This article is a part of a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.
The van peels up the curves, foliage blanketing either side of the road. We’ve been driving for about an hour, but in some senses, my journey has been a longer one, this trip to the mountain municipality of Cayey the realization of a multi-year dream that began, somewhat oddly, outside of Chicago.
More than a decade ago, I met my now husband, who’d grown up in Puerto Rico. Having never been to the island, I was enchanted by the stories he told me of its offerings: its verdant forests, clear beaches, cobblestoned San Juan streets. Then there was lechón asado, which he spoke of in reverential terms I’d rarely heard used for food.
One of the most popular Puerto Rican dishes, lechón asado translates simply to “roasted pork.” Despite the fact that iterations of it exist around the world—Spain and the Philippines count their own versions—lechón asado is ubiquitous in Puerto Rico, where a pig is seasoned with garlic, oregano, achiote oil (made from annatto seeds), salt, and pepper, then slow roasted for hours on a spit. The meat becomes fall-apart tender while the skin becomes gold and crunchy—the mark of a good lechón. All across Puerto Rico, lechón asado is available at dedicated restaurants known as lechoneras, which serve the pork alongside popular sides like rice and beans, tostones (fried green plantains), sweet plantains, mofongo (mashed plantains), rice and pigeon peas, yuca (cassava), boiled sweet potatoes, cuajito (stewed pig stomach), morcilla (blood sausage), and longaniza (spicy sausage).
Still, no lechoneras are as celebrated as those along a road in Guavate known as la ruta de lechón, or “the Pork Highway,” which my husband spoke about dreamily, wistfully, recommending it to any and everyone we knew who visited the island. Go to Highway 184 and eat pork. Finally, in April of 2023, it was my turn.
The origins of Guavate’s lechoneras, which begin to appear just off the highway and stretch all the way up the mountain, are fuzzy. One woman we speak to working at a lechonera says they sprung up in the region decades ago to serve locals driving from San Juan, in the northern part of the island, to Ponce, in the southern. (The highway connecting the two runs through Cayey.) Another tells our translator that there used to be a penitentiary nearby, and that visiting families needed somewhere to eat; the prison also had a farm that raised hogs.
Despite their similarities—pork, meals starting around $8, a cafeteria-style setup—each lechonera in Guavate is different. Each counts loyal devotees among its followers, each of whom swears that the pork is better there, no, it’s better here, have you tried the skin? Off the toll road and onto Highway 184, the first lechonera to appear is Lechonera Los Amigos, which has a red awning and silhouette of two cartoon piglets with the faces cut out for a photo opportunity. There are picnic tables that can hold 150 people, and behind glass, a determined employee hacks at pork to serve customers. One man I meet on my trip tells me that whenever he drives from Ponce to San Juan, he stops at Los Amigos, even if it’s just for some morcilla and a cafecito. He’s not wrong—both are excellent.
Farther up the road is Lechonera Los Pinos, which has been open seven days a week—save for a few days around Easter—since originally opening in the 1970s. Sporting a green and yellow awning, Los Pinos has drawn curious travelers from all over the world thanks to its pork, made popular by Anthony Bourdain, who visited here for No Reservations in 2006. (“They like their pork out here, and no one more so than the folks at Lechonera Los Pinos,” he said.) Nagai Rivera Gonzalez, 19, who has worked at Lechonera Los Pinos for a year, says the majority of travelers to the lechonera are from the USA, India, and Europe, but that no matter the origin, the reaction is generally the same: “I always see that they’re amazed at how good the pork tastes,” she says. Rivera Gonzalez says part of the reason for that is the lechonera’s emphasis on using local products: Most of what they cook is sourced from around the island, including the pigs, which come from a nearby cooperative.
Even farther up the road is El Rancho Original, whose claim to fame is, well, in the name: The owners say it’s the first lechonera to have been established on Route 184, when it popped up as little more than a shed made with sheet metal. “It started this whole movement,” says Carlos Santos, who today manages the establishment and has worked at El Rancho Original for 17 years. Today, El Rancho Original is a sprawling complex, with covered open-air pavilions on both sides of the street and lining the Rio Guavate. On the weekends, the restaurant has two bands playing live salsa music; on Sunday, the lechonera’s busiest days, Santos says they can sell up to 14 of the 150-pound pigs.
Together with one of my traveling companions, we walk through the line at El Rancho Original, selecting dishes to accompany the pork: slabs of yuca, pasteles (patties steamed in banana leaves), spicy sausage, blood sausage, bright yellow rice dotted with pigeon peas, creamy squares of flan. Santos, preparing our cuts of pork behind the counter by raising a machete high and bringing it down with a thunk, waves me over and hands me a piece of skin, crisp and golden. I bite down. Finally.