puerto rico road
They call it the Ruta de Lechón .
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This is the Most Delicious Road in Puerto Rico

By: Bob Curley - November 10, 2023

Arguably the best way to get to know the people and culture of Puerto Rico is through the island’s food, and the main road to culinary discovery is called the Ruta de Lechón — the Pork Highway.

In Spanish, lechón traditionally refers to suckling pig, but in Puerto Rico lechón asado means roast pork, and it’s generally a fully grown pig on the spit. Like mofongo and other traditional Puerto Rican dishes, you can find lechón at restaurants all over the island.

However, the best place to immerse in the full-on lechón experience is at a “lechonera,” a roadside restaurant where the roast pig is the undisputed star. You’ll literally see the whole pig, head to tail, roasting behind glass as you go up to order. This may not be a great experience for vegetarians or anyone who doesn’t like to come face to face with their food, but the cafeteria-style restaurants do serve a full selection of Puerto Rican food, including options like roast chicken for those who don’t eat pork and several meatless choices, as well.

Ruta de Lechón pork

Typical sides include rice and pigeon peas, pasteles (tamale-like cornmeal pies filled with savory meat and wrapped in banana leaves), mofongo (mashed green plantains with garlic, olive oil and pork rinds, yuca al mojo (cassava with onions, olive oil, and vinegar), boiled sweet potatoes, guineítos (boiled savory bananas), cuajito (stewed pig stomach), morcilla (blood sausage), and longaniza (spicy sausage). It’s a menu that ranges from the more familiar to the rather adventurous, especially for a first-time visitor. Medalia beer and the non-alcoholic Malta malt beverage are among the favorites for washing it all down.

The Pork Highway has an actual name — it’s Highway 184, a snaking two-lane road that winds into the mountains from the larger north-south route, Highway 52. Lechoneria Los Amigos is the first cafeteria you’ll hit once you get off the exit for 184, and if you just want to try some lechón without having to drive more than an hour from San Juan, it will do just fine.

Ruta de Lechón man cutting pork

Most visitors, however, continue on to Guavate, a barrio in the municipality of Cayey that’s pretty much ground zero for lechón and lechoneras. It’s less than a 15-minute drive from the highway exit to Guavate, so if you’ve come this far it’s well advised that you keep going for the full-on experience.

There are a few other businesses in Guavate — a few gift shops, bars, a shop selling handmade leather goods — but this is a town built around its half dozen or so lechoneras. Options for pigging out include El Nuevo Rancho, Lechonero Los Primos, Lechonera Los Pinos, Lechonera El Rancho Original, and El Chinchorro Sabor Boricua.

Roasted right, lechón is juicy and succulent; cook it too long, and it can be dry, even bland. El Rancho Original is a local favorite because of its large dance floor and live bands, but the food is good at most of the lechoneras (they wouldn’t survive the competition if it wasn’t), and its perfectly fine to try more than one, although that could involve waiting on some lines.

How long you’ll wait for food largely depends on when you go. When we arrived on a Saturday around lunchtime Guavate was pretty quiet, with the band at El Rancho Original just setting up. But a quick look around hinted as just how busy Guavate can get, especially on the weekends: hundreds of tables were set up and waiting for hungry guests, including spacious gazebos arrayed along the Rio Guavate.

Don’t just eat and run. Guavate, like the slow-roasted pork that made it famous, is best savored for a while. Soak up the sun, the music, and most of all the local culture, whether that’s the families browsing through roadside shops for toys, older couples showing off their skills on the dance floor, or entrepreneurs selling homemade rum from the trunk of a car.

Before or after eating your fill on the Pork Highway, consider making a stop at Charco Azul, a beautiful swimming hole just outside of Guavate in Bosque Estatal de Carite, the Carite State Forest. A short hike from Highway 184 passes through fields, forest, and over a scenic section of the Patillas River before reaching the swimming hole. A lot of the infrastructure here, including rest rooms and picnic areas, was destroyed during Hurricane Maria in 2017 and hasn’t yet been repaired; fortunately, the path to the swimming hole remains largely intact.

Charco Azul is more of a small lake than a hole, full of clear cool, water and fed by a small waterfall that’s a favorite spot for pictures. The water is refreshing on a hot day (and there’s a lot of those in Puerto Rico). The floor of the pool is rocky, so wearing water shoes is recommended. You may feel a tingling sensation while in the pool, but don’t be alarmed: it’s merely adorably little fish nibbling flakes of dead skin (and perhaps a stray scrap or two of lechón) from your legs.

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