China had the Silk Road, Italy the Appian Way; in Puerto Rico, history will exalt La Ruta del Lechón. This legendary road travels through an otherwise sleepy area in the central region of Puerto Rico called Guavate. Roughly an hour south of San Juan (with moderate traffic), Guavate has earned cult status among Puerto Ricans for its abundance of lechoneras, rustic, open-air roadside eateries specializing in lechón, or spit-roasted whole pig.
For pork-lovers, the road leads to Shangri-La. A trip on the winding blacktop that snakes its way up the slopes of the central mountain range bisecting the island combines a cultural experience with a culinary adventure. La Ruta del Lechón has become a go-to destination on weekends for locals from across the island, and they spend the day eating, drinking, and dancing to live bands. The whole area takes on the atmosphere of a block party, and buses bring tourists from San Juan to join the fun.
After taking Highway 52 south from San Juan to exit 32 (Guavate), follow Route 184 until you reach your destination. The lechoneras start at the base of the mountains and continue on both sides of the road for several miles. Things can get especially busy around kilometer 27. Each of the open-air restaurants slow-roasts their pigs with a special—and usually secret—combination of spices over an open flame for six to eight hours. The result is both crispy and tender, salty and sweet, with an underlying smokiness.
Locals usually have their favorite restaurant, and you can ask around for recommendations. Or just pick a place that looks busy and fun. You can't miss El Nuevo Rancho, with its colorful sign displaying a tree sprouting red flowers and a comely sow in a yellow polka dot dress. El Nuevo Rancho has a large dance floor, a stage, and a cute piggy depiction of the three kings visiting baby Jesus on the far side of the restaurant. Lechonera Los Pinos and El Rancho Original consistently earn high ratings on online travel advice sites.
Ordering a meal in Guavate requires nothing more than a smile and a finger for pointing. The cafeteria-style counters display a variety of local specialties, such as arroz con gandules, morcilla (blood sausage), beef stew, pastelón (a Puerto Rican version of lasagna made with sweet plantain), and of course, the star attraction: spit-roasted lechón (or chicken and turkey cooked using the same techniques and seasonings). Portions are generous and prices are reasonable. Puerto Rican families come out en masse for lunch and to hear their favorite bands play on Sundays.
Guavate belongs on the must-do list of anyone visiting Puerto Rico who appreciates a fun, safe, satisfying, and palate-pleasing 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.