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El Yunque: A visit to the rain forest

DSC02987When we began planning a trip to Puerto Rico, and planning to include our 14-year-old granddaughter, we sent her some of the material we were gathering and asked her what her priorities were. She, and we, both had El Yunque right near the top of the list.



Everyone we knew who had been there told us how marvelous it was, and we were certainly curious about what a tropical rain forest was like--it's the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. national parks and forests system. So, on our second full day, we set out to see it.


El Yunque is about a 40-45 minute drive east of San Juan. We left the highway before the park approach road; we'd read online about a wonderful bakery (panaderia) with good bread and sandwiches to buy for lunch. When we finally found it, however, it had gone out of business.




Undaunted, we continued on the road to the park, and were rewarded by finding a road-side food stand with many varieties of fried food. Delicious; my wife tried without success the rest of the trip to find an alcapurria that pleased her as much as the crab-filled fritter she had there.




The forest is open to the public without fee; the only charge is for those who use the El Portal Visitor Center, near the entrance...but it's a small fee and well worth it (especially for us, because our senior-citizen pass made it free). The impressive center, opened in 1996, is chock-full of information about the forest, how it differs from other kinds of forests, its ecological significance—and what activities are available.



Sadly, Wednesday was not our day, and that's the only day the Forest Service rangers have a guided tour. However, there are many private guides offering tours; we decided to follow the winding road through the forest, stopping to take pictures, take short walks (and a not-so-short one, of which more later).


DSC02962 That's not a bad strategy; it makes for an easy day, and everywhere you go in the forest, there are explanatory signs, in English and Spanish, describing what you are seeing, and what it means. That starts right from the Visitor Center, with signs like the ones just above and below. Although the Visitor Center is relatively new, many of the other facilities, including trails and shelters, were built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.



At El Portal, we learned quite a bit reading the signs, and watching the orientation movie. One of the things we learned was that "rain forest" really means that. Just about every day, some of the time. Since we had foresightedly left our umbrellas in San Juan, we stopped at the gift shop to buy overpriced cheap ponchos, just in case. Then we set off up the road.


DSC02976 As we wound our way up the road, armed with a map from the Visitor Center, one of the things we noticed is that the road is very twisty and very narrow—and that a lot of people try to take their half out of the middle. Go slow and stick to the edge of your lane, though, and you'll be able to avoid oncoming SUVs, trucks, buses and the like...




Let's be clear: This is a big place, and no one can "do" it in a day. It has many trails, many falls, many sights and even a couple of observation towers. Its steep slopes get over 300 inches of rain a year. The steep rise results in its showing four different ecosystems. At the top, marked by sparse and stunted species, many unique to the forest, is the "dwarf forest." At the bottom is the dense Tabonuco Forest, named for its dominant species. In between, the Palo Colorado forest and the Sierra palm forest.


The many unique-to-here plants are matched by the animals. It's the main location for the rare Puerto Rico parrots, it's home to many species of "coqui," Puerto Rico's beloved native frog and there are many more rare or unique birds and animals to be found.





Our first stop on the road was at Coca Falls, right along the road, and clearly popular with families with kids, playing at its base. The next stop was at Yokahu Tower, an observation point with great views in every direction, and visitors stopped at every window and platform taking pictures. Including me.



The tower is not the ancient relic it resembles; in fact, it's a bit of a fake. It was built in 1963, and is a copy of the Mt. Britton tower, higher up in the park. But the views from Yokahu are spectacular, while Mt. Britton is so high up that often its views are...clouds!





It was at Yokahu Tower that we found the answer to a question from the day before. While driving to Camuy and Arecibo, we saw significant stands of tall trees with bright red flowers. Gorgeous, and resembling tulips in shape. From the tower we could see a stand of them, and took some telephoto close-ups. There's a small gift shop at the bottom of the tower, and we asked what the tree with the tulip-shaped flowers is called.

Well, duh: It's called a tulip tree.





So now we come to the infamous "not so short" hike. The next item of interest along the road was the Big Tree Trail, which winds through an area of Tabonuco, down to La Mina Falls. Note the sign below that clearly (except for an amateur attempt at erasure) says it's a "1/2 mile round trip" trail. Afterwards, we understood why some previous visitor had attempted to remove the "1/2 mile" part. It was well over half a mile one-way, much less the return. 



 It is a pleasant and well-maintained trail, paved in part by the CCC. It also has a lot of dips and rises, and in some areas even steps. 





We learned many interesting things by reading the signs along the way, and observing the different plants and other items (including a test point for the GPS system); we also learned that when you go hiking with an energetic 14-year-old that "with" is an interesting word. She loped on ahead of us, and then popped up from time to time to tell us what was ahead—and her judgement on whether it was worth it for us to continue. In the end, she saw La Mina falls; we didn't.





The Forest has quite a long history, by the way: the Tainos, the people of Puerto Rico at the time of the Spanish conquest, considered it a sacred place, and it was still nearly undisturbed in 1876 when King Alfonso XII designated about 12,000 acres in the area as a forest preserve, about half the present size.


After the U.S. conquest in 1898, it came into the hands of the Forest Service as Luquillo National Forest. Caribbean National Forest, a name you see all over the park, became the name in 1935. The El Yunque name only became official in 2007.


Aside from the huge variety of trees and ferns in the forest, you also find some unusual forms, including these exposed roots. On the tree in the lower photo, what appears to ba a wall surrounding the tree is actually part of the tree's root!





But all that activity eventually made us hungry. And earlier, while at El Portal, my wife had overheard a conversation at the information desk. A visitor asked where to find good cheap food in the area, and was directed to "Los Kioskos de Luquillo." Luquillo is a beach area just a few miles east of the Forest entrance, and when you go to the beach, you have to eat, right?




From informal shacks along the beach, the Kiosks have developed into a quarter-mile long stretch lined by 60 numbered spaces housing everything from cheap local delights to fancy fish, with everything between. So, we had to go, right? Two things were definitely not easy: picking among the dozens of delicious choices, and finding a shot of the row that showed something of the variety and wasn't blocked by double-parked cars.


Of course, the cars were not the only thing holding up traffic; for a while, everyone stopped to watch this white egret wander around the parking lot. We couldn't tell if he was lost...or waiting for someone's food to fall his way.







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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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Ah, yes...that's something I left out. Traction on the trails was just fine...until it started to rain on our way back to the trailhead. That's when we realized the obvious: in a rain forest, it rains.


And of course, the umbrellas were in San Juan. And the overpriced ponchos were in the car, back at the trailhead!

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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