The Caribbean National Forest-- or El Yunque, as it is commonly known, is one of Puerto Rico's tropical wonders. At 28,000 acres, it is not a large national forest compared to some in the mainland United States, but it is our only national tropical rain forest in the U.S. Forest Service. The highest peak in El Yunque is El Toro, which tops out at 3,532 feet. The park is named for the anvil-shaped El Yunque peak. The forest is thick but covered with dozens of trails, making hiking fun and educational. El Yunque hid the Carib Indians for two hundred years, but today you will only find 240 species of trees, along with numerous vines and orchids. It rains a lot in El Yunque--over 100 billion gallons each year! All of this rain makes the vegetation lush but the trails slippery. El Yunque is a bird sanctuary and home to the rare (we didn't see any) Puerto Rican parrot. One animal you are sure to see and hear is the small tree frog called the coqui. El Yunque is home to millions of these inch-long frogs, and their "singing" is present everywhere.
Our excursion included a 45-minute drive through the outskirts of San Juan and away from the sea into the mountains. We rode up into the scenic park in a van and parked near the entrance to the La Mina trail. We met our guides at the trailhead. The shore excursion hike was run by Ecoxcursion of Luquillo, Puerto Rico. Our guides furnished each of us with a small backpack that held a water bottle, towel, and snack. The trail wound through the forest, ending at the beautiful La Mina Falls. The coqui sang to us as we tramped along, trying to avoid the puddles and slippery rocks. The trail crossed many small springs, and the guide was quite knowledgeable, pointing out many different trees and plants. The day was very hot and muggy, as is normal in the steamy rain forest. Some of our cruise mates (including my husband Ronnie) went swimming at the waterfall's pool to cool off. I skipped the swim because the rocks around the pool were VERY slippery. Being very clumsy, I didn't want to break something that far away from home.
After a short break at the falls, we drank our water, put our shoes back on, and headed back to the van. The only part of the hike we didn't like was the return trip. We had to hike out the same way we came in! I think most of us would have preferred a trail that was more circular rather than having to hike back on the same trail. Unfortunately for us, the guides said that continuing on the same trail would not cross a road where the van could meet us for quite a long distance. So, we all turned around and went back the same way we had come.
If you have been to San Juan before and used your time ashore to explore old San Juan, you might want to consider venturing out into the heart of the Puerto Rican countryside the next time you are in port. We thought the trip was fun, and it helped us walk off a few ounces of the pounds we had gained on the cruise ship!
If you want more ideas on how to spend your time in San Juan, check out the next 2 pages of this article for several more suggestions of things to do in San Juan. One of my favorite (and most unusual) San Juan experiences (described on page 3) was a visit to the bioluminescent Laguna Grande near Fajardo, on the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. We paddled in the dark, through a mangrove swamp, in a two-person kayak, to reach the lagoon. What great stories we brought home from that one! You'll either need to be on a ship that departs from San Juan in the late evening, or add this excursion as a pre- or post-cruise experience on cruises embarking or disembarking in San Juan.
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