El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico

El Yunque National Forest in northeast Puerto Rico is the only tropical rainforest in the US Forest system. Lowell Silverman photography
Seen here from Mt. Britton Tower, El Yunque National Forest in northeast Puerto Rico is the only tropical rainforest in the US Forest system. Lowell Silverman photography

Third in a series on Puerto Rico.

El Yunque is a lush, mountainous reserve of tropical rainforest in northeast Puerto Rico.  A common day trip destination from San Juan, El Yunque features trails, waterfalls, and plenty of wildlife that is more often seen than heard.  The local pronunciation sounded more like a soft “Jun-keh”.  We considered taking a guided tour but eventually decided we could see it better at our own pace and at half the price by renting a car and driving ourselves.  As an added bonus, it saved us needing to pay for a taxi the next morning since the rental company offered a shuttle to Isla Grande airport.  We picked up our car from Charlie Car Rental’s facility in Condado around 11am.  See Planning a Trip to Puerto Rico for the nitty gritty of the experience with Charlie.

From Condado El Yunque is about a 30 minute drive east.  It was an easy drive starting on expressways- PR-26 from San Juan turned into PR-66 near the airport.  The toll decal, though Charlie charges a $10 fee, was only used once in each direction before we exited onto a slower highway, PR-3, leaving us feeling like chumps.  I couldn’t tell if there was a way to pay cash or whether the decal was the price of admission.  We picked up PR-191 and headed south into the park.  Admission to the park is free but there is a $4/person fee to visit the El Portal Visitor Center.

El Portal Visitor Center
El Portal Visitor Center

El Portal Visitor Center was quite unexpected architecturally- it’s built onto a hillside and is in harmony with the surrounding forest.  The center is predominantly open air with a few exhibits and an information booth under shelters.  The gift shop, theatre, and restroom are enclosed.  There was an English-language film playing with beautiful photography and a little on the history of the park.  There aren’t a whole lot of exhibits but the man at the info booth was able to give us a map and recommendations for hiking.

View from Yokahú Tower
View from Yokahú Tower

We drove south on PR-191 uphill.  The road was winding and required care but was considerably less challenging than roads I’d experienced out west like the Going to the Sun Road and Crater Lake Rim Road.  We stopped briefly at La Coca Falls, which is visible from the road, before continuing uphill to Yokahú Tower.  Yokahú is a rather ugly tower with a crowded parking lot and its own mini-giftshop (cash only).  A quick climb to the top affords a view of the surrounding forest, mountains, and even the Atlantic Ocean in the distance.  The view was a bit hazy- no surprise given the humidity in the rainforest.  The views changed quite a bit from minute-to-minute as mountain peaks popped in and out of the clouds.

Mt. Britton Trail
Mt. Britton Trail

We drove uphill as far as PR-191 is open to the public- a gate blocks the road, though it continues further south.  Parking nearby, we began the trail to Mt. Britton, a little over 3000′ in height.  The trail climbs fairly steeply through the rainforest.  It is paved with small stones in concrete, presumably to avoid the trail turning into a muddy mess.  The stones are rather slippery when wet and we saw one hiker take a tumble while descending.  With some care it’s possible to step only on the concrete, though at the expense of being able to fully appreciate the scenery.

Sierra Palm trunk detail with
Sierra Palm trunk detail with “buttress roots”

Not long after we started we spotted a small lizard clinging to a tree.  It was one of only a handful of animals we saw on our visit to El Yunque.  Indeed, the only other animals we saw were two birds near Yokahú Tower, a hummingbird on Mr. Britton, a large pigeon near Mina Falls, and a snail that blended very well with the leaf it was clinging too.  The rainforest was alive with the calls of birds and the onomatopoeic Coquí (Puerto Rican frogs with a call like “Co-Key!  Co-Key!”); the wildlife just kept well hidden.  The area had many Mountain Sierra Palm trees with their distinctive red “buttress roots”.

Mt. Britton Tower
Mt. Britton Tower

The trail emerged from the forest onto a service road which continued a short way to another path leading uphill to Mt. Britton tower.  The tower precedes Yokahú Tower.  Although much shorter than the more frequently visited Yokahú Tower, Mt. Britton Tower’s stone walls have aged far more gracefully.  The altitude of Mt. Britton Tower is greater but surrounding mountains block the view in several directions.  The radio towers on adjacent mountaintops are a bit of an eyesore.  Visitors with a few more hours to hike may choose to add a few hours to their journey by tackling El Yunque peak.  We headed downhill, almost beating a brief downpour that began as we were mere feet from the trailhead.

La Mina Falls
La Mina Falls

We turned around and drove down to the upper lot for the trail to La Mina Falls (the lower lot looked much more crowded on the drive up).  La Mina is the most popular and- as best I can tell- the most picturesque waterfall in the forest.  Rachel changed into her swimsuit at the restroom near the lot while I sheltered from another downpour in a small gift shop.  As usual the sun came out a few minutes later and we began hiking downhill along the stream that feeds the falls.  It was a fairly crowded trail, but not nearly as crowded as the area around the falls.  I honestly don’t know how they manage to get the postcard photos with the pool around the base of the falls completely empty because it’s a zoo down there.  Rachel reported that the water was cold but not as bad as she was expecting.  Although some crazy visitors climbed the rocks next to the base of the falls, Rachel was content to move underneath the cascade.  You will not see any photos of that posted here, as it turns out to be remarkably difficult to look dignified while being pummeled by a massive amount of water.  It was only a couple of hours until the park closed (enforced by the gate on PR-191).  We headed out of the park after a brief stop at the visitor center gift shop and headed to Loíza for dinner.

Series about Puerto Rico

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