Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Where to Eat and Stay Vegan: Maravilla B&B - the Farm

Outside the mountain town of Las Marias is Maravilla's other property which Margo refers to as "the farm." Part organic farm, part horse farm, part vegan and vegetarian kitchen, this was a tropical mountain oasis.

We stayed in the "cabin" for two nights. Staying in the cabin is basically cushy camping in a rain forest. You are absolutely surrounded by lush green leaves, neon colored flowers, drooping fruit trees and the ubiquitous sound of the Coqui - Puerto Rico's tiny singing frog.

The cabin is the less luxurious of the two accommodation options at the farm, but for us frugal gals it fit just perfectly into our budget. And, to be fair, it was gorgeous. Open air kitchen, fold out wood walls and screened doors made sleeping here feel like you were perched in a treehouse. What makes it a little less luxurious than the bedrooms up in the main house? The cabin is "unplugged" as Margo put it. In other words - no electricity. You won't be slumming it though. There's a gas stove, a fire pit, hot running water and a flushing toilet and even a huge tub out under the canopy that can be filled with hot water if you request it.

Mom took the larger bedroom with the floor to ceiling screened windows while Sydney and I nestled into the room next door. During our stay we got the unexpected surprise of sleeping through (or rather trying to sleep though) the passing of Hurricane Sandy. While the hurricane was gaining strength down in the islands we got dumped on with one of its bands in what was one of the scariest storms I've tried to sleep through. We slept with the windows and doors open every night to catch some of the breeze and alleviate the humidity but on this particular night even I had to push the door closed because the thunder was so loud and the rain, wind and lighting was so intense I was afraid that even the concrete structured cabin would be blown away.

While lack of electricity made it tricky for keeping cell phones charged and reading at night, we kinda had fun with our flashlights and gas lamps. The first night after we fell asleep I woke in the middle of the night to a strange glow. Outside our screen door hundreds of glowing bugs had gathered on the ceiling of the open kitchen putting on a dancing, flashing show for the few minutes I was able to stay awake to watch it.

One of the more interesting aspects of the cabin was the "sun-room" which Sydney took the most advantage of. No more than what appeared to be the burned out remains of the concrete upper floor of the building - we assumed that this sun-room was still a work in progress.

As at the beach house, all of our meals were provided for us as part of the fee. Up the steep driveway, a short 5 minute climb (during which we practiced the mantra "better fitting jeans, better fitting jeans") was the Galley Kitchen where we often found Pony, the sleepy aging dog, sunning himself. All of our food was packaged and labeled and we could microwave our food or take it back to our gas stove for meals.

During our stay we feasted on:

Herb Bread
Scrambled Tofu
Banana Bread
Fruit Salad
Hummus and Veggies
Herb Potato Empanadas
Tofu Stirfry
Coconut Papaya Cake
Sweet Curry Cookies

Our last night staying at Maravilla we had a special 4 course meal. We were invited to come up to the main house to be served a traditional Puerto Rican meal in the dining room by Margo. Our first course was Guineo Tostones: flattened and lightly breaded slices of plantains dipped in a creamy sauce. Then came the Sancocho. Sancocho is traditionally made with an animal broth and may have fish in it but for our veggie fare it was loaded with plantains, taro root, cassava and potatoes. Sancocho is what you would want to eat when you're sick, warming and filling and starchy.
Needless to say, we were already filling up by the time the main event came out. Our entree was Pastelon, an amazingly flavorful plantain lasagna. Slices of sweet plantain were layered with savory faux meat crumbles and melted soy cheese. Served with this was a generous helping of Gandules (pigeon peas)and Rice as well as a raw cabbage salad.
At this point we were ready to throw in the towel and roll back down the hill to our cabin but there was simply no way we could pass up the Tembleque Coconut Pudding that Margo prepared as our dessert.

All the meals we had at Maravilla were expertly prepared. When I asked if Margo would share some of her recipes she claimed the right of all great chefs by holding her secrets but offering more food.

