The Mountain Hikes
Some of the Caribbean's lushest terrain, Puerto Rico's prime woodlands, are protected through a system of forest reserves, many established by the Spanish government as far back as 1876. These are among the oldest forest reserves in the Western Hemisphere.
The most popular and most visited place outside of San Juan is the 28,000-acre Caribbean National Forest, 40 kilometers southeast and a forty-five minute drive from San Juan. Better known simply as El Yunque, the nickname comes from the good Indian spirit Yuquiyu who ruled from the mighty forest peaks to protect the Taino Indians, the island's original inhabitants. El Yunque is both the smallest and the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest System. In its highest and most inaccessible altitudes, the virgin forest remains much as it was 500 years ago. This is rare, because over the centuries Puerto Rico has been subject to such intensive agricultural development that only one percent of the land is considered virgin.
The higher peaks annually receive as much as 240 inches, while lower down it's deluged with 200 inches of precipitation each year. The Forest Service has figured that it comes to almost 100 billion gallons of water every twelve months. Understandably, there is a serious erosion and trail maintenance problem in El Yunque.
Severely damaged by Hurricane Hugo, El Yunque is recovering faster than most experts predicted. Hugo toppled some trees and stripped all vegetation of its leaves so that the landscape resembled the dead of winter. Not only is the forest returning to normal, new panoramic vistas have opened which were previously blocked by a dense mantle of thick green vegetation. Eventually, these lookout points will be obscured by the new growth regenerating quickly in this warm, moist climate.
You won't have much problem walking the different trails; most are surfaced with asphalt or concrete. In fact, you may be disappointed at how hard-surfaced the forest pathways are. There are two reasons for this. One is to combat erosion. Some sections of forest sidewalk have to be repaired and replaced almost every year because of the torrential runoffs.
The second reason for the hard-surfaced paths is wonderfully unique, even for the Caribbean. As one Puerto Rican tourism official explained to me, "We don't like to walk. We are a 'car' people and we like to drive everywhere. The idea of walking through the forest on dirt paths where you might get your shoes dirty does not truly appeal to a lot of us."
And so a mini-road system (the width of a typical bicycle path) travels through the El Yunque wilderness to make the forest as accessible and as alluring as the Puerto Rican culture will allow. With this kind of cultural perspective, it should be no surprise that at present there isn't a single company specializing in hiking or wilderness guide service.
El Yunque's best known and most vocal inhabitants are its millions of tiny tree frogs. Known as coquis because of their "co-kee" call, they sing loudest when it rains. Despite how often that occurs, the frogs seem to become deliriously happy with each new sprinkle. If you want to hear the coquis sing, expect to get wet; you probably will, anyway, at some point during the day. The coquis of El Yunque are only about an inch in length and vary in color from gray-brown to green-yellow.
Although the coqui name applies to all thirteen species of tree frogs in El Yunque, only two, the Forest and Common Coqui actually produce the famous "co-kee" sound. Each of the other species has its own distinct call; some sound like "bob white" quail.
The Puerto Rican parrot can also be heard squawking, but won't be seen often. In 1968, the wild parrot population in El Yunque was estimated at only twenty-seven birds, barely a surviving population. Currently making a comeback, their numbers are still small. You can identify the parrots, largely green in color, by the brilliant blue of their wings, visible when in flight. Twelve inches in size, they have a vivid red forehead which you're most likely to see only at close range. Although the Puerto Rican parrot is the most famous, fifty other bird species are found in the Caribbean National Forest.
You may see a fair number of lizards and crabs, but snakes are rare. None of them are poisonous. The largest is the Puerto Rican boa (harmless to adults) which grows to a length of more than seven feet.
Hiking Trails of El Yunque
Unless otherwise indicated, all trails begin on Route 191, which winds through much of the forest. Distances in Puerto Rico are measured in both miles and kilometers: 1 km equals .6 of a mile.
1. Big Tree Trail
Length: Less than 1 mile.
Time: 25 minutes each way.
Beginning at km mark 10.4, Big Tree Trail is probably El Yunque's most popular walk. It is the best walk through the tabonuco or true rain forest, offering more diversity in one small area than perhaps anywhere else. You can try counting and distinguishing the 160 different tree species here, not counting ferns and vines (good luck!). This short walk also goes to La Mina falls.
One distinctive species of the rain forest is the candle tree. The smooth gray bark oozes a pungent white resin (smells similar to pine pitch) that can be used to start fires. Even more remarkable is the laurel sabino which grows nowhere else in the world except in the Caribbean National Forest. The laurel sabino is draped with a dense community of vines and airplants that use the tree for support. They do not cause it any harm.
