El Yunque National Forest
Hike through America’s only tropical rain forest
A popular day trip from San Juan, El Yunque combines all the magic of a rain forest—majestic trees, giant ferns and mysterious ‘peeps’ and ‘trills’ emanating from the dense foliage in the rugged Luquillo Mountains. As the only tropical rain forest in the United States National Forest System, El Yunque provides paved trails that are easy on children and inexperienced hikers. It even offers a drive-through option for windshield tourists, who can enjoy the misty landscape and roadside waterfalls along Route 191, the only road through the 28,000-acre forest.
But El Yunque, considered sacred by the Taino Indians, is indubitably best experienced on foot. Home to thousands of plants, including 240 tree species (23 of which are found nowhere else) and 70 orchids, El Yunque has 13 hiking trails covering 23 miles of varied terrain. The hardy can climb to the summit of El Toro and take in spectacular 360-degree views of the forest, but even small children can handle the less-than-a-mile-long Big Tree Trail that wends past La Mina Falls, whose cascades plummet 35 feet into a cool, refreshing pool of water—the perfect plunge on a hot day. The three-mile El Yunque Trail is considered the most rewarding. The further away you can get from the cruise-ship crowds, the more jungle magic you’ll find.
There are no large creatures here such as monkeys or panthers, but there are plenty of small ones that you may not see, but will certainly hear. Millions of tiny coqui, the endemic tree frog that is Puerto Rico’s mascot, live here, trilling ‘co-KEE’ sporadically until evening approaches, or after a rainfall, when it turns into a full-blown chorus. The most prized sighting is the bright-green Puerto Rican parrot, once abundant but now quite rare and highly endangered.
After the rain forest, it’s only eight miles north to Luquillo Beach, a much-photographed palm-lined crescent of white sand and calm turquoise waters that attracts lots of local families from San Juan. Follow them: they know which roadside stand sells the best alcapurrias, plantain fritters stuffed with seafood.
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Trip idea text ©Patricia Schultz. For contact information about the places mentioned and many more USA trip ideas, see Patricia Schultz's blockbuster book.