In addition to all the food we had to eat there was food all around us at the cabin on the farm. Margo grows an impressive variety of food and has even had some success with crops that would not traditionally grow well in tropical regions - like broccoli. This kale really surprised me - I have never seen kale grow such a substantial stalk! She said she just never pulled it out, she let it continue to grow.

While we were there we peaked in on the other accommodations. This is what the luxury sweet looks like.

On our last night as we painfully walked back to our beds after our giant feast, we passed a low leafed plant and heard the tiny "meep meep" of the Coqui right next to us. Now the whole time we had stayed there we were constantly being serenaded by the little frogs but this frog sounded like it could have been singing on our shoulder. We grabbed our lamps and started gently moving the leaves and shining our light and after a few minutes of searching we were rewarded with this tiny frog.

At the end of our two days Mom and Sydney were ready to get back to civilization and we left Maravilla with promises to return. For those of you adventurous type I would highly recommend staying with Margo and in addition she also does a work trade. If you stay for 6 week or more and work for the farm and the bed and breakfast you'll receive room and board - something I plan to take advantage of in the future!

What to do in Isabela, Puerto Rico

Isabella is not a tourist town. People don't fly down from their cold, damp houses in the north to lounge about in Isabella on Jobos beach...but maybe they should. It was in Isabella, where we stopped on our way to Maravilla B&B that we had the warmest reception of our trip (of which everyone was incredibly friendly) and saw some things we really hadn't even expected to find.

The main plaza, that displays the Rodin-esque sculpture pictured above, is a tiny blip in the sprawling town of closely packed orange and pink houses The narrow streets seem to wind on forever past porched houses with tropical bloom gardens and then suddenly you are dumped out into the main square. We backed our tiny rental car into a questionable spot on the corner of a street musing about whether or not Puerto Rico tickets as heavily as back home but decided to chance it and find some lunch.

We hustled into the first sandwich shop that looked like it could accommodate a vegan. Orange booths lined the restaurant and the boards hanging above the grill displayed a confusing mixture of English and Spanish words. We stood in front of the counter and stared at the menu, poorly translating among ourselves until the woman next to me kindly stepped in. She was a Puerto Rican woman who had lived in New York for over 20 years until she decided to come back to her home town. After she helped us order our lunch she asked, "So what do you plan to do in Isabela?"

If the stares and looks of surprise as we drove into town hadn't been enough to give away the fact that tourists were not a common occurrence (at least not in October anyhow)her question pretty much said it all. "What is there to do?" Was the question I replied with. Luckily, in a town as small as Isabela, everyone knows everyone.

"Go a few doors down to the tourism office and ask for Miguel. He can take you wherever you want to go." So we did. And we were showered with gifts, like a tiny pin of Isabela's shield which features the cactus, their town symbol and and charming if amusing photograph of the mayor with his grandchildren. He introduced us to everyone in the office and took us on a little office tour to see the photographs of Isabela's most beautiful sites.

Miguel, who insisted we call him Mike, had lived in New Jersey for a large chunk of his life, but he too had chosen to come back to his home town. Bright and boisterous and ever so excited to have tourists to entertain,
he gave us his phone number to call him the next day so that he could take us to see the Blowhole on Jobos Beach.

The next day we made plan to meet up with Mike but first we wanted to see the old train tunnel outside of town. Tunel de Guajataca used to connect the towns of Isabela and Quebradillas in the early 1900s but recently it has been named a historic site and leads to Guajataca beach. Guajataca means water ladle in Taino, the native language, and this beach is praised for its white sands but is also a dangerous beach with sharp rocks and high waves.

This giant sculpted head sits down the road from the tunnel and is a representation of Mabodamaca. Cacique Mabodamaca was the chief of the Taino people and when the Spanish invaded Puerto Rico he defended his people and his land. There are several legends about how he died. The one that I find most romantic is that he fell off a cliff in battle and the golden pendent he wore, called a guani, that signified him as the chief, fell into the ocean with him, never to be seen again.

