Wednesday, June 1, 2016: Loíza and El Yunque, Puerto Rico
I slipped a fell twice in the rainforest on Wednesday and shattered my phone, but those literal and figurative blows were softened by the fact that I was in a rainforest for the first time. El Yunque is a beautiful National Forest in northeast Puerto Rico, replete with gushing waterfalls, swimmable pools, excellent hiking, a few crowds, and even a zipline park, all of which I had the opportunity to see.
Summary of the Below Verbosity
Getting There and Getting Around
- Driving to (and through) El Yunque: If you’re coming from somewhere on the northern part of the island, you’ll probably take 3 and then go south on 191. It is best to keep the car with you in the forest, as the beginnings of various hikes can be a good distance from the visitor center and from each other. Pick a hike, park near the sign for that hike (there are lots and also roadside parking), and then plunge into the great tropical wilderness
- El Yunque: El Yunque is a National Forest located in the northeastern part of Puerto Rico. It is highly accessible – the transition from nice beaches, restaurants, neighborhoods, etc. into the park is rapid. Nonetheless, you can find places within El Yunque to feel immersed in jungle and, despite the crowds, there are some truly beautiful spots in there
Stuff in the Woods
- El Portal Visitor Center: Good starting point for hiking through El Yunque. It’s open 9a-5p (note that the forest is only open 7:30a-6p). You can see a video if you like, or just pick up some maps and tips for trails and what not. There are some waterfalls inside, which are nice, but you do have to pay an entrance fee. This place is where the folks running the rainforest make their bread
- La Coca Falls: Roadside waterfall in El Yunque. You can’t swim like at La Mina, but you can climb up the rocks lining its left side
- Yokahu Tower Observation Point: Located pretty much on the roadway, you can park in the lot and scale this tower to get views of the rainforest and all the way to the beaches beyond
- Mt. Britton Observation Tower: Getting to this tower requires a bit of a hike, but it’s an enjoyable trek along stone pathways through gorgeous vegetation, and you can get wonderful views of the rainforest’s immensity from the tower. It is truly impressive how enormous El Yunque can feel when you are in it despite the quick drive required to enter
- La Mina Falls: A not-too-long hike on stone pathways takes you along La Mina River and a series of small waterfalls which culminate in a large waterfall flowing into a pool in which swimming is allowed or at least condoned. You can splash about in the pool or climb right under the falls, which feels very liberating. The parking area has a bathroom at the parking area if you want to change into your swimsuit
- Rainforest Zipline Park: A series of ten or so ziplines in El Yunque
Notes and Photos
Wednesday marked the first real daytime excursion. El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s public park/rainforest, is a must-stop for first-time visitors to the island, and my friends and I were first-time visitors. After intensively researching the possibility of going to Toro Verde, a zipline park southwest of San Juan that supposedly houses the world’s longest zipline (and an early recommendation from the mom and daughter on the plane) we determined that Toro Verde was too far a way and El Yunque had a perfectly acceptable zipline park inside it. Amidst Loíza’s myriad disadvantages is the advantage of proximity to El Yunque. Off we went.
Rainforest Zipline Park is in the thick of the jungle, not far from the entrance to the forest, and has maybe ten ziplines set up running from tower to tower (see below). You can make a reservation online, and then you show up, pay, sign waivers, etc. We timed walking down the stairs to the office somewhat poorly and arrived in line behind a couple of larger groups. One was a large extended family. They seemed very excited to go ziplining and amped themselves up with a warmup song: All of the family’s children/youth circled up to perform Colt 45 by Afroman. It was a mystifying sight/sound to behold. When my turn came to ride a zipline, I was a little nervous, because you are flying along over untamed canopy, but you get strapped into a harness (which isn’t the most comfortable lower body garment). The experience is nonetheless moderately exhilarating.
Once we’d zipped on every line, everyone stood outside the car eating some sandwiches that had come along in a cooler. I took a conference call (cell service is spotty in El Yunque but not as bad as you’d expect) and we started in for the thick of the rainforest. We snagged maps at El Portal Visitor Center and stopped at Yohaku Tower Observation Point to take in the views. There was a teenaged girl doing some sort of photoshoot in a bathing suit at La Coca Falls, but we assumed she didn’t have a reservation and climbed up to get our own photos (of us and the falls, not her). Mt. Britton Observation Tower was selected as the destination for the first hike. It is a pleasant and not overly strenuous journey through the trees up to a tower from which you can see a good distance. The day was foggy, as I imagine many days in the rainforest are. The climb to the tower follows a moderate grade along mostly manageable stone paths, though occasional the flora makes for some tight passages. On the walk back down, my shoes found inadequate traction on the slightly moist, slightly slanted stone steps and left the ground. As a consequence, my whole body crashed to the earth. My first fall of the day left me slightly pained and slightly embarrassed but without serious damage.
Our last stop in El Yunque was La Mina Falls. Those not yet wearing swimsuits donned them, and our group of nine followed the relatively well-marked trail along the river. At the point that it circles back around, we found a torrential waterfall crashing into a pool, which then flowed over a small set of rocks into a more placid secondary pool. The area buzzed with activity: people came to take photos, to stand on the bridge past the secondary pool as the river continued downstream, and to swim in the pools. The first one was shallow and had a number of people swimming in it. We left phones, etc. on the steps and climbed down the rocks to join. Jagged rocks that line the bottom made standing and walking unpleasant but not unbearable. An intrepid few had climbed over the lip into the pool right at the bottom of the falls (pictured below). I fought a mild current, used some rocks for handholds, and completed the journey to stand under my very first waterfall.
When I got out of the pool, I went up the steps to put my shoes on again and collect my phone. Then, I went back down the steps to take some better pictures of the waterfall. My shoes falled me again: I slipped, crashed onto the steps, was in mild pain, and dropped my phone. Rather than bouncing into the dirt alongside the path, it clattered face down on the unforgiving stone. The screen shattered nicely. I learned that even Verizon iPhone insurance through Asurion comes with healthy co-pays.