Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico

With a machete in hand, my father leads the way through the tropical forest hacking away at vines on the near-nonexistence path. My dad and his six brothers and sister grew up in Hormigueros, Puerto Rico. Apart from the outhouse base several yards away, the cement entrance landing is all that remains from the three-bedroom home.

Mi tio lives in Trujillo Alto, closer to San Juan, now and the family frequently visits around the holidays. With mi tia’s birthday on New Year’s Eve, trips to Puerto Rico can last from before Christmas to past Three Kings Day.

Three Kings Day is celebrated in Hispanic countries throughout the world. It is also celebrated in predominately Christian areas like Russia

What is Three Kings Day and how do you celebrate?

Most Christians are familiar with the nativity of Jesus’ story. El Dia de Los Reyes celebrates the three kings — or wise men — who gave the baby gifts. It is held on the 12th day of Christmas, January 6th.

Similar to leaving carrots for Santa’s reindeer, children leave boxes of hay or grass for the camels of the kings the night before. The three kings – Balthazar, Casper, and Melchior – exchange these offerings for Three Kings Day gifts of candies, nuts, and small toys.

Like Christmas, the holiday’s focus centers around being with family and loved ones. Popular activities on the day include:

  • Eating and drinking.
  • Singing and dancing.
  • Gift exchanges.
  • Parades.

Three Kings Day is bigger than Christmas in Puerto Rico. Many businesses closed so employees can celebrate.

However, many second- and third-generation Puerto Ricans do not adhere to the traditions since the holiday is not as prevalent in the United States. Americans who want to celebrate may find festivities in areas with a high Hispanic population, such as New York City and Miami.

Three Kings Day Food You Must Eat

My absolute favorite snack to eat at Puerto Rican festivals is relleno de papa, or stuffed potatoes. Papas rellenas are deep-fried croquettes filled with mashed potatoes, cheese, ground beef, and spices. They taste like home, and they are easy to eat while walking.

There is no better Spanish rice than arroz con gandules. Yellow rice with pigeon peas is a staple during the holidays, as it compliments pork (holiday essential) and other main dishes.

The quintessential seasonal dish is very labor intensive taking several days to prepare. Puerto Rican pasteles combine banana, plantain, potato, and pumpkin with meat and seasons into a banana leaf wrap and tied with kitchen string. How seasonally appropriate is that?

Note: Like sushi and cilantro, not everyone will like pasteles without salt or mayo-ketchup.

Pork dishes, like pernil or lechón, are essential for a Feliz Navidad. However, you can find vegetarian options with meat-free potato and macaroni salad.

Other traditional Puerto Rican food you should try include:

  • Asopao, which is like gumbo.
  • Mofongo
  • Plátanos maduros, which are deep-fried sweet plantains.
  • Every dessert from arroz con dulce to tres leches cake.

What’s Puerto Rico like right now?

After Hurricane Maria, parts of Puerto Rico were left without power for 11 months in 2017/18. Similarly, the commonwealth experienced a 4.5-magnitude earthquake on January 2, which is just the most recent in a string over the past week.

Pano of San Juan, PR

Popular areas of Puerto Rico like San Juan, Arecibo, and Ponce are up and running as usual. Tourists can enjoy clean, beautiful Caribbean beaches and local festivities such as the 2020 Carnaval de Ponce starting February 19.

Tourism makes up 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. So, visiting Puerto Rico and sipping on delicious piña coladas is like a very passive relief effort.

Visiting Puerto Rico

As a territory of the United States, American visitors can leave their passports at home. Likewise, the U.S. dollar is used in Puerto Rico so there is no need to exchange money and fee conversion or transaction fees.

Speaking of cash, restaurants on the island are typically less expensive than in the U.S. and you can find affordable beach-adjacent accommodations. Other benefits of visiting Puerto Rico include:

  • Being able to use your existing cell phone.
  • Drinking the safe water (unlike other countries in the area like Cuba).
  • Not requiring vaccinations.
  • Standard 100-volt outlets.
  • Using Uber in San Juan.

The territory is also really safe — and I’m not just saying that as someone who goes with a hoard of family members. The crime rate is much lower than in California and New York.

Unlike visiting Spain, many locals speak English, especially in urban and tourist areas. However, I always recommend memorizing a few key phrases, such as please, thank you, and help.

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