By Carol M. Bareuther, RD
Photo by Christopher Villano
Counting the steps from one to almost one hundred, we marched to the top of the 69-foot high lookout, called Yokahu Tower. From here we had a spectacular birds-eye view: Puerto Rico's offshore islands of Vieques and Culebra far off on the horizon, the island's northeast communities of Luquillo and Fajardo in the foreground, and the lush rain forested peaks of El Yunque rising up around and behind us. The ancient Taino Indians, who once inhabited Puerto Rico, identified the highest peak as where "Yuquiyu" lived, a good god that protected them from evil. Today, the spirited feeling of "Yuquiyu" lives on in the omnipotent natural grandeur of the locale, which is best appreciated by hiking its mountainous treks and swimming in its cascading waterfalls.
El Yunque, also known as the Caribbean National Forest, is the largest tract of forestland on Puerto Rico, stretching some 28,000-acres. Rich in history as well as flora and fauna, it was King Alfonso XII of Spain who set aside nearly half of this land for the Caribbean National Forest in 1876, making it one of the oldest forest reserves in the western hemisphere. The king's foresight spared El Yunque from the massive deforestation that reduced up to ninety percent of trees elsewhere on the island to make way for coffee and sugar cane plantations. Presently, the Caribbean National Forest is the only tropical forest in the U.S. National Forest System. The best way to get acquainted with El Yunque is by stopping at any of the interpretative centers: El Portal Tropical Forest Center, Sierra Palm Visitor Information Center and Palo Colorado Visitor Information Center. Here there are exhibit areas and several information brochures, including maps that show the locations of trails and waterfalls.
Hiking affords an excellent opportunity to see and experience the splendor of El Yunque. There are over 24 miles of recreational foot trails ranging from easy half-mile jaunts to challenging near three-mile treks. One of the most popular hikes is to combine the Big Tree Trail with the La Mina Falls Trail for an hour-long adventure. The beauty of this energetic walk is the chance to see all four forest types — the Tabonuco forest for which the Big Tree Trail is named, the Palo Colorado forest where the Puerto Rican parrot lives, the Sierra Palm forest, and finally the Dwarf or Cloud forest where the singing Puerto Rico tree frogs named coquis are found. Local legend says that the person who sees a coqui will be blessed with great fortune, as this tiny frog is almost as elusive as the Irish leprechaun. At the intersection of the Big Tree Trail and La Mina Falls Trail is the cool and inviting La Mina Falls, which drops over 35 feet into a pool that's just right for a refreshing swim.
Water, water, everywhere makes wearing a bathing suit — or carrying an umbrella — a must when visiting El Yunque. Rain is almost a constant factor. The average yearly rainfall is 120 inches or more than 100 billion gallons. El Yunque is the headwater for six major rivers that supply a vital source of water for domestic drinking and farming uses in nearby towns. This deluge of water creates wondrous waterfalls. For those who can't hike to La Mina Falls, there's La Coca Falls right next to the main roadway. Once believed by the Spanish to be the "fountain of youth" these falls descend a life-long 85-feet into pools perfect for dipping for splashing.
Usually cloaked in clouds, the rainforest of El Yunque retains much of the misty mysteriousness it beheld centuries ago. For all it's natural beauty, some say the place is otherworldly and a Mecca for UFO's. If this is true, "Yuquiyu" may not have been an ancient god or spirit, but may be a futuristic alien visitor.
View a complete list of activities, tours and attractions.