October 29, 2016
Puerto Rico: Seasons Like No Others
By Ana Portnoy Brimmer
“It’s summer year round,” some people say, romanticizing Puerto Rico. “There are only two seasons: hot and hotter,” others declare with utmost certainty.
To the outsider, to the un-Caribbean eye, Puerto Rico may seem like a seasonless Archipelago, like it’s “the same” all the time, a mere duality of sunshine and rain. But if you look closely, underneath the surface of our “one-dimensional heat veneer,” there lies a complex and multifaceted cycle, seasons like no others, environmentally and culturally grounded dynamics unique to the Caribbean, to Puerto Rico.
From the beginnings of May to the end of October
The heat, and particularly the humidity, reach their peak in Puerto Rico, the stifling and muggy mornings, afternoons, and evenings giving people no other option but going to the beach. The tides are low, the waves miniscule, and surf season is at rest. It’s the time for bathers, for those who enjoy floating, swimming or just being in the still, mirror-like surface of the Caribbean Sea or Atlantic Ocean. In the water, people sip beers and play dominoes on floating tables, enjoying the seasonal waveless serenity.
Seaweed, however, is a common guest during these beach days, a product of it being the rainy season as well. Rivers disembogue and collide with the shore, and as a result, the ocean spits out everything that was spewed into it, seaweed tagging along.
Afternoons, sometimes entire days, are seized by monsoon-like showers that can go on for hours straight, flood warnings and overflowing rivers a common occurrence. During evenings after intense rain, especially in rural areas, coquíesⁱ gather around to serenade all those cozied up and keeping dry in their homes.
And speaking of rain, it’s also hurricane season, meaning preparations are in order and precautions taken. People stock up on canned foods, water gallons and containers, candles, and other necessities. When they’re not falling off trees and onto your windshield, mangoes, quenepas2, panas3, and other fruits are ready for consumption. People pull their cars over on streets crowded in by mango trees to pick up bags full of them.
Quenepas are sold on every corner, street light, and colmado4; pana, whether as tostones5, pastelón6, or merely boiled, is on the menu at home and in local restaurants. Flamboyants, fire red and sunny yellow, cover sidewalks and streets with their expansive shade, vibrant colors, and towering majesty.
From the end of October to the beginnings of February
From the late afternoons to the depths of the evenings, cool breezes sweep the streets of Puerto Rico. The rural areas, particularly the mountainside, are known for their chilly evenings and early mornings, enough to say that sweaters and long pants are necessary. Rain, for the most part, has ceased to fall, and the tides and waves are high: surf season is back on. Surfers from the mainland come to the Archipelago, looking to escape the arctic cold of the States and to catch some serious waves in Puerto Rico.
And of course, how to forget that it’s that time of the year, when fiestones7 and parrandas8 go on till the early hours of the morning; when you eat so much lechón9 that you momentarily (keyword, momentarily) consider becoming a vegetarian; when families, this meaning cousins twice removed, uncles you’ve never met before, life-long friends, the neighbor from next door and the one next door to that one, your great-grandparents, and your aunt and her family from the diaspora, lovingly and with the most unbelievable joy come together: las Navidades10.
Bellies, having waited an entire year for this moment, are ready to pack it all in. Pernil11, arroz con gandules12, pasteles13, morcilla14, cuajito15, guineitos al escabeche16, tembleque17, majarete18, arroz con leche19, coquito20, and the list goes on depending on region, town and family traditions.
Of course, this gastronomic ritual is repeated at least three more times: on New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day, and Three Kings Day. (Fun fact: a variation of this is actually carried out before Christmas time: during Thanksgiving week, but instead of lechón, turkeys are the main dish, stuffed with mofongo21, yuca22 and bacon, or other delicious concoctions, and served with the previously mentioned trimmings). The cool breezes carry tunes every night during these festivities: aguinaldos and villancicos23, bombas24, plenas25, salsas26, merengues27, bachatas28, music from the multiple masses at church, and so on.
From the beginnings of February to the beginnings of May
The arrival of the dry season is awaited with precaution and prayer. Weeks can go by without a single drop of rain, water reserves not being filled at the necessary rate, and therefore, water often having to be rationed and the cows in Hatillo (a town which at one point had more cows than people) having to receive extra care, their milk production rates running low. Fires sporadically appear in areas with a high density of vegetation, this being the busiest time of the year for fire fighters.
On the bright side, the days get warmer, gradually leading up to the week during which everyone, and that means everyone, is at the beach from sunrise to sunset: Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week.
Semana Santa takes place between the end of March and the beginnings of April, the iconic destination for these beach-bumming days being Culebra, one of the many surrounding islands and islets that constitute the Archipelago of Puerto Rico. Playa Flamenco, a beach in Culebra famous for its translucent waters and white sand, becomes filled to the brim with tents, sleeping bags, and hammocks, and with the college students, families, and adventurers that inhabit them for the length of their stay.
Religious processions take place, however, from Thursday to Sunday during Holy Week, variations of these happening all throughout the towns. Regarding flora, Robles, enormous trees with beautifully delicate white, pink and purple flowers, are in full bloom, the pastel blossoms covering the surrounding area. Las Fiestas Patronales29 and seasonal festivals happen around the Archipelago all throughout the year. During this season, some iconic festivals are El Festival del Acabe del Café in the town of Maricao, in which the end of the coffee harvest is celebrated, and El Festival de la China Dulce in the town of Las Marias, which celebrates the perfect sweetness and juiciness of la china criolla30 due to its having grown in the ideal climate of Las Marias.
And so, going full circle, our yearly cycle begins all over again. Complex, multifaceted, with seasons like no others, such is Puerto Rico.
- A tiny frog, native of Puerto Rico
- A native or naturalized fruit from the Caribbean, also called Spanish lime
- A small, local convenience store
- Plantain fritters
- A dish similar to shepherd's pie, but with breadfruit, ground meat, cheese, and sometimes, egg. The breadfruit can be substituted for plantain, potato, cassava, or other tubers.
- Big parties
- Similar to Christmas caroling
- Pork shoulder
- Rice with chickpeas
- A dish typically made of plantain or cassava dough and stuffed with pork or chicken, chickpeas, olives, capers, raisins, or other combinations/ingredients, depending on regional/town/family traditions and customs.
- Blood sausage
- Pork ear
- Pickled green bananas
- A coconut pudding
- Coconut corn/rice pudding
- Rice pudding
- Similar to eggnog; made of coconut
- Fried, mashed plantain. The plantain can be substituted for cassava, sweet plantain, or other tubers.
- Both aguinaldos and villancicos are kinds of Christmas carol
- An Afro-Puerto Rican music genre and dance
- A genre of music, chant and dance native to Ponce, Puerto Rico
- A type of music and dance based largely on Cuban and Puerto Rican popular dance music
- A type of music and dance that originated in the Dominican Republic
- A genre of Afro-Latin American music that originated in the Dominican Republic
- Town Fairs
- The creole orange