When I envisioned my recent vacation to Puerto Rico, I pictured soaking up the sun, sipping on delicious cocktails and being waited on by an even more delicious cabana boy. But my beach-side reverie was soon crushed as I realized a girl cannot slip into her teeny bikini after eating entirely too much mofongo and pastelillos.
Luckily Puerto Rico offers plenty of the outdoorsy stuff I wouldn’t normally touch with a 10-foot pole. But as I said – this was an emergency. Puerto Rico has unique places like nowhere else in the world perfect for burning calories – like Las Cavernas de Camuy – and they also have their very own rainforest.
If, and only if, you’ve recovered from your food coma at the kioskos, head to El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System. El Yunque is less than an hour drive from San Juan and easy to navigate to. Just rent a car and follow the signs, avoiding the Puerto Rican drivers along the way.
There are two main entrances, one from the north and one from the south. The south entrance adds 30 minutes to your drive but when you have hours of hiking ahead of you, adding time in an air-conditioned car is most welcome. The south entrance also allows for a quick stop at the main visitor center.
The main visitor center is lacking. They have a few small exhibits, tidbits of rainforest education and a weak gift shop. But what they lack in “wow” factor at the center they make up for in an enthusiastic guides. The park guide helped us figure out what the best trail for our skill level was and provided some pointers about parking and the best scenic views.
Booking a tour is definitely not worth it. You’ll soon realize after the hundredth tree a guide is less than helpful. Unless of course said guide gives massages along the path. If that is the case, let me know what company does that because I will book that tour yesterday.
Along the winding road up to the higher parts of the rainforest you will pass several stop offs the guide will point out on your map; one I highly suggest is La Coca Falls. The falls cascade down right beside the road for the perfect photo op.
After you check out La Coca Falls, head to the Palo Colorado center. They have clean bathrooms there and if you aren’t already in your swimsuit you can change. Why do you need a swimsuit you ask? La Mina.
La Mina is one of the most popular trails and is also the shortest at about .7 miles. At the end of your short trek you are rewarded with a gorgeous waterfall you can swim in. The trail is rated “moderate to difficult” due to elevation changes – almost 500 feet! It took me about 30 minutes to go down, but longer on the way up because it’s all uphill. I also don’t feel it is necessary to go all out with hiking gear or go crazy on your footwear. Each time I have “hiked” La Mina I was actually wearing flip flops. Not the flimsy rubber ones but a sturdier leather pair from Rainbow with decent grip on the bottom.
The water at La Mina is fiercely cold – a welcome break from the sticky climate of the rainforest – and the rocks are pretty treacherous so do be careful if you decide to take a dip. I have been a few times and have had no problem being barefoot, although many guides recommend footwear on the slippery rocks.
On other trips – when I was in serious body repair mode – I ventured to the El Yunque trail. While the trail is grueling – it takes you up 3,500 feet to the second highest peak in the rain forest – the breathtaking views at the top are worth it.
There are a number of ways to start out your journey toward the peak on the El Yunque trail, but the most scenic starts directly across from the Palo Colorado center.
Oh, and if you are taking on the El Yunque trail, please put on some more serious shoes. The ground and trail are much more treacherous than the path to La Mina. I wore running shoes with a tank and shorts from Lululemon – hooray for overpriced workout gear – and I was fine.
Along the way, keep an ear open for coquí frogs, endemic tree frogs found only in Puerto Rico. You’ll hear them all around you as you hike the trail and they sound just like their name, “co-key, co-key.”
The entire hike took about four hours so be sure to bring a [healthy] snack to eat at the top because nothing says “awesome” like picnicing more than 3,000 feet up in the air!
Now finish up that snack and hurry down the trail! Enough of this outdoor stuff. There are cocktails to be had and cabana boys to wink at!