pork highway, chinchorreo, woman holding fried food next to plantains
The three main "pork highways" in Puerto Rico are the best way to get to know the island outside its beaches. | Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico
The three main "pork highways" in Puerto Rico are the best way to get to know the island outside its beaches. | Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s Chinchorreos Are Like Pub Crawls but for Pork

“Pork highways” are how travelers can explore the island beyond its beaches.

Just as I’m beginning to wonder how many more mountain curves I can stomach, I catch a glimpse of a roadside refuge with a turquoise exterior and wide-open wooden doors. Our bus driver pauses just long enough to let us hop off at Casa Vieja, but I can already hear trumpets blaring from the restaurant’s speakers, as well as the rhythmic scrapes on the güiro, an instrument made from a hollow gourd. A group of bikers in rocking chairs tip back bottles of beer surrounded by couples slurping spoonfuls of a stew made from cornmeal dumplings and salt cod. Black-and-white family photos and a collection of vintage clocks give the place a home-y vibe.

Then, of course, I’m hit with the aroma of onions, pork, and peppers

This is, after all, what I’m on this road trip for. The chinchorreo—what locals call a road trip based around the acquisition of lechón, or pork, and other foods—is not for the faint of heart. But my fellow travelers and I are on our second such bus excursion in two days, the hope being that we can experience some of the island’s culture, cuisine, and natural environment beyond its beaches or capital.

Yesterday’s drive along Cayey’s “la ruta del lechón,” which roughly translates to something like “the pork highway,” included a lunch of pork, yuca, and rice with pigeon peas at Lechonera El Rancho Original; live music at Casa Histórica De La Música Cayeyana; and mojitos at Casita Guavate. On today’s road trip through Ciales, we’ve already feasted on tropical fruit and waffles at Aromas D’ Café, taken shots of pitorro (local moonshine), sampled coffee at Museo del Café, and joined an impromptu music session on a local family’s porch.

A chinchorreo is basically a pub crawl for pork, but we decide to celebrate on the back patio of Casa Vieja with more mojitos and fried plantains. My motion sickness finally at bay, I take in the crisp air and views of the Central Mountain Range. But not for long. It’s time to get back onto the bus—and on to the next stop.

casa vieja, chinchorreo, puerto rican flag, restaurant
Casa Vieja is a chinchorro, which is a Puerto Rican restaurant that one might stop on during a food-based road trip. | Photo courtesy of Sunny Fitzgerald

Map out your route

The three main “pork highways” in Puerto Rico are in Cayey, Naranjito, and Trujillo Alto. But a chinchorreo isn’t limited to the pork highways: Pick a region or theme and build your route around that.

For lechón asado, or roasted pork, Ricardo Ojeda, a Flavors Food Tours guide, suggests PR-184 in Cayey where you’ll find roadside restaurants, dive bars, and pithouses within a short (sometimes even walking) distance of one another. If it’s longaniza (sausage similar to a chorizo) you’re after, he recommends the “longaniza route” along PR-155 and 156 in Orocovis.

Prefer to pair your culinary journey with some coastal activities? Sunseekers can beach hop and sample seafood along Guayama’s Coastal Gastronomy Trail.

Some restaurants accept reservations and others don’t; it’s wise to call in advance, especially if you have a large group or will be visiting during peak chinchorreo times, such as weekends and holidays.

green party bus on the road in puerto rico
Designate a driver or hire a party bus to experience all that a chinchorreo has to offer. | Puerto Rico Buses by Yariimboo Pics

Designate a driver and dress for the occasion

Winding roads and alcohol are a dangerous combination. If you’re planning to partake, designate a driver or join a tour. Ojeda recommends booking a party bus—a repurposed school bus with music, lights, and karaoke—so you can go all out without the worries of the road.

If you have a designated driver, Chef Orville Rodriguez of Calichi Gastrobar suggests renting a Jeep and cruising with the top off or windows down to enjoy the fresh air and the music emanating from the eateries along the way.

It’s a casual affair and you’ll find many of the businesses are open-air. Laura Ortiz, guide and owner of Sofrito Tours, recommends comfortable clothes and shoes. Matching shirts are a common sight on a chinchorreo so if you’re keen to color-coordinate outfits for your group, feel free.