After visiting the beach and trying to photograph the crabs sunning themselves, who were all too wary of me and scuttled away as soon as I crouched down, we drove back to Isabela to meet Mike. Mom had called him the day before to make plans to meet in the square and get a tour of the town and a trip to the blowhole. "How much?" Mom asked on the phone to which Mike loudly replied "Oh no! no! It doesn't cost anything. This is my job, it's my pleasure." Definitely not a tourist town.

On the first day in Isabela we had noticed these Charlie signs on lots of houses and so we asked Mike about them. "They're election posters," he explained. "Charlie is a good friend of mine, and he's running for Mayor. A local artist made those signs and sells them around town." When we asked if he thought Charlie would win he just smiled and said one could never be sure.

He drove us all around Isabela, to the beach and to the little resort communityVilla Montana that had been built recently for tourists. He made us promise that if we came back to Puerto Rico we would stay in Isabela for part of our trip.

And then the grand finale, he took us to Jobos Beach and El Pozo de Jacinto. The story of the Blowhole of Jacinto is as follows: There was a little boy named Jacinto who lived in Isabela with his mother. Every day it was his job to take their cow out to feed on grass. One day there was a terrible storm with wind and rain and lightning and Jacinto said "I'm afraid to go outside today. I don't want to take the cow out in the storm." But his mother insisted and so Jacinto went. He was walking with the cow on the coast near the ocean when a sudden bolt of lightning and clap of thunder burst through the air and he and the cow were so scared that they jumped and fell into the hole and were swallowed up by the ocean.

Now, when you visit the blowhole you have to yell "Jacinto, give me the cow!" and Jacinto gets angry and water rushes into the blowhole and shoots out the top, splashing the person who dares ask for his cow.

We had a really great day with Mike and I could see myself spending more time in Isabela, hanging out at Jobos beach and eating some tostones with a cocoloco in my hand. Nothing says Puerto Rico like fresh fruit juice, coconut milk and rum right? Although I'd probably go for the virgin variety myself and not taint all that sweet sweet papaya and pineapple juice!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Where to Eat and Stay Vegan: Maravilla B&B

Maravilla, run by Margo - a former New Englander turned full time Puerto Rican, is a vegan's paradise. We started our stay at Maravilla at the beach location. Down a scary steep driveway the little yellow house sits perched on the edge of the beach. While the house can be split to accomodate two sets of guests at the same time we were fortunate to have the entire house to ourselves during our stay. All of the meals at Maravilla are prepared by Margo and then packaged, stored and labeled in the fridge, awaiting your leisurely hunger. Lest you think all that sunshine and ocean will let you forget your biological need to eat, Margo prepared the most appetizing meals for our stay:

Carrot Cake Waffels stuffed with chunks of Pineapple
Mango Muffins
Spicy Tempeh and Lentil Saucettes
Fruit Salad of Mango, Papya and Pineapple
Fresh Gaspacho with Cornbread
Roasted Eggplant Soup
Seitan Stroganoff
Black Bean Chili with Rice
Fresh Salad from her garden
Chocolate Cake and Sugarfree Oatmeal Cookies


The three of us opted for the Rice and Bean Economy Meal Plan and were so impressed by the quality and quantity of food that we couldn't even have imagined getting one of the more extensive plans. Raw foodies delight too, Margo has a whole selection of delicious offerings for you as well!

Every morning Mom and I would walk the beach looking for treasure. I've never seen so much beach glass in my life. We walked by sprawling resorts that stood mostly empty and enjoyed the quiet breeze and incredibly flat ocean.

Maravilla on the beach is the perfect way to relax and enjoy the sunshine. We left our windows open at night, air-dryed on the sunroof after snorkeling and ate dinner listening to the waves with glasses big of wine.

The house is on the coast of Rincon, about an hour from Isabella which makes for a great day trip. If you fly into San Juan, like we did, I recommend renting a car for the week to get over to Maravilla and explore the real Puerto Rico and feast on tropical fruit.

You can't beat a view like this! All of us would recommend this beach house to travelers - veg and nonveg alike. It's been a few months now since our trip but every so often we all feel a bit nostalgic for our little dream house with the carrot cake waffles.