Skooter reporting 07/20/12
Speeding away from the beach, we fused onto the easily navigable Highway 52, where 55km later we took a quick turn to the left onto PR-184. Snaking through the hills, the surrounding forest hugged the road in a verdant crown, with roadside kiosks popped out quite suddenly to sell my favorite empanadas (meat and potato-filled fried pastries), mofongo (mashed plantains filled with meat and vegetables, served in savory sauce) my first time to taste such stuff and beach towels having graphics of bikini-clad women imprinted on those. The high-pitched tweets of coqui frogs bounced among the vines. Unfortunately our iPhone glitch and the poorly drawn map botched, we used our senses to find our way.
Car windows down, we first sniffed the smoke. Then, as we bend the curve, Pork Highway came on sight where a buxom woman blended pina coladas and served them in pineapple cups; a man in a straw hat played a guiro (a percussion instrument made from a hollowed gourd); and to the beat of salsa, chefs swung machetes or knives, chopping the pigs into bite-sized pieces. Dozens of roofless lechoneras like El Monte, El Tabonuco, and Los Piños festooned the streets, with swines proudly displayed on window-front grills, diners stuffing the indoor picnic tables and crowds taking to the large dance floors. While easy to distinguish upon arrival, the lechoneras are so inaccessible, they do not have addresses or phone numbers.
Eventually we settled on El Rancho Original, the first outlet that opened on the highway. As we fell in line to order at the counter, the ambiance of salsa music and dancing feet shook the walls. Piled high with cassava, cuajo (stewed pork stomach) and longaniza (Spanish sausage), the dishes took up an entire table inside the creek-side bungalow. The lechón earned its own table.
With orange soda and food in hand, we scampered through the animated crowd, gyrating our hips and nodding at the people we passed as we held our plates overhead. While the cuts remained inexplicable, it is difficult to know whether you are eating leg, shoulder or tail when the meat is cut with a machete the tender and juicy texture butter up the caramelized skin made crunchy by hours of slow roasting.
Having our tummies full, we headed back down PR-184 following the sitting sun toward the Caribbean Sea, cruising along the coast to reach Ponce, a colonial port town where long ago pirates raided Spanish ships entering into the harbor. As the sun set, the boats squeaked and howled along the docks and on the pier, everyone sipped pina coladas and danced, once again, to lively salsa music. “Asi es la vida,” they sang, “Such is life.”