Less than 1% of Puerto Rico's virgin forests remain—which makes a visit to the Caribbean National Forest, better known as El Yunque (the Taino Indian name for its highest peak), all the more impressive.
About an hour's drive southeast of San Juan, El Yunque is home to hundreds of plant and animal species, including 240 species of trees (you'll see orchids growing on some) and the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. The forest blankets 28,000 acres/11,340 hectares and boasts peaks rising more than 3,400 ft/1,035 m above sea level.
Most visitors start at El Portal Visitors Center (open daily). Exhibits at the handicapped-accessible facility range from high-tech multimedia displays to a giant light-up map that shows how the rain forest supplies water to huge sections of the island. At El Portal, visitors can see a movie about El Yunque, then obtain maps on picnicking areas, drive-up waterfalls and hiking paths.
To appreciate the beauty of the forest, take a hike. Trails range from the strenuous 12-mi/19-km trek uphill to El Toro Peak (3,532 ft/1,077 m above sea level) to the gentler path that begins at the Sierra Palm Visitor Information Area. Most tour companies offer trips to El Yunque, but you can also take a taxi—expect to pay about US$20 per hour, including waiting time, or as much as US$100 for the trip. Be aware that the trails can get very crowded—don't expect solitude except in the off-season.
The park, which is open daily, is the only tropical rain forest administered by the U.S. Forest Service. There is no admission fee for the national park, but there is a fee for El Portal Visitors Center. Ranger-guided tours leave from the Palo Colorado Visitors Center. Phone 787-888-1810 or 787-888-1880. http://www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean/index.shtml.
Also nearby in Rio Grande is the Westin Rio Mar, a huge resort with two championship golf courses.
Note: Puerto Rico sustained severe damage during Hurricane Maria in September 2017. The main visitor center, El Portal Tropical Rain Forest Center, is not expected to reopen until December 2019. In the meantime, you can pick up maps of picnic areas, drive-up waterfalls and hiking paths at the temporary office in Palmer, Rio Grande. Some rainforest trails have reopened, contact the interim visitors center for current conditions.
Luquillo Beach can be accessed at this time, but facilities are closed and visitors must park beyond the gate. Rental of chairs and umbrellas is not available at this time, and a date has not been set for reopening.
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