El Yunque - Caribbean National Forest, NIV
- El Yunque, Guánica Dry Forest, La Parguera, Cabo Rojo, Culebra and Vieques
- By: QP
And welcome to the deserts, and the mountains, and the coast, and the caves, and the cliffs, and the canyons, and the bioluminescent bays, and the karst country, and the mangroves, and the salt flats, and the cloud forests, and the rivers, and the “you name it.”
Sometimes visitors are so overwhelmed by Puerto Rico’s great beaches, they think that is all there is to the natural beauty of the Island. Well, there is more, a whole lot more. Whether you are looking for a family-style excursion (a soft adventure – so to speak) or the hanging-by-a-thread-from-a-cliff type of hard adventure, you will find it in Puerto Rico.
Starting with the El Yunque (officially the Caribbean National Forest) in Río Grande, you can enjoy the largest rain forest in the U.S. Forest Service System. Access to the forest runs from parking lots next to visitors centers with informative exhibits to hard-scrabble rocky trails deep in the interior. How you enjoy El Yunque (hitting the highlights or going deep into the forest) is up to you. Bring a suit and jump into the pool underneath the La Mina Falls.
Drop by the El Portal Visitors Center for an educational update on the forest’s eco-system. Take one of the family-orientated nature walks or bike excursions; climb one of the lookout towers; or for those who wish to rough it, try a hike up the Tradewinds or El Torro trails. Keep in mind that this is a rain forest so, well, you should be prepared for some wet conditions.
At the other side of the natural spectrum (and the Island) is the desert area of the Guánica Dry Forest in Guánica. Like El Yunque, this is a major natural resource. So important, in fact, that is has been designated a World Biosphere Reserve by the U.N. This 1,600-acre forest offers some of the most spectacular beach, hiking and birding areas (there are over 135 species of birds) in Puerto Rico. This is a rare dry forest, so be sure to pack your own water. Of the 14 hiking trails, one of the most interesting is the hike to the 1,000- year-old lygnum vitae tree.
Since you are in the area, you should scoot over to La Parguera for a moonless-night boat trip to the Bahía La Parguera, a bioluminescent bay. There is a second major bioluminescent bay in Vieques, which many consider to be the brightest and best protected in Puerto Rico. In either bay, as the water is stirred up by boats or swimmers, the dinoflagellates (by the millions) emit tiny flashes of light that give the water a gentle glow.
Just west of La Parguera, in the El Combate section of Cabo Rojo, you will find both the Cabo Rojo National Wildlife Refuge and the Cabo Rojo Salt Flats. This is an interesting mix as you are able to see from the new observation tower. The natural beauty of this important refuge (it is a major stop for migratory birds on their way to South America) sits side by side with an evaporative sea salt mining operation (which can be fun to watch).
Up from Cabo Rojo is the start of the Ruta Luis Muñoz Marín. This route runs along the mountainous backbone in central Puerto Rico and connects Mayagüez in the West with Yabucoa in the East. The route is a nature tour in and of itself as it winds you past the cloud forest in Maricao to the tallest peaks in Puerto Rico: Cerro Punta and Cerro La Rosa in the Toro Negro Forest (in Jayuya) and the Carite Forest (in Cayey). In addition, there are a number of lookout towers and smaller forests and sites (such as the Mariposario, or butterfly pavilion, in Adjuntas) along the way. Also on this route is the San Cristóbal Canyon. Located between Barranquitas and Aibonito, this beautiful canyon is almost, but not quite, inaccessible.
North and west of the Ruta Luis Muñoz Marín is the famous karst area. These limestone formations are quite unique in that the years of erosion have created an area which appears from the outside as haystack hills interspersed with sinkholes. Underlying much of this are large underground rivers that have carved out immense caves. While this makes for great hard-adventure sports (spelunking, rappelling, rafting and the like), this area is most famous for the tour of the Parque de las Cavernas del Río Camuy. This is a great family trip. A trolley takes you down to the entrance of the main cave where you wander past massive formations on a paved walkway to the bottom of a giant sinkhole. On your return to the entrance, you overlook a portion of the Camuy River that flows underground. This trip is normally combined with a visit to the nearby Arecibo Telescope, where scientists examine nature on a grand scale.
If your taste runs to coastal exploration, one of your best alternatives is the Reserva Nacional de Investigación Estuarina in Salinas. Here there is a new visitors center and museum which offers a complete explanation of the extensive mangrove system in the reserve. There are kayak trails (bring your own kayak). In all, a fun trip and easy to reach.
In the San Juan Metro Area you will want to check out the Piñones Forest. Located just to the east of Isla Verde, this is a tremendous area for a family outing. First, there is the lookout tower perched on the shoreline, then there is the boardwalk through the mangroves for pedestrians and bicyclists, and finally there is the beach area that runs to the east as far as you can see.
We are about to wrap this up, but you are not quite done until you look at the natural offerings of Culebra and Vieques. The Culebra National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1909 by President Theodore Roosevelt, is a stunning nature refuge covering 1,580 acres. This encompasses a good bit of Culebra and 23 adjacent islands and rock formations. Only two areas are open to the public due to the sensitive nature of this habitat. You want to call ahead before you visit. The Vieques of today offers one of the best (brightest) bioluminescent bays in the world (the Bahía Puerto Mosquito) along with some great mountain biking. The Vieques of tomorrow is now under development. There is a major plan in progress that will turn the portion of Vieques recently returned to Puerto Rico by the U.S. Government into a major nature reserve. Look for more information in future issues of Puerto Rico Guest™.
This is just a sampling of the natural beauty and adventures that await you in Puerto Rico. Everything mentioned above is accessible either directly or through a tour or nature/adventure tour operator –check the directories for more information.