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Visitors to San Juan might not realize how convenient it is to take a nature break from the city’s urban pace. El Yunque National Forest is a 28,000-acre rainforest situated 35 miles east of San Juan as well as the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest system.
Some of the most beautiful natural settings I’ve hiked have been in Maui, where trails through tropical scenery lead to romantic waterfalls. El Yunque is the closest thing I have found in the Caribbean to rival Maui’s lush appeal, with an impressive number of waterfalls and copious towering trees and palms.
During my last sojourn in San Juan, I rented a car and set off east along Highway 3, a well-maintained road that offers little in the way of scenic beauty. What it does provide, however, is a look at the daily life of Puerto Rico without pretense — roadside shops, simple homes and locals going about their business. Clients can then take a turn south onto Highway 1, and within minutes, they will arrive at the entrance to El Yunque.
The first stop should be the El Portal Rain Forest Center, situated right at the park’s entrance. Visitors can get their bearings; learn a bit about the park’s ecological systems and biodiversity; and pick up brochures showing the park’s trails and road system.
Dedicated hikers can take off into the interior of the rainforest on foot, along a network of marked trails. It’s also possible to drive along the park’s tidy roads, with many of El Yunque’s waterfalls adjacent to the roadway, including one of the park’s standouts, La Coca Falls.
At various points along the way, visitors can peel off the road or trail and climb the stairs of a number of lookout towers. These offer a real change of pace, since the tops of the towers provide expansive views across the forest to the Luquillo Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean. One thing to keep in mind: A trip to El Yunque is not a secluded nature outing, since approximately 600,000 people visit the forest annually.
Denizens of El YunqueThe forest is home to a rich variety of plants and animals. While there are six species of snakes living in the forest, none of these are poisonous or dangerous. Although, the largest of these is guaranteed to set hikers back on their heels: the Puerto Rican boa, which can reach lengths of 6 feet. Mammals in the forest are on the small side, such as bats and mongooses. El Yunque has also become home for the endangered Puerto Rican parrot, which was once hunted almost into extinction.
One of El Yunque’s most unusual residents is the tiny Coqui frog — the culprit responsible for the saying “it rains frogs” in El Yunque. In actuality, the frogs take refuge in the uppermost branches of the trees, 100 feet above the ground. Instead of returning to the ground via the tree trunk, where predators such as tarantulas wait for them, the frogs leap from the treetops. The frogs are so light that they almost float through the air. In the past, people on the ground didn’t know what to make of these frogs tumbling to earth, chalking it up to the frogs being somehow mixed in with the rain.
Ranging Further AfieldThere are plenty of organized tours departing San Juan for El Yunque, though a trade-off of sorts. While the tours offer a hassle-free way to visit the forest, a self-drive adventure allows clients to set their own pace within El Yunque and to explore the surrounding area when serendipity calls.
A great day could be made up of a full morning in El Yunque and then departing for a late lunch at the nearby Luquillo Beach. The beach itself at Luquillo isn’t very beautiful, although it’s a lively scene with lots of local families enjoying themselves. The main draw is the 60-plus eateries lining the beach. A pleasant afternoon can be had relaxing at one of the picnic tables under the shade of a palm tree, sampling regional cuisine and seafood, before returning in the late afternoon to San Juan.