A short drive east from San Juan on coastal route 187 is the beach town of Piñones. Freed and escaped sugarcane plantation slaves founded Piñones with the help of native Tainos, and Afro-Carribbean culture and pride still run strong. At my first roadside stop, I watched a bomba dancer in a long skirt and bare feet command the rhythms of conga drummers with the movement of her hips.
Piñones is also where immigrants from the Dominican Republic settled in the 60’s and 70’s. Therefore, the first half of the town consists of Dominican clubs and restaurants, and the second half are Puerto Rican. You can drive up and down the strip at night, sampling both tastes, rhythms, and accents.
The waves here are strong, especially in the afternoon, which makes Piñones a popular surfing spot. For this reason, we San Juan wussies never came here for daytime beach-going. Instead, we showed up in the late afternoon and watched the surfers and the sunset while enjoying a cold beer on the warm sand. Then we went inside El Balcon del Zumbador, the best live music venue in town, and danced to Rumba and Salsa bands. Well, to be honest, we mostly just swayed while we watched the locals, who were incredible dancers.
El Balcon has a pretty amazing snack bar, where you can order up a plate of tostones rellenos (stuffed plantains), a basket of sorullitos (fried corn bread sticks), or a cup of tomato-ey soup brimming with chunks of fresh seafood.
My favorite food in all of Puerto Rico (beside guamas) was their tostones rellenos: fried plantain slices mashed into cup shapes, refried, and filled with one of 8 different kinds of seafood ceviche. They could also be filled with chunks of fried chicken, or picadillo (ground beef with olives, raisins and spices). At $1.50, I was tempted to try one of each.
Across the street, there was a fritura stand that had really good crab alcapurrias and the best aji I tasted in PR. The 2 women working there formed alcapurrias—ground root vegetable fritters stuffed with meat or fish—the traditional way, by rolling them in a coccoloba leaf before dropping them into a tub of red-hot oil positioned over a wood burning fire. Between batches, they stepped outside to dance to extremely loud Salsa music played by a DJ who had set up a card table and massive speakers in the sandy parking lot.
Music and the smells of delicious snacks swirl through the air everywhere you go in Piñones. You may have to sit in weekend traffic to get there, but the pleasure is worth the wait.