I’ll never understand it, but when I speak to people about cruising, one of the ports people tend to not want to visit is San Juan. When pressed further, it’s not because they’ve been there so I can only assume that they’ve heard negative things about this beautiful island. Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States and has beautiful beaches as well the amazing rainforest, El Yunque National Forest, located in the northeast of the island on the eastern side of the Luquillo Mountains. Home to more than 240 plants, 26 of which are endemic to the island; 50 bird species, including the critically endangered Puerto Rican Amazon; and over 600 uncommon species of plants and animals, including 48 endangered species and 16 endemic to Puerto Rico.
Maybe you don’t think that lush green areas abound in Puerto Rico, but I’m here to tell you that they do! The above view is from Yokahu Tower inside El Yunque and the tower has an elevation of 1,575 feet. I had the opportunity in the past to visit El Yunque as a child and as a teenager with my father since I have family on the island, but neither my husband nor son had ever visited before. I wanted them to see the rainforest and when we arrived, our first stop was Yokahu Tower. There is a small parking area where tour buses and cars congregate so be prepared for a little bit of congestion while you wait to enter the area. The tower itself can also get congested with tourists, but the climb up the spiral staircase in the tower is interesting and a hit if you have children as there are lots of places to look out all along the way up. My suggestion for the tower is to go up before you hike the trail unless there are too many people hanging out around and in the tower itself. You won’t spend a great deal of time here, but the views are nice and it’s a great spot for a photo op. If you can arrive early, you’ll find less people in the tower, the trail, and at the falls so plan accordingly.
The trail we were going on is called Big Tree Trailhead, which leads to La Mina Falls. Call me nostalgic, but I was so excited when I saw the signs were exactly the same ones from my childhood. Those signs are indelibly etched into my brain and instantly put a smile on my face. Humid as anything I could have ever expected, I was drenched just getting out of the vehicle and before we even started our hike. It was a bad hair day for me, but luckily, it was a bad hair day for everyone else, too!
Although not a long trail, it is the most popular trail in EYNF (El Yunque National Forest). Measuring 0.7 miles (1.2 km), the trail descends from 2,132 feet (650 meters) to 1,640 feet (500 meters). Depending on the individual, hiking time is approximately 30-45 minutes each way. According to EYNF, the trail is rated as challenging in difficulty because “it has several sets of winding concrete stairs that can make the return trip somewhat arduous.”
The trail itself is narrow and since it is a rainforest, expect the ground to be more wet than dry. A word of caution: If you have difficulty walking or getting around, you might want to reconsider taking the trail altogether. If it were lightly traveled, I could see doing it, but depending on the time of day and year, you will have lots of people walking in front and behind you as well as coming in the other direction. You will have the opportunity to pass others as well as having them pass you, but if you are using a cane or are looking for a leisurely stroll, this is not the trip for you. Along the way you will see the most amazing sights ever! Trees taller than you have ever imagined and all types of foliage line the way. At times I felt as if I had been transported somewhere else, somewhere magical – almost as if I were inside a movie set of a film like “Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter.” Don’t forget you can click on any of the pictures in the blog to see a bigger image and you’ll want to with these great images in El Yunque.
As you wind your way down the trail, past the enormous trees, and the canopy of foliage overhead, you make your way all the way down to the highlight of the trail. There at the end is Cascada La Mina or La Mina Falls. The waterfall drops over 35 feet through large rocks into a pool where you can swim or rest along the edge. Although there were many people and it is a big tourist spot, please be cautious here. There are lots of rocks beneath the water and they are slippery! In addition, there is a huge unexpected drop once in the water and I had some serious concerns for the small children who were there with their parents. I think the parents felt that the water was shallow, but it wasn’t. There are no lifeguards here and let’s face it, everyone is looking out for themselves and their own children. I personally wouldn’t put a small child in the falls, but if you choose to — be forewarned that it can be dangerous.
The hike back up was glorious to say the least! We felt pure exhilaration and joy after the hike down and dipping more than just our toes in the water at the falls, but the hike back up was incredible. We decided to race each other as well as those on the trail to see how fast we could finish. The humidity was higher at this point and we felt as though we were soaking through our clothes, but nothing could stop us. Well, that’s not true. With my camera in tow, I found myself taking pictures along the trail and hoping that I could remember all that I saw and felt from our hike. Since the trail is harder as you head back up to the parking area, people frequently stop to rest and so can you. The Civilian Conservation Corps built covered picnic shelters during the 1930’s, which are available to hikers or picnickers near the trailhead. Each shelter consists of picnic tables, a barbecue, and running water taps. You can plan to lunch on the way down or on the way back, so why not take advantage of this great resource along the trail?
El Yunque National Forest is open daily from 7:30AM to 6:00PM and for only $3 per person, it can be an affordable and incredibly memorable way to spend your time in Puerto Rico. In addition to hiking, camping is also available along the trails. Check out the El Yunque National Forest web site from the USDA to learn more and plan your next visit. So before you shoot down an opportunity to experience something new based on what others have said, experience it for yourself and then share what you’ve learned with others. You’ll get to understand all that a new location has to offer and then hopefully you can educate others on the beautiful island that is Puerto Rico.