El Yunque Rain Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest System, and we went to it on a beautiful sunny day in Puerto Rico. Situated on the north side of the island, about 45 minutes outside of San Juan, we decided to take a professional tour of the rainforest, as that was our cheapest option for getting there. Luckily we did because the tour from Louie’s VIP Tours was amazing. Our guide picked us up at our guest house, but the real tour started at the El Yunque Visitor center.
The visitor center is a newly made complex that shows off the history of the forest as well as the flora and fauna that inhabit it. A large wooden bridge takes you over the top of the trees to the facility. Below we could see the bread fruit as well as the large fern trees that make up the first elevation of the forest. Throughout the visitor center you can hear the chirping of the coqui frog, a tiny little frog that is the unofficial mascot of the island. Unfortunately we would never see these cute little frogs as they are nocturnal like most of the animals in the forest. The visitor center is two stories high with a gift shop on the bottom floor and small vendors and an education room on the top. In the education room we looked at signs informing us on everything the rainforest has to offer. We got to read all about what type of animals inhabit the forest, how a hurricane destroyed the area, and about the four different elevations that make up El Yunque.
We left the visitor center to drive on to our next destination. Paved roads wind through the hills taking you to all of the biggest attractions in the forest. Along the roads imported bamboo plants rise 6-8 feet into the air. After about five minutes of driving we got to La Cocoa Falls along the side of the road. This was a great little spot to get some photos. The waterfall isn’t particularly big it breaks off and trickles down a rock face. While we were here the skies opened up and it began raining. Our guide told us that in El Yunque it will rain multiple times a day for 5-20 minutes at a time. That’s really something we were expecting though, it is a rainforest after all and the rain is always welcome in such a tropical environment.
Next we were off to walk the La Mina Falls path. The path goes right along the side of a river and we followed it down. As we were going our tour guide stopped by the side of the river, pulled out a couple of rocks and began to explain how they were volcanic rocks that are used in makeup. She rubbed a couple together to form a thick paste and began to paint our faces with “tribal symbols.”
Then our guide left us to wander the path at our own pace. We had to stop by a small gazebo along the path to smoke a couple of cigarettes. We took turns smoking and playing lookout as we weren’t really sure if we were allowed to smoke in the forest, but it had been a few hours since our last one and after a few hours driving and walking we both really needed one (don’t worry we put them out and threw them in a trash can.) Turns out it wasn’t really a big deal because a few minutes later some guy walked right by us puffing on a big cigar. When we stopped for the cigarettes we saw the only wildlife we would see inside the forest, a big brown snail.
The main attraction of the path is La Mina falls, a gorgeous waterfall that you can swim in. It is probably the biggest tourist attraction of El Yunque and even during the low season there were a lot of people there grilling along the side of the path, taking pictures, and swimming in the pool of the waterfall. The water was so cold it was almost shocking. Parts of the swimming hole were well over my head but for the most part large rocks make the pool relatively shallow. After swimming for a bit and getting a few good pictures we headed to the end of the path to head on to our last stop.
Our guide took us to Yokahu Observation Tower as the last stop on our tour. It is a large tour that looks out over the rainforest as well as the coastline. Over 90 steps takes you out to the top on the tower on the observation deck. Looking out you can see for miles in any direction. It’s a gorgeous view and was a great way to end our tour of the forest.