Plan to spend either a full day or ideally two days, exploring the El Yunque rainforest, technically El Yunque National Forest. Located in the Northeastern part of Puerto Rico, El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US park system.
I would bypass the tours and experience it on your own. You will need a car to get in and throughout the different areas of the park but most of the time you will be hiking. The average temperature will be in the low 70’s but dress to go from hot to cold several times throughout the day and expect downpours at times, you are in a rainforest after all. There are plenty of restrooms throughout the park but not a lot of food options so your best bet is to pack a cooler.
El Yunque is in the rugged Luquillo Mountains and the main trails are moderately groomed and marked and you will go off trail a bit, particularly to locate many of the unmarked waterfalls. So bring a map, especially if you love to hunt out waterfalls like I do. Having a swimsuit on and hiking in trek sandals will give you the most flexibility.
It’s fascinating to watch the climate changes. It’s a pretty healthy hike to the top of the park which is capped on one side by a tower. After you climb the steps to the top you are rewarded with fascinating views down into the rainforest and the ever-changing sky will go from bright sun to amazing clouds and storms that blow in. We had the tower to ourselves for well over an hour and honestly could have stayed there all day. There is also a smaller tower with a good view that is right on the side of the road – no hiking required. It will be pretty crowded but worth the view towards the water.
In El Yunque, there is no need to rush to a destination point, savor the amazing abundance of plants and animals. The thought that kept crossing my mind was that I have spent time in several world class botanical gardens that have rainforest areas and I could clearly see that they did a good job capturing the feel of a rainforest but they really just can’t do it justice. So, slow down and take it all in.
Bring your park map with you as trails and sites are not as clearly marked as you are used to finding in the US. Check trip reviews to guide you toward several hidden waterfalls and the main attraction, La Mina Falls. I think you have to see La Mina Falls but expect crowds and be warned – the water is freezing and the rocks are sharp and slippery – it’s a bit of a polar dip to get in but hey, when in Rome.
You don’t have to stay in this part of the island to make a day trip to El Yunque and if you don’t plan to have a car, there are certainly lots of tours to take. Whichever way you get there make sure it is a stop on your Puerto Rico trip.
Part Three of Falling for Puerto Rico will introduce you to more things to explore in Northeast Puerto Rico.