This is the second part of a short series of blog posts highlighting different places of interest on the island of Puerto Rico. In each of them I will do my best to provide you with some information and show you some of the photographic work I did while there. You are free to leave any comments you wish and to share this blog with anyone you think might find it useful.
You can find part one of this series here: Puerto Rico Series, Part One – Old San Juan
You can find part three of this series here: Puerto Rico Series, Part Three – The Beaches!!!
In this blog post I will show you:
El Yunque National Forest
To Puerto Ricans, El Yunque is a very important symbol of the island’s powerful beauty and they often cite it as a protector of the island against hurricanes. At its highest peak it is only 1080 meters above sea level but there is some truth to the mountain’s effect on the trajectory path of hurricanes which when they approach the island, most times seem to veer off north or south as if El Yunque was standing in its way. To other Puerto Ricans it is the little green men from space (or sometimes even the mysterious U.S. Military) who have secret bases and other assorted alien (I won’t get into the details… you really don’t want to know) technology to push the hurricanes away and continue their genetic experiments like the ones that created the Chupacabra. Sorry Mexicans… you know I love you but the Chupacabras is Puerto Rican. Always has been, always will be. Get your own blood sucking monster.
But alien creatures that suck the blood out of goats and secret military bases are not the reasons I recommend you to visit this beautiful place. I recommend it because the very moment you start to climb the road towards El Yunque Rain Forest you are transformed forever and nature will never seem the same to you again. You are suddenly surrounded by gigantic trees, monstrously sized ferns and flowers, colorful and melodic birds and the quaint yet unmistakable song of the coqui frog which fills the air all around you. You step into a magical place where it is suddenly possible that elves and fairy tale creatures just might exist after all.
First, a little history… The first people on Puerto Rico were called the Taino Indians. They held the mountain as sacred and lived along its base calling it Yu-ke. Spaniards arrived to the island in 1493 and in just a few decades wiped out the Tainos with forced labor and disease. Then many years later, in 1876, King Alfonso of Spain (who’s actual name was Alfonso Francisco de Asís Fernando Pío Juan María de la Concepción Gregorio Pelayo… I kid you not) thought it would be a good idea to make the forest a natural preserve. This just after two years of being crowned and while still going through some serious issues with the Carlists (Google it) back home. By this royal decree, the forest became one of the first forest reserves in the Americas. Now, let’s not get carried away and make him the poster child for ecological conservation just yet. This move was done to prevent other nations from using the wood to build warships, not because he was a tree hugger. But I digress… A few years later, after the Spanish-American War, when Puerto Rico became a property of the United States, the forest was officially named the Luquillo Forest Reserve at first and then changed to the Caribbean National Forest. Throughout all those years, even though everybody wanted to call it something else, Puerto Ricans continued calling it by a slight deviation of its original Taino name: Yunque.
It wasn’t until the year 2007 that through an executive order, George W. Bush (go figure) named it by the name all Puerto Ricans had always agreed on: El Yunque National Forest.
Ok… enough of that. So what is this place anyways?
In short, it is the only United States national tropical rain forest. It is a forest that receives approximately 240 inches of rain per year (that’s 6 meters to my Imperial System challenged friends) and so much water makes everything grow to gigantic proportions. I could go on and on about the ecological system and how each tree, bush, animal, insect and microbe live in this intricate symbiosis but it is enough to say that if you are a fan of that whole Lion King Circle of Life thing, you will see the best performance of it here. Large trees fall to allow smaller trees to grow, vines climb up the trees to receive light and to provide homes to a myriad of insects and creatures that feed on the fallen trees. It’s a natural recycling plant and very impressive to see.
As you arrive to El Yunque, you have the opportunity to go to a very nice and new exhibition area called El Portal Rainforest Center. It is a beautifully constructed modern building with all the entrapments expected of a tourist place but it does provide you with a very cool movie that explains what the rain forest is all about much better than I ever could (narrated by Puerto Rican actor Jimmy Smits nonetheless) and it also has on display a number of magnificent exhibits. I recommend taking a look at it but don’t get too hung up there. The adventure is waiting for you further up the mountain.
After the Portal, you will arrive to La Coca Falls. This is the first of many waterfalls that you will see. It is along the side of the road and stands at 87 feet (26 meters). The water falls onto an enormous rock formation that people love to climb on and take pictures. Follow the road and you can’t miss it.
The Forest is dotted with many different trails you can hike on. These trails are generally well maintained, in good shape and each one has a varying level of difficulty to hike it. They also are equipped with plenty of parking and bathrooms at the start of each trail. I would tell you to walk each and every one of them because they are all beautiful, but if you only have time (or energy) to walk one, I would recommend to take the La Mina trail. It is not the easiest but it is the most popular of all the trails so it is kept in perfect condition year round. It also ends at another beautiful waterfall called La Mina Falls. The trail is only about 3 quarters of a mile (just a little over 1 kilometer) but it winds through some of the most beautiful forest you will ever see as it follows the Mina river. All along the trail you can hear the roaring river as it makes its way down the mountain and occasionally you can even see it below you. The vegetation makes the air cool against your skin and as you breathe it in you can feel your lungs thanking you profusely.
Once you reach the end of the trail you arrive to La Mina Falls. This majestic waterfall also has one of the best waterholes in the forest. And yes, you can get in and swim if you want to. However, a word of caution… the water is very cold. I don’t mean, “oh, look how my arms get goose bumps” cold… I mean “Holy mother of God, where did my testicles go???” cold. To some people this is perfectly OK and I applaud them and their abilities to swim in just-above-freezing water, but for me, I just like to sit on a rock and watch the water falling into the pool. It is a perfect rest stop after the 30 minute hike to get there and it also helps to prepare for the 30 minute hike back. It is truly beautiful.
Also along the road you can arrive to Yokahu Tower. It is the first of two observation towers (the other being Mt. Britton which is much higher up the mountain) and the most accessible. It has ample parking available and offers a spectacular view of the beach of Luquillo at the base of El Yunque. Here you can climb up the stairs of the tower all the way to the top. Suddenly, you will be above the treetops, looking over the forest at the expanse of green as it reaches the even greater expanse of blue (the Atlantic Ocean).
Finally, let’s not forget some of the most important features of the rain forest, its creatures. I already mentioned the coqui frog (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coqu%C3%AD) and sadly, I was unable to actually see one although I could hear them everywhere. They are very small and great at hiding so to actually see one in the forest is much harder than you could imagine. But I did see a few other locals that made my day:
As for camera equipment, you want to bring a sturdy camera that can handle humidity well. Zoom lenses will be rendered useless in such close quarters unless you are interested in taking fauna pictures (which there is a lot of) but make sure that you have a pretty fast lens. Light conditions inside the forest are not good at all and unless you can open up to at least 2.8 (2.0 in some areas) you will have to reduce your shutter speed too much and that will introduce a lot of blur due to camera shake. In the absence of such a lens, any glass within the 12mm to 50mm range will work wonderfully. Travel light along the trails because there is a lot of walking and beware of the camera swinging around your neck and banging against a tree or a rock. Any flashes or speed lights here will wash out your color exposure and interrupt the animals and plants of the forest so don’t use them. Stay natural and hand hold your shots for the best angles. Remember, one river surrounded by rocks and trees looks just like all the others unless you find a way to make it look different. So dive deep into your creative juices and make those pictures sing.
So that’s it for now. Soon I will write a third installment to this Puerto Rico Series but for the moment, I leave you with yours truly, breathing in the clean air of El Yunque National Forest and feeling kind of awesome.
You can find part one of this series here: Puerto Rico Series, Part One – Old San Juan