In Puerto Rico, people speak of Alice Chéverez as an urban legend. “She is hard to get ahold of, and even harder to meet. Her studio is located at her family home so coordinating a visit could take weeks.” Talking with Iris Landruá and Carmen Portela, who work with the tour company Local Guest, I had high hopes that they would make it happen. Alice is one of the very few Indigenous Taíno people whose family survived for generations on the island. The Taíno were the first known habitants of the island that was once known as Borinquen. Over time, Taíno, Spaniards, Africans, and other populations blended into what we know now as the Puerto Rican people today. Alice is famous not only for her heritage but because she is an artisan, crafting traditional Taíno pottery in her home studio. On occasion, she welcomes visitors to teach them the symbolism and history represented in her work. After a few days of waiting, I received an excited call from Iris that Alice was available and looking forward to our visit.
Local Guest is a woman-led sustainable tourism operator in Puerto Rico. The company focuses on co-creating experiences with local interpreters that visitors would find impossible to book themselves. I spent a week on the island coordinated by their team, learning how travel changes when you have thoughtful and responsible curators piecing together your day-to-day. Typically when I travel, my experiences are hit or miss. I can only do so much vetting through a screen, and often the best travel moments come from those I meet while on the road. Local Guest has created a business model where they take those rare and serendipitous adventures and turn them into itineraries based on individual tastes and interests.
On my first day under their care, I found myself driving up an unmarked road towards Alice’s house, where elaborate cave systems haunt the mountains above. “My family has lived here since Puerto Rico was born,” Alice explained while showing a few of her latest artworks. “This is a deity presented in the form of a bat. And this, a pufferfish.” Her works often represent the local wildlife. “We are connected to the land through these pieces.” Not far away, another one of Local Guest’s interpreters is reshaping their own connection to the land in an effort to be more resilient.
Arriving at Frutos del Guacabo I was greeted by Adrian Martinez, who was quick to tell me that over 80 percent of the food consumed on the island is imported. “Our goal is to be more independent, to take pride in our land and use it for community benefit.” After a series of earthquakes, hurricanes, and the pandemic, “people have realized how important local food systems are to a healthy community.” Frutos del Guacabo is part of an agricultural revolution, using the island as a resource and experimenting with hydroponics, aquaponics, and other traditional farming practices. A visit to their farm is all about participation: from milking a goat to learning (and tasting!) many of the herbs and plants on the property. The tour culminated in a lunch that couldn’t be a shorter distance from farm to table. As I took a bite of the homemade sourdough bread, spread with freshly made goat cheese, the goats themselves looked at me from a few feet away, as if to ask, “So…what do you think?”
I thought it might be nap time. After a healthy helping of shakshuka and sorbet, I was more than prepared for a siesta. Throughout the week, I stayed with a few of the Local Guest recommended hosts including the Rainforest Inn and Dos Aguas. Driving east to Dos Aguas, I was in awe of the contrast between the riverside bamboo forest and the beautifully brutalist architecture of the large home. Carla González is passionate about the family history of the structure. “The entrance is through a gas station because my grandfather used to own it. We rebuilt the house 25 years ago based on my mother Ivonne’s design. She is an attorney…but also a frustrated architect.” Walking through the entrance, the custom metalwork and vast cement walls create an enchanting feeling I can only describe as the coziest bomb shelter I’ve ever been in. Lazing in a hammock, I achieved my afternoon nap and checked in with Iris about the next day’s activities that would bring me on a whirlwind tour of Loíza.
Loíza is a town where the largest population of Afro-Puerto Ricans currently live. The local artists and artisans work every day to preserve and present the history of their people. I met Iris early in the morning outside of Samuel Lind’s art studio. His multi-story house is packed with paintings, sculptures, silkscreens, and more works-in-progress than could ever be described here. Prolific is an understatement. As Samuel toured us around, he informed us that Loíza is known as the “Capital of Traditions” and much of his work preserves scenes from traditional dance, annual festivals, and stories of those who were brought to the island as slaves. Only a few blocks down the street is one of his inspirations, a house, and museum once owned by Don Castor Ayala. Ayala was one of the first artisans to make the Vejigante masks that are used in local parades and festivals. These masks are typically made from coconut shells or papier-mâche, painted bright colors, and then fitted with large horns. As I laughed at stories of how children often react to the masks, I heard rhythmic drumming begin just outside.
Bomba is an ancestral dance, performed with a group of drummers, where dancers move to one of 16 different rhythms. Loíza alone is thought to have 5 original rhythms and Sheila Osorio had just arrived to showcase each one. Before her performance, she spoke passionately about the workshops she runs to bring new generations into Bomba and connect them to the legacy of Loíza. “Next is the ‘freedom dance,’ a rhythm that connects me back to nature and the slaves who worked on the sugar cane plantation.” Each performance creates a visual conversation between the dancer and the lead drummer. Sheila’s movements guide the rhythm and prompt specific beats. The dancers treat it like a game, trying to catch the drummer off guard to ensure they’re following along. Bomba requires the dancer and the audience to be fully present, creating a rhythm of participation and performance.
Presence was a theme that came up again and again while touring with Local Guest. Each experience felt so singular—I found myself resisting the pull to capture moments through my phone or do anything that would take me out of the moment. That feeling reached its peak in El Yunque National Forest, where I met Dr. Anissa V. Hernández, a Forest Therapy Guide. Over the next three hours, she would guide us to a tucked-away part of the forest to learn how to see more in the beauty around us. I typically shy away from these more introspective practices, but my afternoon with Dr. Hernández was purely transformative.
Her approach was quite simple; once she explained the history of this part of the forest she sent us off for 10-15 minutes at a time with simple requests: “Find a tree and study it for a while, find an organism and study it for a while.” Upon returning to the group we’d share what we observed. As the hours slipped by this small part of the forest came to life through stories and observations, transforming it from something ordinary to exceptional. As we ended our session, Dr. Hernández served us tea made from flowers she picked from the forest earlier that morning. “Now we can ingest a part of this place we’ve come to learn.” Embodying part of a place is something I always hope to achieve while traveling. To feel not just that I’ve passed through, but that I’m bringing back something new. After my week with Local Guest, I could feel this shift from within. The people and places I encountered opened up the island in a way that left me feeling like they really got it right with their name. I arrived as a Guest, but I left feeling like a Local.