffee in Puerto Rico.
The island’s volcanic soil combined with the elevation where it grows produces excellent coffee beans. It’s believed that coffee was introduced to Puerto Rico by the Spanish in the 1700’s, and has been cultivated here ever since.
Filtrado serves only single farm, single harvest, and hand picked coffee. Brewed in the pour over style, each step is carefully calibrated. From small cups we sampled this precisely prepared coffee without cream or sugar so we could truly taste Puerto Rican coffee. It was delicious.
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Our third stop was more than just a chance to eat, but instead a mini cooking class. We had the opportunity at Deaverdura to make mofongo, a classic Puerto Rican dish made with fried green plantains. I had enjoyed mofongo my first night on the island and loved it, so I was excited to make it myself.
We sat down at tables covered with bowls of fried green plantains, chicharones (fried pork rinds), margarine, salt, and garlic. The first step was to mash together the plantains and chicharones in a wooden pilón (mortar and pestle). Then the other ingredients were mixed in. Finally we scooped the mofongo onto a plate and topped it with pork. I hadn’t mashed the ingredients very well, so it was pretty chunky, but still delicious. Bowls of rice and beans were place on our table to round out the meal.
Pork is a very popular food in Puerto Rico and the most common topping for mofongo. However, it can be ordered with a number of other proteins including beef, fish, and shrimp.
Fourth Stop–Señor Paleta
It was a hot and humid day in Old San Juan, so I couldn’t imagine a better way to end our tour than with a popsicle. Señor Paleta serves gelato and sorbet popsicles in a wide variety of flavors. Opened six years ago, this popular dessert shop now has eight locations on the island. I selected dulce con leche which was perfect.
We crossed the street with our popsicles and enjoyed a view of the harbor over the wall of Old San Juan. This massive wall reaches heights of 42 feet and at the base is 45 feet thick. It was excellent protection for the city, keeping out foreign invaders.
Tips For Enjoying The Old San Juan Food Tour
To make the most of your Spoon tour, here are a few tips;
- Come hungry–I ate a light breakfast on the morning of the tour, and was glad I did. The portions–especially of mofongo–were very generous.
- Dietary restrictions–Spoon will try to accommodate dietary restrictions, but it’s wise to contact them before making reservations if you have any.
- Wear comfortable shoes–Both the brick lined streets and sidewalks of Old San Juan are uneven, so I recommend a good walking shoe for this tour.
- Be prepared for heat–Depending on when you visit, it can be very hot in Puerto Rico, and it’s always humid. Some of the food stops are in air conditioned restaurants, but others are not. Wear cool, comfortable clothing, and consider bringing a hat and sunglasses.