Puerto Rico V: El Yunque

Yokahu Tower

Reading this week:

  • The Slave Trade Today by Sean O’Callaghan (this book is definitely unethical and has some clear errors but is probably useful as an artifact)

Our fourth day in Puerto Rico dawned bright and early (kinda, we were reasonable about it) because we had big plans to escape the confines of San Juan and explore this gorgeous island. That’s right, we were renting a car, and having successfully secured passes the previous day, our first stop was El Yunque National Forest.

Picking up the car and getting there was easy, and the first place we stopped was of course the Visitor Center, aptly named El Portal. We could have done more research on El Yunque before we left, so we were unaware that you don’t need the pass to visit El Portal (though there is an entry fee, but if you have a National Parks Pass you can get in for free). So if you are visiting Puerto Rico and don’t get the El Yunque pass, don’t despair, El Portal is great! It’s a largely outdoor visitor center complex that tells you a lot about the history of the forest and all about the different ecosystems there, and has an extensive set of “discovery trails” that take you through a forest section and you of course see all sorts of plants and stuff. Also a delightful gift shop and cafeteria. We poked around and had a grand ole’ time but worried about the time on our timed passes we set out for the park proper.

The causeway is the entryway to El Portal with the discovery trail below.

When I found out the park had passes I figured it was just a COVID thing or something but now I understand they are very necessary. The forest, or at least the portion that requires the passes (there are actually a lot of ways to access the forest, it is a relatively small portion that requires the pass though it is where many of the popular trails are) is basically one long road with various small parking areas. You drive up the road, steeply ascending the mountains of El Yunque and can stop off and park at various spots to hike the myriad trails and see the multitudinous sights. There is only the one road and only so many parking spots, so if they let just unlimited numbers into the park it would only be one long perpetual traffic jam. But as it was it was quite pleasant and fairly easy to navigate.

Serious hiking!

Neither my super amazing girlfriend nor I were prepared for any serious hiking. That def requires a bit of planning, as many of the trails (they sternly warn though we did not verify) are fairly strenuous and take a few hours to traverse. It seems like an awesome experience but for sure looks like a thing best started early in the morning and with plenty of water. But the forest was still awesome for us more casual viewers. There are plenty of places to get food (we stopped by a very tiny hot dog stand run by a woman who seemed far more east coast than central Puerto Rico and I wondered how she wound up in the middle of the United States’ only tropical rainforest selling potato chips) and easier sights and we enjoyed a number of them.

View from the tower.

The first and one of the most spectacular sights was Yokahu Tower which is a big ole’ tower you can climb up and get fantastic views of the forest stretching down to the ocean on one side and on the other the very peaks of the mountains, including the eponymous El Yunque. So we climbed up and snapped a bunch of photos and then went down and got that hot dog I mentioned and then got back in our car and continued to climb up the mountain. We hadn’t planned out anything beforehand so we mostly stopped at whatever was interesting. There was a pool you couldn’t swim in built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and um lots and lots of trees. One thing I liked about El Yunque is they were in fact really into trees here, focusing most of the materials on the environmental aspects of the park. They were super into it, though I do think that was potentially at the expense of thinking about the original inhabitants of the park and that is always something we should think deeper about. We eventually got to the end of the road (there was road construction so on normal days you could go even farther) and hiked up the trail a bit, but then got tired and turned around. One nice thing is that we had the very picturesque La Coca Falls to ourselves on the way out and so we took tons of photos.

Baño Grande, Novia Pequeña

After having gotten our fill of El Yunque, we stopped by once again at the Visitor’s Center for lunch and then departed for Ponce, where we were planning on staying a few days. It was a perfectly easy drive over the mountains to get there and we settled into our place not too far from the center of town. It was a much different vibe in Ponce than San Juan and we were looking forward to spending plenty of time poking around.

La Coca Falls