Guest Contributor and HollyTrail Photographer: Tomek Kleczek
This summer I was fortunate to get a chance to fly out to Puerto Rico to be a participant in the Puerto Piano Festival in the capital city, San Juan. It’s a 10-day program with daily lessons, master classes, student performances, concerts by faculty and guest artists, and a competition. During my stay (chaperoned by my father, no less), I enjoyed the beauty of Old San Juan, ate local foods such as mofongo (a sort of cooked mash of plantains filled with meat and vegetables), mallorca (a sandwich made with a special sweet bread–my favorite dish for breakfast), and the best mango smoothie I’ve ever had. We delighted in all of these goodies at La Pradera, a wonderful little café close to our hotel (and where the locals eat).
This is Old San Juan as seen from the rooftop of The Gallery Inn, where the first student performance of the Puerto Piano festival took place.
After the final student recital, I convinced my dad that we should take a road trip to a rainforest. Most tourists tend to visit El Yunque rainforest, which is near San Juan. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to finally see the rainforest where Montoso Gardens is located. Sometime ago, I mail-ordered fresh cacao pods from the Montoso Gardens website, and it was the best purchase of tropical fruits I’ve ever made. The seeds from those pods have since sprouted into many cacao plants (>50). I just had to visit the source of my cacao plants. And I was now so close–only a couple of hours away!
Montoso Gardens are botanical gardens spread across 90-acres. The gardens are located in a rainforest on the opposite side of the island from San Juan and border the Maricao State Forest. The owner and founder of Montoso Gardens, Bryan Brunner, moved to Puerto Rico and started the gardens with just 9 acres. He thereafter expanded his property to 90 acres by acquiring parts of the Hacienda el Cerro, a defunct 137-acre coffee plantation. Bryan also planted many non-native fruits and flowers, allowing visitors to experience some of the flora of Southeast Asia (such as jackfruit) and other places without ever leaving the United States.
Getting there was a logistical challenge. My dad and I had to get up at 4 a.m. We got an Uber ride to the airport (the only place where car rentals are open at 4 a.m.), rented a car, and started our two hour forty-minute drive towards the mountains. We had to go so early so that we would make it back in time for the Puerto Piano closing concert.
About an hour from our destination, we got off the highway and drove into the mountains. The road started to get very twisty, but it was still well-paved and easy to drive on. On the side of the mountains grew fields of plantains.
Our cell signal quickly fell to zero bars, but, for a moment, returned when a cell tower appeared! Soon after, we drove through the small town of Maricao.
Very close to Montoso Gardens, the paved road turned into a one-lane gravel road, but even then, our rental car was fit for the job (driving slowly). We then passed a house. We later discovered that this house was actually Bryan’s house. Shortly after, we came to a dip in the road that our car could not pass, so we backed out and parked outside Bryan’s house. Bryan spotted us and came to greet us.
Before this, we saw several interesting plants driving close to the gardens. Plantains were growing right next to the road with bunches of plantains hanging from the plants, and a large number of mango trees displayed their fruit.
Bryan shared with us a Google map of Montoso Gardens he is working on. The map shows the different trails and paths throughout Montoso Gardens. The map also shows the location and names of many of the garden’s plant specimens. Montoso Gardens begin at Bryan’s house and extends out past the main gate, which is a short walk from the house. Many different interesting plants surround the house. There is even a little pond with some beautiful water lilies:
We started our exploration of Montoso Gardens at the main gate, stopping to taste some fruit along the way. Rose apples (which even my dad, who generally dislikes tropical fruit, enjoyed) taste somewhat like apples with a slightly more floral and tropical taste, with a satisfying crunch. There are many different kinds of rose apples; we had the round, yellow variety. They are the perfect snack to eat in a rainforest. We also had jaboticabas, which have a unique taste that is hard to describe, not to mention the fact that the fruit grows on the tree trunk! [Check out the Weird Fruit Explorer’s review on how it tastes.] Aside from tasting fruits, we also saw several interesting birds.
Bryan opened the front gate, and we entered Montoso Gardens, ready to begin our adventure.
END OF PART 1
In Part 2, I will cover our trip down to the river, and my sampling of some cacao. Stay tuned!