Carnival seems to have arrived early, as the Street Festival of San Sebastián in January draws crowds of onlookers and locals parade in traditional ‘vejigante’ masks while the streets of the district are invaded by fairground attractions, food stalls and a party that seems to be ever-growing in pace and excitement. Old San Juan reverberates to the beat of the live music bands as night falls and the young and old together move in unison to the salsa and merengue rhythms. This is a celebration of Puerto Rican culture and traditions which runs over three days, where the cuisine alone is almost a religious experience in itself. What better way to sample the ‘comida criolla’, with its wonderful fusion of eclectic flavours such as yams, plantains, tropical fruits, rice and spices. As for salsa, it may have had its origins in Cuban music, but credit for its worldwide popularity could be attributed the Puerto Ricans in New York. For non-Latinos, our knowledge of Latin culture and music comes from American movies and in most cases that means Puerto Rican experience as depicted in them.
On a ‘slow’ weekend, one or more of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities is likely to be celebrating their Patron Saint with games, rides, feasting and drinking which usually take place over 10 days and nights!
True carnival fever hits the island six days before Catholic Lent as the city of Ponce turns into a magical place: the sound of folk music fills the air and masqueraders fill the streets. Ponce is also the venue for the National Afro-Caribbean Festival. Held near the site of a historic slave uprising during colonial times, the Afro-Caribbean Festival commemorates Puerto Rico’s African roots with plenty of African-influenced music and dance. For another celebration of African heritage and traditions, don’t miss the Loíza Carnival, one of the island’s most famous events, which comes alive in July with floats, costumes, bomba (an Afro-Caribbean dance) dancers and plenty of island rhythms. Puerto Rican festivals often commemorate the eclectic mix of Indian, Spanish and African cultures, as well as native crafts and local harvests.
If island sounds are what you are into, you’ll have plenty of options. Puerto Rican Danza Week celebrates the timeless beauty of danza music, bringing back the romantic era of ballroom dancing with live orchestras. A danza competition, with dancers in period costume, is one of the highlights of this event that takes place in May. The Casals Festival, one of the best known classical musical events in the Caribbean, pays tribute to the renowned cellist Pablo Casals and features world-class conductors and artists in the month of January. The festival was started by the celebrated Spanish cellist when he moved to Puerto Rico, his mother’s homeland, in 1956. Then there is the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest: Since its inception in 1991, this musical extravaganza has showcased international Latin jazz stars as well as traditional jazz greats. Past performances have included George Benson, Al Jarreau, Eddie Palmieri, Israel López “Cachao,” Chick Corea, and Spyro Gyra. This event draws thousands of jazz enthusiasts to San Juan every May and has grown into an internationally recognized occasion.
If you head for the hills in November, you’ll find the Jayuya Indigenous Festival. This folkloric event honors the Taíno Indians and their importance in Puerto Rican history with reenactments of their life and times. The town of Aibonito is festooned with thousands of orchids, lilies, begonias, roses and countless tropical plants for the Aibonito Flower Festival. This colorful weeklong extravaganza in June also features gardening and landscaping exhibits.
While all festivals hold their own when it comes to delicious grub, check out some of the food or harvest-themed celebrations going on around the island, depending on the season: the National Plantain Festival in Corozal, the Pana Festival in Humacao, the Mango festival in Mayagüez and the Coffee Harvest Festival in Maricao will keep your taste buds truly tantalised throughout the year.