In Puerto Rico, there’s a legendary town named Guavate. It’s where having a meal is not just about sustenance. It is where preparing and cooking “lechón” is an art, raising it to a culinary and cultural destination.
“Lechón”, Puerto Rico’s unofficial national dish, is an entire pig spit roasted over an open fire. Christmas and Three Kings Day are the traditional times of the year this gastronomic treat is enjoyed by families. However, Guavate has evolved into a year-round destination where locals and tourists alike gather to enjoy a fun day out with family and friends while eating traditional Puerto Rican food.
When Ponce de León arrived with Columbus to Puerto Rico in 1493, one of the items the Spanish brought with them was pork, along with rice, wheat, and olive oil. The Taino’s, the original inhabitants of the island, shared with them their method of slow cooking over an open fire.
The Spanish traders also brought African slaves to the island who prepared meals with sugarcane, “gandules”, and root vegetables; taro and yucca. All ingredients popular in Puerto Rican cooking in Guavate and throughout the island. Puerto Rican cuisine evolved into what locals call “cocina criolla,” a mingling of Taino, Arawak, Spanish, and African influences.
Guavate - Puerto Rico -
Where is Guavate in Puerto Rico?
Guavate is less than an hour from San Juan and getting there is a part of adventure. Route 184 winds through the verdant Sierra De Cayey Mountains. The journey? Snake-like roads, barely wide enough for two cars. Sharp bends, steep-sided valleys, and densely blanketed jungle foliage.
The Pork Highway - La Ruta del Lechón
Three miles of route 736, lined with a myriad of roadside stands and restaurants, is known as The Pork Highway or La Ruta del Lechon. The savoury aroma of roasting pork and buoyant sounds of music morphs this remote stretch of road into a street party and it’s then you know you’ve arrived in Guavate.
At the “lechoneras”, several people take care of rotating the roasting pork for 6-8 hours. Tied to a spit, it’s surrounded by a metal or cinder-block enclosure, and roasted over an open fire allows the skin to brown and crisp, and the meat to remain incredibly moist and full of flavour.
What to eat in Guavate?
There are no menus and all restaurants are cafeteria style. Patrons patiently stand in line, hypnotised as a rhythmic chop, chop, chop reverberates when the carver swings down his machete with strong, swift movements. Heaping portions of pork pile onto a plate.
There is always a delectable assortment traditional Puerto Rican side dishes on display behind the glass counter: yucca in garlic sauce, “arroz con gandules” (rice with pigeon peas), “tostones de platanos” (fried green plantains), “morcilla” (blood sausage), and “longaniza” (pork sausage). It is all served picnic style; paper plates with plastic utensils.
On the weekends, droves of locals arrive in Guavate with one thing in common; to enjoy a traditional meal and day out with family and friends. Kids in tow peruse the myriad of shops selling souvenirs. Adults, many dancing inside the “lechoneras” or, similar to a block party, spill onto the street. When things get too hot, gazebos, alongside a cooling stream, provide respite. It is where many go to relax with a “Piña colada” or a Medalla (the local beer).
I’m munching on a crispy piece of skin from the “lechón”. Crunchy, smokey, and garlicy, I taste hints of oregano and “culantro” (the local version of cilantro.) Several couples jumped up to salsa dance near my table. The crowd gets a little louder. A woman passing by wishes me “Buen Provecho,” the Spanish equivalent of “Bon Appetit.” This place does not disappoint. I ate and ate some more. It was just so good. Go on a Saturday or Sunday to get the full experience.
Brief information about Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico means rich port, and this island is rich in more ways than one. The historic charm of Old San Juan, with its 16th-century architecture and cobblestoned streets, beckons visitors to its majestic forts, quaint shops, and notable museums. There’s no shortage of natural attractions like the bioluminescence of the infamous bio-bay where the water sparkles blue or the verdant trails and towering waterfalls in El Yunque National Rain Forest. Venture to Puerto Rico and discover so much more. The biggest reward of travelling is immersing yourself in the culture, tasting the local cuisine, and transforming yourself from a tourist to a traveller!