See Puerto Rico differently with a trip to El Yunque

If you’re tired of doing the usual while on vacation in PR, consider getting in touch with nature with a trip to El Yunque, the nation's only tropical rainforest.

For many travelers, vacation has a pretty standard schedule: sleep, eat, walk around their hotel or resort’s amenities, and do it all again the next day. It’s a routine many love — and no judgment at all —but when visiting Puerto Rico, you may want to do more than the ordinary.  

While it’s convenient to visit touristy spots like Old San Juan or chill in vibrant party spots, taking just a 35-minute drive outside of the capital city provides an opportunity to visit El Yunque, a stunning, natural tropical rainforest — the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest System.

Man swims in a river underneath a waterfall in El Yunque Rainforest. Courtesy Discover Puerto Rico
(Photo by Discover Puerto Rico)

“El Yunque” is said by some to translate to “Yuke” or “white lands,” which the indigenous Taino saw enveloping the mountain-looking peak of the forest. Puerto Rico is a country with both a rich culture and complex history and sociopolitical issues, with its forest being no different. In the wake of the United States’ colonization of Puerto Rico after winning the Spanish-American War in 1898, President Theodore Roosevelt officially named El Yunque a national forest, with U.S. troops even occupying the forest and using its high peak to look out for German troops during World War II.

Despite political interference, El Yunque remains God’s natural wonder, a remarkable creation still showing human beings how sacred the land is. In the wake of 2017’s Hurricane Maria devastation, parts of El Yunque were severely damaged and had to be reforested; yet another reminder that many of our natural wonders can’t be taken for granted.

What to expect on a tour

It’s possible to tour El Yunque through companies like Island Journeys, a group that emphasizes supporting local guides who really know Puerto Rico, as well as patronizing local businesses as part of the tour. Ubers and taxis are not allowed for this tour, so to drive all the way up into El Yunque, you have to make the investment of renting a car.  

This may feel like the biggest logistical hurdle to navigate on a vacation, but booking the car in advance will ease some of the burden, and the effort only demonstrates how exclusive and special the experience is about to be. Traffic and parking are notoriously difficult in this area, where everyday people live and work with their families. 

A traveler enjoys a dip in the water courtesy of Island Journeys PR tours.
A traveler enjoys a dip in the water on a hike of El Yunque Rainforest with Island Journeys PR tours. (Courtesy: Island Journeys PR)

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 1.2 million people visit El Yunque each year, which represents about one-fifth of Puerto Rico’s tourism economy. The department estimates there are currently only about 300 parking spaces, despite 3000 cars trying to access the rainforest daily. The Biden-Harris Administration recently announced a one million dollar investment to help improve transit and create shuttles to El Yunque, addressing this very issue, but until that happens, be prepared to rent.

Hikers will meet the Island Journeys guides at Frutera Flores, a half-fruit stand, half-bodega (with a real-life bodega cat to match). Frutera Flores has everything you could ever want or need before you hit the road, including towels, flip-flops, earrings, empanadas, Arroz con Gandules, and literally the best fruit smoothies you will ever taste in your life. (Get the pineapple or banana one — you won’t regret it.)

On our holiday trip, the guides prepared us by ensuring we did not bring our cell phones or anything extra on the hike. Trust — you absolutely won’t need or want to during the four-hour excursion, which includes getting wet. Plus, not only will Island Journeys take pictures for you during your hike with their waterproof cameras, but being free of “stuff” allows you to connect further with the natural terrain around you. Don’t worry, social media influencers; you will be OK!

Hiking through El Yunque is all about being in touch with the earth — and in our case, that meant wet earth. Recent rainfall can make trails extremely muddy and slippery, adding an element of real adventure to the entire hike. Guides will prepare you by providing helmets, lifejackets, and some real talk about how to navigate the terrain.  

“Embrace the mud. Just walk right through it,” said our guide. “You’ll slip more if you try to avoid it!” 

A metaphor for life, right? Yet another reason to leave the fancy name-brand sneakers at home, and wear something well-worn you can really move in.

What You’ll See

As you hike, you’ll encounter the incredible flora and fauna of the rainforest. There are stunning trees and plants you could only find in la isla (the island), and guides give you the breakdown of what species deserve special attention and care. One such species was the Puerto Rican parrot, which is now an endangered species due to human activity and industry.

If you don’t consider yourself to be a science or nature person, that’s OK — there’s something about the grandness of the land that humbles you and helps you appreciate how it came to be.

El Portal at El Yunque (Photo Courtesy: Discover Puerto Rico)

After walking for about 45 minutes, hikers will climb down into a spectacular secluded waterfall and river. It’s not an easy climb and involves using your entire body to maneuver, but the reward is in the experience of seeing this hidden gem.

You can slide down the natural water slide (it’s 30 to 40 feet high and not for the faint of heart), and jump into the pools of water from rope swings on a small cliff. If it sounds scary, let me tell you: jumping into the water can make you feel freer and lighter than ever. The things we fear in our minds are sometimes scarier than they actually are in real life; a perfect life lesson and a moment you definitely won’t get sitting poolside at a luxury 5-star hotel.

When your natural poolside escape is done, your guides will cut and serve fresh pineapple, oranges, bananas, and aguacate (avocado) on a leaf platter, while you sit on rocks, eating the fruit and letting the river water dance across your feet.

Then, you will head back on the trail. The return, like many things in life, may seem shorter than the initial venturing out.

Back at your starting point, you’ll hose down with water, getting the mud out of your shoes and toes, then enjoy Medalla beers or water and granola snacks before heading to your cars.  Be sure to bring extra cash to tip your guides, as Puerto Rican workers deserve not only the courtesy from visitors to the island but also good wages (at $79 per person, the tour itself is quite affordable).

A trip to El Yunque can transform your perspective, not just about what travel looks like, but also the importance of appreciating the natural habitat of the places we consider as destinations.

It’s the kind of experience that will leave you with more respect for the earth — knowing that it’s where we come from, and what we must protect at all costs for the generations who will walk it after we do.

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