China had the Silk Road; Italy had the Appian Way; Puerto Rico has La Ruta del Lechón. This legendary (among Puerto Ricans anyway, along with an increasingly large community of in-the-know tourists) road can be found in the otherwise nondescript area of Puerto Rico called Guavate, which lies in the central region of Puerto Rico, in the municipality of Cayey. Guavate is roughly equidistant from Ponce and San Juan, roughly an hour from the capital (with moderate traffic).
If that sounds like a trek, let me put this in perspective. For pork-lovers, this is the culinary equivalent of Shangri-La. just hearing the name "Guavate" conjures images of Lechoneras, rustic roadside eateries that specialize in Lechón, or spit-roasted roast suckling pig. So strong is the siren call of these restaurants that a family member (who shall remain nameless) who doesn't eat pork decided to bend that particular rule after she came to this sacred land of lechón. And she never regretted it!
This is as much a cultural experience as it is a culinary adventure. La Ruta del Lechón has become a go-to destination on weekends for droves of locals, and tours are now offered from San Juan to here. And I, for one, was excited to check it out.
Still, I have to admit I was expecting something different when I first traveled the Ruta de Lechón. After taking Highway 52 south from San Juan to exit 32 (Guavate), we found ourselves on Rte.
184, a winding road that snakes its way up the slopes of the central mountain range that bisects the island. At the base of the road were a few lechoneras, which got me excited about what was to come. And then... we drove. And soon enough passed two more... and drove some more. And parked at a lone lechonera hugging a curve in the road next to a mechanic.
And we drove some more, passing scattered lechoneras as we went. I was expecting miles and miles of these eateries lined up like the kiosks of Luquillo, but the Ruta del Lechón is much longer and more spread out.
I honestly couldn't tell you which one was the best lechonera in Guavate. Many locals have their favorite, and I've heard good things about El Mojito and Los Pinos. But my destination today was a place that had been recommended to us by a local: El Nuevo Rancho, which lay further up the road. You can't miss this large lechonera, with its colorful sign of a tree sprouting red flowers and a comely sow in a yellow polka dot dress. El Nuevo Rancho has a large, open dance floor and a stage (sure enough, a band was playing by the time we got there) and a cute piggy depiction of the three kings visiting baby jesus in the far side of the restaurant.
But of course, we were here for the food. Choosing food in Guavate is especially fun if you like pointing and smiling. The cafeteria-style counters show a variety of local specialties, like arroz con gandules, morcilla (blood sausage), beef stew, pastelón (a Puerto Rican version of lasagna made with sweet plantain), and of course, the star attractions: spit-roasted lechón (or chicken and turkey cooked using the same techniques and seasonings).
We pointed and smiled and filled up our picnic plates with a selection of food which proved to be simple, flavorful and cheap. As the music blared and the band invited patrons to work off their lechón on the dance floor, we soaked in the atmosphere and enjoyed a slice of Puerto Rico that is light-years from the tourist hotspots in San Juan.
I recommend Guavate to anyone who likes a fun, safe, satisfying and palate-friendly adventure. You can eat to your heart's content, mingle with friendly locals, and work off your meal to some vibrant local music in a rustic mountain setting.