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PUERTO RICO'S EL YUNQUE RAIN FOREST

Story and photos by

El Yunque (pronounced "el joonkay") is the only tropical forest in the US National Forest System. It's also the largest remnant of natural vegetation left on Puerto Rico. Located only 25 miles southeast of San Juan, it makes an ideal day's excursion from Puerto Rico's capital city.

Puerto Rico rainforest
Puerto Rico rainforest
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The name El Yunque means "anvil" and refers to the 3,493-foot-high El Yunque mountain. It was named after the benevolent Indian spirit, Yuquiyu. Over the years, the name was transferred to the forest. Its official name, the Caribbean National Forest, encompasses both El Yunque and the Luquillo Experimental Forest, an area of 28,000 acres.

Visitor Center

For more than 200 years, these dense forests sheltered the Tainos Indians. Today, they are extinct, but the forest lives on.

To familiarize yourself with the attractions of this recreation area, visit the Palo Colorado Visitor Center and the El Portal Rainforest Center. The latter features a film and an informative museum. Hands-on displays, in English and Spanish, highlight the forest's wildlife, vegetation and geology.

You will learn about coquis, the tiny, elusive tree frogs found only in Puerto Rico, that serenade you after sunset. Legend claims that the coqui's two-note song "ko-kee, ko-kee" recalls the name of a brave Indian chief. When he died, the gods proclaimed that his name would never be forgotten.

Hiking trails

There are more than 24 miles of recreational trails in the forest. You can obtain maps and brochures describing them at the visitor centers. Some trails, such as the Big Tree and La Mina Trails, are short, self-guided tours. Others, like the four-hour round-trip trail to El Yunque, are recommended only for the agile. On clear days, hikers who reach the summit are rewarded with views extending for 50 miles.

Caribbean National Forest sign
Caribbean National Forest sign
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Observation towers on Los Picachos and Mt. Britton provide similar panoramas from elevations of more than 3,000 feet. The trail to Mt. Britton takes 40 minutes each way.

The longest trail is the hike along the backbone of the Luquillo Mountains to El Toro's 3,530-foot peak. The 12-mile roundtrip can be hiked in six hours, but an overnight stop is recommended for those who want a unique camping experience. Free camping permits are available from the El Portal Rainforest Center and the Caribbean National Forest Office.

Sleeping hibiscus and weathervane trees

No matter which trail you follow, you'll be awed by the lush greenery and multi-hued flowers. Fragrant white ginger. Orchids, the size of dimes. Red bromeliads and pink impatiens. And sleeping hibiscus that never open.

La Coca Falls
La Coca Falls
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

There are more than 240 native species of trees alone. Sierra palms with white flower spikes, found only above 2,400 feet. Weathervane trees with leaves that turn white-side up whenever it's going to rain. Giant tree ferns with lacy fronds. Bamboo that grow six inches in a single day. And Tarzan-style liana vines. It's easy to see why this forest was once used by the US army for jungle training.

Luquillo Beach
Luquillo Beach
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

El Yunque is also a bird sanctuary with more than 200 species of birds, including the rare green and red Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vitatta). Once nearly extinct, its numbers are gradually increasing. A hefty fine awaits any person caught capturing one.

More than 100 billion gallons of rain fall on El Yunque each year. Puerto Ricans boast that it's enough to make their forest fireproof. Don't let the 240 inches of annual rainfall prevent you from enjoying the forest. Downpours are frequent (a reported 1,600 times a year) but usually short. There are several strategically located rain shelters on trails and in picnic areas.

If you want to hike or camp, go by rental car, otherwise, take an escorted tour from San Juan. Half- and full-day tours also stop at Luquillo, a postcard-perfect, palm-lined beach.

Although the escorted tours rarely allow enough time for hiking, they do stop at several points of interest along the winding road that climbs through the park.

One of these is La Coca Falls, a trickle of water that becomes a foaming deluge after heavy storms. Less than a mile further, is the Yocahu Tower where you can climb up the spiral staircase for views of the forest from an elevation of 1,530 feet.


TRAVEL INFORMATION

Puerto Rico Tourism Company: www.SeePuertoRico.com