This article is the first in a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for a week of workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.
It’s only when the eggs in the pan have begun to form into silky strands that Crystal Díaz has an answer. For minutes before this moment, the 37-year-old entrepreneur and owner of El Pretexto—a mini farm and bed-and-breakfast in Cayey, Puerto Rico, one hour from San Juan—has stood, thinking, all the while beating 17 freshly laid eggs into a froth, pouring them into a pan blackened by time and use, and nudged them around the pan over low heat carefully. Díaz and I are standing in the outdoor kitchen of the B&B, which she opened in 2018. Below and all around us, the Cordillera Central mountains—cloaked in green palms, pines, and banana trees—stretch out seemingly without end. Sun shines. Birds chirp their morning greetings and Santiago the rooster crows, the only sounds save for the soft scrape of a spatula around the pan and the pad of Pepe the dog’s paws on the deck. Finally, Díaz speaks, answering the question I’d asked her moments before: I look around and see this beautiful space you’ve created. But what don’t people ask you about?
“Nobody ever asks about how much sacrifice goes into this. A business that requires your presence is very demanding. And it costs you—relationships, money. It costs a lot. You have to love it,” she says. “Some days I wake up and think, ‘Should I just go back to an 8 to 5 and simplify my life?’ But I know that I’m joking. Because I couldn’t do it.”
Díaz is no stranger to the 8 to 5 life. She had worked in marketing for 14 years before she began seriously thinking about leaving her job and committing to something she thought of as, well, more: Cooking had always been a passion, and so she applied to—and was accepted to—the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. But while she finished projects at work and waited to begin her studies, she decided to finally buy some property in the countryside, a place where she could grow her own food. Díaz shared the decision with her mother and her mother’s husband, and he took it seriously, checking with friends and contacts. Within a few weeks, Díaz was at the property that would become El Pretexto. “I fell in love,” she says. “It never got to the market, and I never saw any other house. This was it. The farm came before the table.”
Slowly, Díaz’s vision changed. Instead of going away to learn, she would stay in Puerto Rico and develop the land. She brought the property at the end of 2016 with visions of turning it into a farm stay—one that brought travelers away from the popular destinations of San Juan and Vieques and into the mountains in the central-southeast part of the island; one that supported locals by working with farms in the area; one that highlighted the bounty of Puerto Rican produce. The time felt right.
“I thought, if I’m ever going to do this, it has to be now. If it doesn’t work, then I still have a nice résumé and I can find another job. I also just felt it. What I was living was not me anymore.”
For months, Díaz worked on the property, clearing land, building a personal garden, and preparing the 30-year-old wooden villa for guests. By the late summer of 2017, El Pretexto had opened—and then Hurricane Maria hit in September, destroying the deck and ripping up more than 25 trees, the gardening beds, and the henhouse. Across the island, the hurricane caused months of power outages and roughly $2 billion in agricultural damage, the island’s farmers “decimated” by Maria. Díaz was undeterred and set about rebuilding what was lost with the help of her neighbors and volunteers, supported by funds from various local nonprofits and trusts. Within the year, she had reopened.
El Pretexto today has the feel of a suspended reality, set so high up and apart from town that when I wandered into my room, my first thought was whether someone had left a “jungle noises” app on the speaker. So audible were the trills of birds and the chirps of coquis, the native tree frogs. In addition to the two apartments in the villa, the property now includes two other apartments in a modern concrete home that Díaz’s neighbor sold to her after the hurricane. Rooms inside are bright and minimalist but comfortable. (Despite the comfort of the bed, I spent most of my time in the hammock outside, swinging, looking out over the mountains.) Every member of Díaz’s small team of five comes from the surrounding communities.
The main house—where Díaz lives—is the heart of El Pretexto and includes a wraparound deck, the outdoor kitchen, and a long dining table that can comfortably fit 25. It’s at this table that Díaz’s dreams of connecting food, farm, and culture crystallize most clearly. Guests at El Pretexto are offered pop-up dinners, and on one evening the week I visit, I am seated next to Betty and Josefina, the owners of the 75-acre Finca Atabey, Puerto Rico’s only women-owned farm, located in nearby Santa Isabel, which they founded in 2008 after becoming concerned about farming and food production Puerto Rico. (Roughly 85 percent of the food consumed in Puerto Rico is imported.) Their golden Taíno pumpkin is on the menu from chef Luis Andres Cabrero: steamed, mashed, and made into filling for goat cheese dumplings topped with roasted garlic aioli. The menu showcases other collaborations: a creamy cauliflower soup (with vegetables from KYV Farm); avocado salad (Utuado Farm); spinach-stuffed chicken breast with vegetable gratin (Aibonito Farm; Huerto Rico); and a silky brioche bread pudding with chocolate from Montadero, a small-batch, bean-to-bar chocolate producer in nearby Caguas.
I’m still full the next morning when the sun wakes me up at 6, Santiago the rooster crowing again. After some more time in the hammock, I decide to head up to the main house, stopping to greet the chickens and pausing to look at the mountains once again. Díaz is awake, a flurry of activity, streaming in and out of the house, setting bowls of fresh mango and papaya on the table, taking coffee orders, and organizing a platter of breadfruit waffles to share. Finally, when it is time to sit for our breakfast, she pauses, picks up Santiago, looks around at everyone who has gathered, and smiles.