A report by Kathleen Squires for Travel and Leisure.
When people picture a Puerto Rico vacation, they’re probably imagining themselves on a sun-drenched beach in San Juan. But a new mountain getaway, just an hour from the sand and the city, will have visitors craving an escape to the countryside.
Deep in the lush mountains of Cayey, in the central-southeast of the island, there is a farm lodge called El Pretexto. Its name fittingly translates to “the excuse” — as in, a darned good reason to swap the swimsuit for some hiking boots. The views alone, especially during the pastel-hued sunsets, justify at least one night’s stay.
Opened in June 2018, El Pretexto was owner Crystal Díaz’s own excuse to “get back to the countryside.” Díaz, 33, had been working in marketing and media for more than a decade when she began yearning for a lifestyle change. She was planning to attend the Culinary Institute of America, in New York, when she noticed that a charming mountain house and parcel of land had come on the market. “From that moment, everything changed,” she says. “I always say that the farm came before the table. As a young professional, it’s really easy to go to the States and earn double what I earn here. But I wanted the challenge to develop a business on the island that helps support the locals. I wanted to give back to Puerto Rico.”
She ditched her culinary school plans, bought the property, cultivated the land, and began rebuilding with the idea of making it a small farm stay. But then Hurricanes Irma and Maria arrived, back to back — devastating the island and demolishing Díaz’s hard work.
This setback only emboldened her mission. “Obviously a lot of people suffered because of the hurricane. But it gave others the opportunity to develop things that weren’t there before,” says Díaz. “For me, it was a chance to show that the land and local produce can be resilient. And that we don’t stop because of hurricanes.”
Thanks to Diaz’s perseverance, Puerto Rico’s “first culinary farm lodge” is fully open for business. The property offers five wood-and-stone accented guestrooms, spread among two spacious villas and a main house, where visitors can fall asleep to the chirp of coquis, the native tree frogs, and wake to the crow of roosters. A forest of palms, pines, and banana trees spreads over the entire property, surrounding the yoga gazebo and the open-air massage platforms with views of the surrounding peaks. Nearby, guests can hike to hidden waterfalls, or make a lunchtime visit to a lechonera serving whole roasted pig — the island’s specialty.
Dinners at El Pretexto are the true highlight, made from scratch with almost entirely local ingredients — many from the property’s fruit trees and vegetable beds. Guests end the day with sunset drinks on the wood-slatted terrace, taking in the mountain views before sitting down to a multi-course meal; courses can include local dishes such as pumpkin-and-leek soup, plantain pastelón with short ribs, Puerto Rican root vegetables, and butter cake with rum Chantilly cream. It’s worth scheduling your stay during an installment of El Pretexto’s special pop-up series, which brings in the island’s top chefs — including “The Next Iron Chef” contestant Mario Pagán and James Beard Award nominee Francis Guzmán — to create elaborate family-style feasts accompanied by live entertainment.
A feast greets guests in the morning, too; a centerpiece of the abundant breakfasts might is local fruit salad, plucked from the tropical fruit trees all around you. This renewed relationship with food and nature is what Díaz has aimed for all along.
Whether you are spending the night or just attending an event, reservations are strictly required for this adults-only venue. Overnight packages that include meals, yoga, and hiking excursions are available. Pop-up dining events range from $85–$150 per person.
To book: doubles from $125, elpretextopr.com