Rain forest adventures: El Yunque

Here it is again, my turn to write the blog entry, and once again, I’ve been out of town. This time, I was lucky enough to be on a short getaway to the beautiful island of Puerto Rico with my youngest daughter. Lucky for me, pretty much no matter where I go it takes very little effort or even planning to find a place to explore. This trip was no different. My daughter and I have both been pretty stressed out at work, so this trip was intentionally light on the planning but one thing we had picked out as a “must see” was the El Yunque National Forest on the eastern end of the island.

Puerto Rico is a US Territory, which means that while they have a democratically elected governor and legislators who govern over local matters, Puerto Ricans are US citizens and many facets of daily life are legislated over by the US Congress, including things like the currency, the postal service, health and welfare, and much more.  I bring all this up because El Yunque is a part of the US National Forest system. In fact, it is the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system. It’s not a big place – there is a single road running through the middle of 29,000 acres – but there are 24 miles of hiking trails to choose from.

The first thing we had to do, though, was figure out how to get there. El Yunque is around an hour from San Juan and there isn’t  public transportation to get you out there. You could hire a taxi (expensive), or maybe join in with a tour sponsored by one of the big hotels (not very flexible), but we decided the easiest thing to do would be to rent a car for the day. The drive out was easy enough most of the way. PR-26, PR-66, and PR-3 are all reasonably well maintained roads. At a little town called Palmer, though, we had to turn off onto PR-191 which was another thing entirely. I’ve been on worse roads once – in Costa Rica – but wow, this really wasn’t very good. It was very narrow and had massive potholes in places which was a lot of fun when winding up a pretty steep mountain. Nonetheless we made it to El Portal Visitor Center with no real problems. At the visitor center, we paid a $4 a person daily usage fee, then were greeted first by this rooster, then by the friendly and bilingual staff who gave us maps and tips for hikes we might want to take. After looking around at some of the exhibits and taking in the views, we headed out for our first hike, a .8 mile steep climb up to the Mount Britton Lookout Tower at the very south end of the park.

We were told that on a good day there were stunning views of forest and ocean from the top. We, however, were not really there on a good viewing day. It absolutely poured on our drive to the parking area! I guess that’s what you get when you’re in a rain forest. It did slow to a misty sprinkle and then pretty much stopped by the time we got to the parking area though, so we managed to stay mostly dry.

Hiking in a rain forest is very different from the hikes I usually do. For one thing, of course, the trees and flowers are totally different. Giant ferns and palms lined the path, flowers that looked to me like hibiscus bloomed all around us, and even the roots of palms were a colorful spray of orange. Another difference is that, at least in this particular rain forest, the path was really more of a paved concrete and rock walkway than the natural dirt I’m more used to. I’m guessing that’s because all the rain would make a trail muddy and hard to maintain, but maybe it’s also because these trails are more heavily traveled than the ones I’m used to. It was not over-crowded by any means, but we did meet 8 or 10 people on this one short trail. Being paved, the footing was pretty easy, and though a bit steep there are steps in the steepest sections. I did manage to fall right on my backside once  when I stepped off the trail to let another couple go past. Those rocks off the trail are slippery! I was more embarrassed than hurt though, thank heavens.

Soon we came to a paved forest service road (not open to public vehicle traffic) and after walking along that a very short way, saw the trail for the tower heading steeply up to our right. One last push up and we were at the tower. Built by the CCC in the 1930s and named for botanist Nathaniel Britton, the tower is the equivalent of two stories tall I’d guess and sure enough would have had great views if we’d been there on a clearer day. We could still make out what might have been the Atlantic off to our north, as well as rain forest all around us.

We peered through the clouds, took some atmospheric pictures from the inside, and then retraced our steps back down to the car and headed off to our next trail, La Mina. This .7 mile trail is one of the most popular, and therefore most crowded, trails in the national forest. It leads through the rain forest along La Mina River to La Mina waterfall, a popular swimming spot. We had expected to be pretty hot hiking around in a rain forest, so we had picked this trail thinking it would feel good to cool off in the water. It turned out that we really weren’t that hot after all, but we still wanted to see a good waterfall so off we went. We drove ourselves back up PR-191 towards the trailhead, but couldn’t resist making a stop along the way to take a photo of exactly where we had climbed to. See the little bump on the top of the mountain on the left? That’s Britton Tower.

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Bragging rights photo taken, we drove on towards the Palo Colorado Information Center, which is the trailhead for La Mina. There was plenty of parking here, plus bathrooms and an information center. We spotted a trail marker and started down the path, only to get a little confused a couple of times because there are lots of little side paths to picnic shelters in this area. We figured out pretty quickly though that the right way was the way other people were walking back from. I don’t think I saw a single picnicker, but we did see lots and lots of hikers. This trail is paved just like the Britton Tower trail but leads down from the start instead of up. The lush vegetation was similar, but this trail has the added bonus of a beautiful river tumbling over rocks all along the way.

It was an easy walk and we  soon could see the top of the falls and the pool below. The paved trail turns into a long staircase down along the side of the falls, then turns and leads across a bridge over the river. The trail actually continues another .7 miles to another parking area but that trail doesn’t follow the river as closely and so isn’t as popular.

It was pretty crowded near the plunge pool, but we managed to fight through the crowds and get in the falls anyway. It was a beautiful spot and I can certainly see why it is so popular.

After playing in the water for a bit, we hiked on back up all those stairs and up the trail to the car. We had one more stop to make before we left El Yunque  – Yokahu Tower. This is a tower that was built in 1962 to resemble the older Britton Tower.  Of the two, Yokahu is more visited. For one thing, it is right off the road – no hiking involved other than the 100 stairs to the top of the tower. For another, it has better views. Britton Tower, as we had discovered, is higher in altitude and therefore more often covered in clouds. Sadly, we got there about 5 minutes after the tower itself closed so were weren’t able to climb to the top, but the views from the terrace were pretty darned good anyway.

We really enjoyed our trip to El Yunque. In fact, Megan says it was her favorite part of the whole trip! I would definitely recommend a visit if you happen to be in Puerto Rico.  More importantly, I would recommend searching out a hike no matter where in the world you find yourself!

 

 

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