Category: Puerto Rico


America’s rain forest

Road ascending into clouds

Seen from the sea, El Yunque Mountain peaks at a modest 3,500 feet, but its slopes are still an imposing knot on the horizon.   It’s the focal point of El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system.  The park is less than 40 miles from the past day’s visit to downtown San Juan, and the drive takes just over an hour.

The name of this place has changed so many times that you’re to be forgiven if you’ve not heard of it before.  King Alfonso XII made it a Spanish forest preserve in 1876, and it became America’s Luquillo National Forest in 1906.  It was renamed Caribbean National Forest in 1935 and the El Yunque National Forest in 2007.

View from observation tower

Here Atlantic trade winds smack into the mountains to produce almost 250 inches of annual rainfall and a constant shroud of clouds.

Without a distinct wet or dry season and with constant temperature and daylight, the growing season is year-round and the bio-diversity is incredible.

Waterfalls abound

On this day a misty fog hangs heavily enough in the air to dampen clothing, and the 70-degree temperature feels much chillier in the stiff mountain breeze.

Yokahu Tower lookout

Visitors can survey four different vegetation zones within the park from 6 different trail segments.   There’s also a walkway 60 feet above the ground at the El Portal Rain Forest Center – located about 4 kilometers inside the forest – that allows for a treetop view.

Rain forest canopy

There are also two lookout towers – El Yokahu at around Kilometer 9 and El Britton at around Kilometer 15 – that afford great views.

Rainfall returns to the sea

Anyone who’s come face to face with a bear will be relieved to know that no large wildlife inhabits the park, but small game is abundant, including species unique to this spot like the Puerto Rican Amazon parrot (Amazona vittata).  Its wild population had shrunk to only 30 birds until it was introduced into other local forests in 2006.

The Jurassic forest

Among the forest’s four vegetation zones, the bosque enano… the dwarf forest… is unique to Puerto Rico, and sits at around 3,000 feet.   Their growth stunted by shade of the rainforest canopy and incessant winds, tree trunks are widened and branches have fewer leaves.
Twenty-three species of the forest’s trees occur nowhere else on the planet.

Mountains in the mist

Most species of coqui, small frogs native to the island which have endeared themselves to Puerto Ricans, are found here in abundance. These tree-dwellers have no webbed feet and hatch their young out of water not as tadpoles, but as fully-formed frogs!

El Yunque’s 3,500 foot elevation may seem modest, but the ascent to the peak from just above the Yohaku Tower rises 1,500 feet over just under three kilometers.  Bring a poncho! 

See related posts on my trips to:

Mt. Rainier National Park
Channel Islands National Park

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North coast, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Travel to San Juan by sea at least once because no other view can compare.

Here in the same time zone as Nova Scotia and Bermuda the sun rises early and as dawn breaks the island’s highest peaks rise out of a lush emerald carpet and thrust through the layer of clouds.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The whole thing seems to float on the ocean like a mirage, slowly filling the horizon as it draws nearer.

Harbor, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The ship almost completely circles the city before docking in the harbor on the inside of the peninsula.

 

The course delivers a 360 degree view of the city’s signature trio of castles – Castillo San d Cristóbal, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and Fortín San Juan de la Cruz (“El Cañuelo”) – which anchor the city’s shoreline.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

The Spaniards began building the castles in 1539, less than 50 years after Columbus claimed the island for them on his second voyage.

 

 

They left only after the Spanish-American war evicted them from the hemisphere over 400 years later.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

San Juan was so heavily fortified for good reason. Its great harbor sat astride the entrance to the Caribbean and it was the last stop made by the Spanish King’s treasure ships before the Atlantic crossing. It was justifiably known as the “Gibraltar of the Caribbean”.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

 

 

 

 

There’s more castle to see here for any but the most ardent military buff.

 

 

Castillo del Morro won out as my one-castle only pick and I wasn’t disappointed.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

There’s a 20th century scale to this serpentine conglomeration of gun emplacement and turret and overlooks.

Think “Maginot Line.” The walls look thick enough to resist an atomic blast.

Hotel El Convento, San Juan, Puerto Rico

When not bunking on a cruise ship I stay at the Hotel El Convento. It’s centrally located in Old San Juan, most of which is within walking distance and some of which goes up and down the hill on which the city sits.

El Convento occupies a building inaugurated as a Carmelite convent in 1651 and sits directly across from the Western Hemisphere’s oldest cathedral. Coffee in its cloistered courtyard is a great way to start every day.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

The architecture of the shops and homes of Old San Juan are very reminiscent of Spanish New Orleans.

Castillo del Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

It has a different feeling here, with landscape views of sea and coast and fresh ocean breezes only blocks away from just about any spot .

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Side streets narrow until there’s no way to travel them except on foot.

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Plenty of street scene photos await here.

There’s no lack of good restaurants in the old city, but my favorite for authentic Puerto Rican food is a short cab ride to the Condado district.

The dining room of Restaurante Ajili-Mojili  feels like the verandah of a tropical plantation house.

Nothing on the menu has ever disappointed, but I enjoy and heartily recommend the asopaos – a bisque with rice and chicken, shrimp, seafood, or lobster – almost as much as the mofongos. A Puerto Rican original, the mofongo is fried dough made of mashed green plantains, garlic and pork rinds and stuffed with shrimp, seafood, lobster, veal, chicken or beef.

Condada, San Juan, Puerto Rico

You’ll need to walk this meal off, and there’s no better place thanthe Condado neighborhood, which affords an opportunity to see some great deco architecture in a tropical setting that evokes Miami Beach, but is a lot more intimate.

Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is home to the distillers of more than a dozen national brands of rum among which the most well-known is Bacardi. I’ve seen enough rum distilleries elsewhere to pass on a tour here, but if you haven’t yet had the pleasure this is a good place to seek one out.

From San Juan the plan is to make a day trip to the El Yunque National Forest, which bills itself as “the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Forest system”. Watch for it in my next Americana post!