El Yunque: The Only Tropical Rainforest on US Territory

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The second full day was filled with lots of excitement as it was my first trip out to a rainforest. El Yunque lies on the East Side of Puerto Rico, making that side a bit richer in terms of greenery. I heard when you venture out to the West and Southwest of the island, you have such exotic things as a Dry Forest, but it literally looks like Desertville. While the heritage of its name varies between it having either a Spanish or aboriginal origin, El Yunque is quite a beauty to take in. It is the only tropical rainforest on US grounds and has a Federal Forest Reserve for over a century (112 years, to be exact). Because its south of the tropic of cancer, its climate classifies as full-on tropical, resulting in it having no real seasons. It rains year-round on forest soil, officially turning it into more than 200 rainy days a year. That equates to it raining more frequently than every other day. It therefore was not a great surprise that we were caught up in a rainstorm while visiting.

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The first stop of our 6-people-tour was the visitor’s center, where we got to know everything about the reserve’s wildlife, preservation, history, and culture in general. El Yunque was exploited for natural resources, such as gold in the water streams, when the Spaniards first came around in the 16th century. However, since its resources were exploited rather suddenly, the forest was recognized quite soon as a National Reserve by the Spanish crown and it was not chopped down or extinguished after all the gold had been extracted. On the contrary, its land has significantly increased with the planting of new trees throughout the years and it is now larger than ever. The visitor’s center was a great place to watch a movie about the important parts of history, emphasizing the small things one can do in order to make the world a better place. Such as adopting a small part of the rainforest or buying recycled paper. Small things, I say, small things.

small lizard
small lizard

It also brought us closer to Coqui – the national frog (and almost country mascot) that is found throughout the forest and even San Juan. As its name implies, it gives a sound that is similar to its name: Co-queeeee. When I first heard it during a night out in San Juan, I was a bit baffled as it did not sound like a frog at all. Perhaps similar to a cricket but more forceful. Well, coquis are small, native frogs and they are cute as heck.

Coca Falls
Coca Falls

We then went on to our first waterfall stop. On our way there (we drove up the mountain hills), we witnessed an arrest of young adults made by the local police, who had three cars ready. Quite peculiar indeed and we never actually go to find out the reason for the arrest. The first waterfall named Coca Falls was not meant for swimming but it was great for breath-taking pictures. While some stayed down below, others ventured up to get a better look at it. I got pretty close to it and was able to have a great picture taken just to prove it! The entire area around Coca Falls is named Coca something, because it was inspired by a woman named “Coca” who had a lot to do with positive change in the rainforest.

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The next stop was the watchtower. The Yokahu Tower offered a great view over El Yunque thanks to its circular roof. You are also able to see parts of Luquillo Beach and Fajardo from here.

Watchtower magic
Watchtower magic
Watchtower magic
Watchtower magic
Watchtower magic
Watchtower magic

Our last stop was finally a waterfall we could swim in. In order to do this, we had to leave the van at the parking lot and hike through the rainforest for around 45 minutes one way. The small trails and falls nearby made for quite a picturesque scene. At one point, our guide discovered stones which drew, used by the natives to color their faces back in the days. He demonstrated it by drawing lines on a nearby rock in three different colors. I colored my arm and it took a while to wash off but it had the consistency of thin clay.

Trails
Trails
Clay-like coloring tools
Clay-like coloring tools

We then got to the end of our trail and saw a few people ahead of us. As we drew closer, we witnessed a high waterfall falling into a pond below, where other tourists were already jumping around. I hadn’t planned on going into it but since I had already made it that far, I climbed past the rocks and dove beneath the waterfall. It was very cold at first but then refreshing afterwards, as the temperature in the forest was still humid and warm. We stayed for about half an hour and were then surprised by drizzling rain which quickly turned into a full-on rainstorm. Our way back took almost twice as long, as the trails and stones had turned into a slippery mess, which were careful to navigate through. Had we been slightly damp in the beginning, we were now soaking wet when making it back to the parking lot.

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That towel did not help much...
That towel did not help much…

As soon as we grabbed a bite at a local stand and drove down towards the foot of the hill, the sun broke out and there was no rain on that side. So I guess it really only rained in the rainforest, in defense of its name.

Wet at the dry bottom of El Yunque
Wet at the dry bottom of El Yunque
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