The higher you travel into the mountains, the cooler it gets. Be prepared for any weather (and swimming opportunities) by bringing layers, a swimsuit, sunscreen, and a rain jacket.

couple drinking cocktails on a chinchorreo in puerto rico
A chinchorreo involves alcohol, but it's a marathon not a race. | Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

Pace yourself

“A chinchorreo is similar to a bar crawl, just with more food and in mostly rural areas,” Ojeda says. “The secret is to approach it as a marathon, not a race. Go with friends or family. Drink a lot of water. And let the food soak up the excess alcohol.”

Take your time, build in breaks, and don’t order everything right off the bat. “Each place has its specialty,” says Chef Rey Santa of Asador San Miguel. “Try a characteristic dish at each stop.” If you don’t know where to start, ask your server. They may even surprise you with something seasonal, as Crystal Díaz, the founder and managing owner of culinary farm lodge El Pretexto, discovered on a visit to Los Hijos del Josco in Utuado. The owner simply asked if Díaz liked gin or vodka, and then proceeded to squeeze a tangerine directly from his tree into a glass to create a fresh cocktail.

open road chinchorreo highway puerto rican flag
Locals will welcome travelers on a chinchorreo—just stay open to it. | Photo courtesy of Discover Puerto Rico

Be open to the adventure

Puerto Rico may be best known for its beaches, but it's mostly mountainous, and you’ll get a good dose of culture on a chinchorreo. “The island might be small, but there's nothing small about the culture of these mountains,” Ojeda says. “Most of the bars and establishments [along the pork highways] have been here for more than a few decades. You’ll see the character of everyday patrons of these places that still have the old vellonera, a jukebox-like machine with a collection of salsa, bachata, and merengue music as well as other genres spanning from the 1930s to the ‘90s and early 2000s.”

Bring a playful attitude and palate. “Anywhere you go on the pork highways people will welcome you with warmth and make you feel like family,” Ortiz says. “It’s a big fiesta.” So, dance if the mood strikes you. Play an instrument if someone hands one to you. Order dishes outside your comfort zone. Ojeda recommends sampling things like rabbit empanadillas (thin pastries filled and fried), mondongo (stewed cow or pig stomach and/or intestines), or beans cooked in pigs’ feet. He admits even he was surprised the first time he saw his grandfather eating those. “I was a kid, and it was a shock to see him eat all around the feet, bones, marrow, and cartilage,” he says, laughing at the memory. “But they’re actually quite good.”

There are also plenty of other dishes to taste on a chinchorreo. Díaz recommends corn fritters with mayo-ketchup, alcapurrias (fried taro or yuca, green plantains, and sofrito stuffed with picadillo), and rellenos of breadfruit or celery root stuffed with meat. Ortiz’s favorites include roasted pork, rice with pigeon peas, yuca en escabeche (yuca with olive oil, vinegar, onions, and garlic), mofongo (fried plantains mashed and mixed with garlic and crispy pork skin), and passionfruit mojitos.

fresh water, swimming hole, puerto rico, el charco azul, cave
Chinchorreos are about food and drink, but that doesn't mean you can't also sneak in a little nature, too. | UCG/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Don’t miss the hidden treasures

While the focus is on food and drinks, you’ll travel through areas that offer other activities, too. “Always look for hidden treasures, such as waterfalls, rivers, and local farm tours,” Chef Rodriguez says.

If your journey takes you to Cayey, Ortiz suggests Charco Azul, a 15-minute hike to a swimming hole in Carite Forest. If you’re in there on a weekend, stop by Casa de la Música Cayeyana to hear local musicians playing the cuatro puertorriqueño, which is Puerto Rico’s famous string instrument.

Outdoor enthusiasts can go rappelling, hiking, or rock climbing in Ciales then celebrate afterwards with a chinchorreo. Tour operator Go To Ciales arranges group and custom private tours.

Wherever your road trip takes you, consider local festivals that coincide with your travel dates. “We have festivals for everything—flowers, pork, masks, music, Indigenous culture, afro-heritage,” Ojeda says. “Include a festival stop on your chinchorreo so you can see the people in their full-on splendor, listen to local music, shop artisan markets, and, if you’re lucky, sample some tamarind, coconut, or ginger pitorro.”

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Sunny Fitzgerald is a contributor for Thrillist.