With luck, you may see some of El Yunque's eight different lizard species, most of whom live in the rain forest zone. Each type has adapted to its particular niche so that none compete. For instance, some species live on the ground, others in trees; one in the sun, another in the shadeÂ—a good example of peaceful coexistence.
Don't expect to see the usual, forest-type creatures in this or any other rain forest. They would need to float to survive here.
2. La Mina (The Mine) Trail
Length: about one mile to the mine beyond La Mina Falls.
Time: 1 hour each way.
An extension of The Big Tree Trail opened in 1992, it picks up at La Mina Falls. It leads through the rain forest to another waterfall three to four times as large. It also goes to a mine where the Spanish discovered and took a considerable amount of gold. Visitors may enter the mine tunnel, a seven to eight foot-wide opening, high enough to stand. The tunnel extends forty feet back, then is cut off by a landslide.
3.-4.-5. El Yunque/Bano de Oro/Mt. Britton Trails
Length: 4.7 km to El Yunque Peak and 3.3 km to Mt. Britton.
Time: 2-1/2 to 3 hours, round trip to El Yunque Peak.
Difficulty: 2, some mild ascending. Note: At the higher levels the asphalt trail turns to gravel.
Beginning at the Palo Colorado Visitor Center, this asphalt trail eventually leads to El Yunque Peak, 3,496 feet high. It also connects with several other trails and branches to the Caimitillo picnic area. All the trails separate and leave from the main El Yunque Trail; a sign clearly marks each turnoff, so it's almost impossible to get lost.
At the beginning is the Palo Colorado Stream. You can detour left up to the old concrete swimming pool at the end of the half-mile long Ba-o de Oro Trail.
Back on the main El Yunque Trail, after just a few hundred yards, another branch leaves to the right. It leads to the Caimitillo Picnic Area and the short walking trail there. The trail to follow (unless you're hungry for a picnic) goes left, the main El Yunque Trail and the one from which all the other major trails eventually branch off.
Palo colorado or, red trees, dominate this lower level. You'll also see giant ferns, bamboo, moss and large vines. In the wild, the parrots use palo colorado trees for nesting, so watch for parrot's nests, one of the few opportunities to see the rare Puerto Rican parrot. You're most likely to spot one near dawn or dusk. In this vicinity, you'll see artificial woodpecker nests: man-made wooden boxes.
In several places you'll begin to appreciate the massive problem of erosion the Forest Service personnel face here because of the tremendous runoff. In some spots, the asphalt trail is actually eight inches below ground level. That's how much the surrounding land has slowly built up. When rain pours down the pathway, it flows like a stream. The Forest Service employs about ten people to continually cut back and dig out the trails. In addition, another fifteen elderly people help with the maintenance, serving as senior citizen volunteers.
On the trail, you'll pass beautiful beds of pink-blossomed impatiens. They grow wild here and bloom all year. This trail leads to both the sierra palm forest and the dwarf forest.
You can't help but note the unusual shape of the Mt. Britton observation tower. Resembling a castle turret, you almost expect to see Robin Hood or the Sheriff of Nottingham. Actually, this is one of the Conservation Corps projects dating back to the 1930s. There's a similar observation tower on Route 19Â—both offer a fine overview.
6. Los Picachos Trail
Length: 3.5 miles.
Time: 1-1/2 hours each way.
This is the longest route to El Yunque Peak, which tops out at 3,496 feet. Initially, you'll see the many redwood-type trees called palo colorado, which grow seventy to seventy-five feet tall. One palo colorado in the forest has a girth of seventeen feet; it's believed to be at least 2,000 years old. This approach to El Yunque Peak uses many switchbacks. Once you're at the top, you'll find some steep steps cut into a rock. They take about five minutes to climb. There, on the highest part of the pyramid-shaped peak, you should be able to see much of the coast.
7. El Toro (Tradewinds) Trail
Length: Approx. 6 miles one-way.
Time: 4 hours, round trip.
This is El Yunque's longest and probably most difficult walk. You will pass through all four different forest systems to reach Pico El Toro at 3,523 feet, the highest point in the forest. This is the only maintained trail without gravel or hard surface. The soil is too unstable. In the rainy season, this route can be quite muddy. The marked path begins on Route 191 just beyond the El Yunque trail. It comes out on Route 185, where you might be able to arrange for a ride back.
View: Trail Map
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