There are 155 National Forests in the United States. A visit to one of them and you might see extensive oak, birch, redwood, spruce, pine, firs and other various trees and woodland growth native to the continental U.S. Yet there is one forest that includes more species of trees and plants in its 28,000 acres than all of the U.S. National Forests combined, with nearly all of them being exclusive to its forest.
Which forest am I talking about? Of course, it’s the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest system and the only national forest not located in a U.S. State. It’s El Yunque National Forest in Northeast Puerto Rico and Breeah and I made a voyage to its jungles last Sunday on our second and final full day of our Puerto Rican weekend.
Here is where the rental car was extremely necessary as we needed to make the near 30-mile drive from our hotel in Isla Verde past Carolina and Rio Grande to the forest via the PR-3 Autopista (toll road). Even though the rental (all totaled about $115 with added insurance and $7 worth of gas) was used rather sparingly – it saved us the hassle and likely much more money from trying to hire publicos to drive us around. In all truth, if we didn’t have a rental, we wouldn’t have gone to El Yunque.
This was my first driving experience outside of the continental U.S. and Canada and it was somewhat thrilling to be able to hit the road in a relatively foreign place. Yes, Puerto Rico is the U.S. – but it hardly looks like what you’re used to seeing when driving through the mainland. This is an island nation that has largely developed through its own culture (or various borrowed cultures, including that of the U.S.). It feels different driving around here, but in a good way. It’s kind of a rush to take the reigns with a little D.I.Y. in an unfamiliar locale…and Breeah and I just rolled with it.
That’s not to say we didn’t have hiccups! That morning Breeah and I were looking for breakfast around the hotel to no avail. Burger King didn’t look appetizing to us so we tried Wendy’s. Upon arrival there we were greeted by a drunk who serenaded us (or whoever was listening) with stories of the previous night’s adventures. We decided not to share breakfast with him and move on!
We ended up stopping at another Wendy’s at the Outlet Mall 66 in Canovanas halfway through the drive to El Yunque. I decided to settle for numero quattro – the typical breakfast sandwich, but the clerk addressed me in English. I found this to be the case in most places around Puerto Rico, that while Spanish is the dominant language, most know English and prefer to address you in English if they assume that’s your primary language. The entire time we only ran into a couple people who couldn’t speak English and even ran into some who spoke relatively accent-free English (outside of mainland expatriates and tourists).
My one worry with reaching El Yunque is my general trustworthiness of my GPS. I tend to rely on it more than I probably should, even though sometimes the “fastest” route it thinks can sometimes be the biggest pain in the ass drive that can be saved by just a couple-minutes spent on a detour. In this case – it was even more sketchy. It generally knows the major routes (and was quite helpful in leading me to Old San Juan the day prior), but here it wanted me to forage through PR-960 into an alternate entrance of the forest (go figure, it was closer to me than the typical entrance). I ignored these directions and pressed on ’til I saw a sign for El Yunque in the small town of Palmer. After that, it’s easy as pie. The small 1.5 lane road wasn’t trafficked enough to be that dangerous and before we knew it, we were heading up the mountain and into the forest.
It was a beautiful day as we got off at our first stop, El Portal, the visitor’s center. The great majority of the 50 or so people wandering around were mainland American tourists (a few wearing Green Bay Packers gear). We poked around the few exhibits and took in the views from above the forest canopy before heading in for a short informative movie (narrated by Puerto Rican native Benicio Del Toro) about the forest. They’ve put a lot of effort into the center here and if one didn’t know better you’d think it was a National Park with all the treatment it gets (I’m actually surprised it isn’t).
We met with a park ranger who was thrilled to see me wearing a Washington Nationals shirt (Puerto Ricans love baseball) and commented on the World Series game the night before (where Pujols hit three bombs). He introduced us to the Mimosa pudica – a plant that folds its leaves when touched. Breeah and I spent a couple minutes playing with the peculiar thing, I have never seen a plant (shy of a venus flytrap) move and react like that.
We got back into the car and ventured further up PR-191, the main route into the forest. The first attraction is La Coca Falls – which was packed with tourists – mainlanders and Puerto Ricans alike – climbing the rocks to get up close to the falls so friends and family can take a snapshot down below. Breeah ran up but had to wait for awhile to get in place for a good photo. We took a few and headed up to the next attraction – the Yocahu Tower.
The structure, built in 1962 as an observation tower, is a great place to view the coast from afar as well as the peaks of El Yunque that beckon to be climbed. It’s a rare place to get a vantage point, as one has to go much further up – to the older Mt. Britton tower near the peak to get another easy viewpoint.
We didn’t come to El Yunque just to look at roadside attractions, however, so we ambled over to Big Tree Trail to take in the La Mina Falls which is popular with those wanting to bathe in the fresh water of the streams and pools.
Breeah and I tried our best to be eagle-eyed sleuths and spot creatures we’d never see back home. I ended up being the lizard guy, spotting at least five of them and grabbing a couple good photos. Breeah did fine too – getting a couple lizards to her name as well as a few snails (with huge shells) and some interesting insects. Bats, Coqui frogs and the rare Puerto Rican parrot call this place home, but we didn’t catch them. However, I did hear the sound of the very recognizable Coqui once (I guess it helped that the hotel funnels in the Coqui sound from speakers around the pool and entrance).
The trail winds up and down throughout the rainforest – at times you feel like you’ve landed in some sort of Jurassic Park. Though there were a good amount of people on the trail today, there were minutes when you were the only one within earshot and you could easily immerse yourself into imagining you were alone in this wild place. As you see with most of my pictures – I like to cut people out (except for us) not to necessarily hide the aspect that the place is populated with people on a sunny weekend day, but to bring out the aspect that this place is a forest, a nature reserve and a true gem and to give you guys a feeling of that too through the photos we take.
We arrived at La Mina as a gaggle of people swam under the falls or viewed the festivities from the bridge. Breeah and I walked onto the rocks and into the second falls area which had it’s own pool as well – which was undiscovered (at least at that time of day) by the general populace. Climbing the rocks and touching the falls while standing in the cool water was, well, childish fun at it’s best! I could see imagine the Taino people (the early indigenous inhabitants) using this place for recreation just as we were that day.
The trail was supposed to be an hour-long round trip but Breeah and I spent at least two hours. How could we not? How could one appreciate their first rainforest trip without lingering for a bit and absorbing this new environment into your senses?
The day was getting shorter, however, and my dream of climbing to the top of El Yunque peak was waning. We decided to drive up (via a snack food outpost selling amazing smoothies that absolutely hit the spot) until the road block at the starting point of the Mt. Britton trail. We hiked up for a bit – just to see the forest at a higher elevation. Here it was much cooler (and far more shade) and it felt almost primeval. If I ever go back to El Yunque I’ll definitely want to explore the peak more – as it is often bathed in mist and clouds and adds a whole different layer to your experience of the forest.
We shot back down PR-191 (I swear – this route feels like it could be an indy car road course of sorts) and back onto the Autopista as we desperately needed to hit the beach and get something to eat.
The duo of Old San Juan (and the historic forts) and El Yunque made for a perfect 1-2 weekend combo and I couldn’t have asked for a more fulfilling extended weekend in the territory. I highly recommend a visit, short or long, as there is plenty to do and see with relative ease. As for me, it’s on to the next…wherever that may be….