Caribbean National Forest Overview
Here's a bit of trivia to stow away for that guest appearance on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?: Where will you find the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system? Answer: Puerto Rico's Caribbean National Forest.
While this rugged forest preserve to the east of the capital of San Juan has the distinction of being at 28,000 acres the smallest of all the national forests, little else about "El Yunque," as it is known locally, is trivial.
Rain descends on these thickly vegetated hillsides in biblical proportions—a soggy 15 feet of rain in an average year—and plant life is remarkably diverse. In fact, more individual species of trees cram into this small space (142 types of trees) than in any other national forest, many of which are 100 times bigger.
Yet another point of distinction: Caribbean National Forest is one of the oldest protected areas in the Western Hemisphere by virtue of having been set aside by the Spanish Crown in 1876 while Puerto Rico was still ruled from Madrid. On the ground, this translates into virgin forest that looks much as it did when Christopher Columbus visited Puerto Rico 500 years ago.
A visit to Caribbean National Forest is like stepping inside a PBS Nova program about the wondrous and imperiled rain forest. Rounding a bend on Route 191 or hiking a forest trail out of one forest zone and into another enhances your appreciation for this unique ecosystem and gives new meaning to environmental slogans like "Save the Rain Forest" and "Protect Biodiversity." Beneath a towering canopy of trees, some as old as 1,000 years, giant ferns arch their graceful fronds, bromeliads, and epiphytes sprout from every nook and cranny of host trees, and rare orchids dangle a profusion of colorful blooms.
For most Americans, this is as accessible and convenient as tropical rain forest gets; no passport, vaccinations, or complex travel plans are required to visit. Be advised, the dry season, such as it is, occurs in March; the wettest month is May, which around here is wet indeed.
Hike a Jungle Trail
No need for a machete or hip waders to explore this rain forest. Caribbean National Forest contains 24 miles of trails, ranging from short, easy strolls to half-day scrambles to the summits of the 3,500-foot Sierra de Luquillo. Many of the trails are paved to keep hikers from bogging down in deep mud. Upwardly mobile hikers will want to tackle the moderately difficult El Yunque Trail, which over the course of its 2.6 miles ascends through three different forest zones to finish among the stunted, moss-covered trees of the Cloud Forest. Views from 3,412-foot El Yunque Peak are spectacular in those rare moments when the clouds part. Pack good rain gear and plan on at least four hours of hiking to complete the round-trip.
Swim Beneath a Waterfall
Water seeps and spills and pools out of every surface in the forest, then gathers in clear, cool, rushing torrents that leap down the steep mountainsides. Swimming in forest streams is a favorite Puerto Rican pastime, as is dousing oneself beneath a waterfall. The farther you're willing to walk to one of the many waterfalls in the forest, the more private your swim will be. The half-hour hike to La Mina Falls discourages many car-bound tourists, which leaves this 35-foot cataract and the perfect swimming hole at its feet for the enjoyment of more determined visitors. The trail to the falls starts at the Palo Colorado Visitor Center.
View Birds of Paradise
As tropical rain forests go, Caribbean National Forest holds less animal diversity than is common, but it's a regular Noah's Ark compared to many temperate zone forests. The forest is home to 77 species of birds, including the Elfin Woods warbler, Puerto Rican tanager, Rudy-quall-dove, canary-winged parakeet, Chuck-will's-widow, sharp-shinned hawk, broad-winged hawk, and Antillean Euphonia. Lucky is the visitor who spies the forest's most renowned avian inhabitant, the Puerto Rican parrot, which is the subject of an intense breeding and reintroduction campaign that has brought this bright-green plumaged bird back from the brink of extinction. Time your visit around the holidays to participate in the Christmas Bird Count, a one-day, all-you-can-see bird census open to birders of all levels.
Camp in a Cloud Forest
Just once, every seasoned camper should spend a night in a tent in the rainforest. We can't guarantee you a night of solid slumber, what with the din of the tiny coqui (a vocally talented tree frog), the skin-crawling call of the Puerto Rican screech owl, and the pitter-patter of tarantulas, centipedes, and dinner plate-size snails in the forest duff, but the bragging rights will be worth it. A good, well-ventilated tent you can zip shut is a must since rain is assured and creepy crawlies abound. Primitive camping is allowed throughout the forest as long as you have a free permit, which can be picked up at the forest's Catalina Service Center.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication