It’s easy to fall in love with Puerto Rico’s gorgeous beaches (there are close to 300 of them), its almost perfect weather (average temperature is about 75 degrees) and its historic cities (Old San Juan dates back 500-plus years). But any visit should also include a trip to El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, so no passport, currency exchange or even a language lesson are needed. Visiting from the U.S. offers an easy island vacation, which feels both somewhat removed from the States, yet familiar. El Yunque is less than an hour from Old San Juan and lots of tour companies offer excursions if you don’t have a car, don’t want to go on your own or prefer a guided tour.
About El Yunque National Forest
Around 29,000 acres, El Yunque is said to be a sacred place in Puerto Rican culture. According to the Puerto Rican tourism board, many believe its name comes from the Taíno word “Yuke,” or “white earth,” a reference to the clouds that gather around the forest’s mountainous peak; others believe it derives from Yúcahu, the Taíno deity of fertility. Regardless, the forest offers wonderful hikes, scenic vistas and plenty of pools and waterfalls for adventurers to seek out. Head first to the main park entrance to El Portal Visitor Center, which gives an overview of the park with exhibits, interpretive programs, a gift shop and a café. There is an accessible interpretive trail that circles the property, and if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot.
What to See and Do
Without a doubt, hiking to a waterfall or natural pool for a dip is high on the list for most visitors. La Coca trail leads to one of several ponds. If you want to up the adrenaline ante, take El Angelito trail, where a 2.5-mile hike leads to a lagoon, where you can use a rope swing to launch into the pool. There are plenty of trails for all levels of abilities, so you can challenge yourself as much, or as little, as you like. And if you are a birdwatching fan, this is the place to be, with 42 year-round species and at least 35 migratory species. There are 240 plant species endemic to Puerto Rico, many of which you can learn about at the center or on a tour. For awesome views, the Yokahú Observation Tower, with an elevation of 1,575 feet, allows you to see both the ocean and the lush green mountains.
Traveling to El Yunque from San Juan takes about 45 minutes and you’ll want to make an advance reservation through recreation.gov if you are driving yourself and visiting is a priority for you. You can book up to one month in advance. A limited number of tickets may be released 24 hours prior to opening for last-minute travelers, but there is no guarantee. Considering there is an average rainfall of 120 inches per year, daily rain showers are to be expected, so bring a poncho or umbrellas and an extra set of dry clothes. If you want to swim, wear your bathing suit under your clothes and bring a towel, too. Hiking shoes or boots are also a must for some of the harder or wetter trails. Cell phone service is spotty, so let someone know where you are going, too. Visit fs.usda.gov/elyunque for more information and tips.
Where to Stay
While there is no camping in El Yunque, the Yuquiyú Treehouses in Río Grande might appeal if you’re seeking an immersive jungle experience with a camping vibe. These treehouses are located on the outskirts of El Yunque National Rainforest. From Yuquiyú, it is just 15 minutes to the heart of the rainforest and 35 minutes to Old San Juan. Visit yuquiyufarm.com for more information.
This article, written by Kim Foley MacKinnon, first appeared in the Winter 2023/24 issue of Girl Camper Magazine.
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