What can you see in the rainforest? Rain, of course… and lots of it! Enough to produce 160 billion gallons of water every year—a significant percentage of the water needed by Puerto Rico’s four million inhabitants. The rain comes in sweeps and in spritzes, in waves and in sprays, in torrents and in trickles. It cascades down the mountain in creeks and streams, crashes over dozens of waterfalls, rests in reservoirs, and is piped through countless conduits. The water from your faucet may have been born in a rainbow at El Yunque.
El Yunque (its official name is the Caribbean National Forest) is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system, and one of the easiest rainforests in the world to visit. After less than an hour’s drive from the San Juan metropolitan area you can be walking among thousand- year-old trees or listening to the cries of the nearly extinct Puerto Rican parrot.
According to Alan Mowbray, the Caribbean National Forest’s Interpretive Media Writer, there are more than 50 species of native orchids in the forest; 500 species of trees, plants and shrubs; close to 100 species of birds; a score of different reptiles; a couple of dozen amphibians including tree frogs and toads, and a handful of mammals ranging from bats to mongooses.
With so much biodiversity packed into a relatively small 28,000 acres, it is sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees—or even the unique trees that are in the forest. To help you decide where to go and what to look for, here are a few of Puerto Rico Travel & Tourism’s favorite rainforest features.
The Dwarf Forest
One of the most fascinating parts of the forest is also one of the most remote. At the highest elevations, the constant breeze and nearly constant rain and fog keep the vegetation’s growth in check and the result is the romantically named elfin woodlands or dwarf forest. Many of the most exotic ferns (from the forest’s 150 species) grow here and this is also the habitat of the island’s rarest tree frog (among the island’s 16 native species). The challenge of the dwarf forest is the hike—about an hour’s trek from the trailhead on Road 930. But how many times in your life do you get to see a dwarf forest?
A Thousand-Year-Old Tree
Much easier to see is a thousand-year-old tree, a “Palo Colorado” (Cyrilla racemiflora) on the Caimitillo Trail and not far from the aptly-named Palo Colorado Visitors Center. The tree is about 20 yards or so from the Center and it is clearly marked—so even the most challenged naturalist can’t miss it. This is the natural habitat of the Puerto Rican Parrot (Amazona vittata), although the nest that can be seen high up in this tree is not currently occupied. You can see the fencing around it that once kept predators away from the protected artificial nesting cavities.
Giant Tree Ferns
Of all the vegetation in the forest, the tree fern is both the daintiest and the most dramatic. You will see these lofty lace parasols just about everywhere in the forest, including some beautiful specimens at the entrance to El Portal. The tree fern is not really a tree, but a plant with a long, straight, pithy stem that Puerto Rico’s aboriginal Taíno inhabitants once used to carry burning embers to start campfires around the island. How the Indians discovered that the stem was relatively fireproof is lost to history.
The Emerald Anole
One of the friendliest creatures in the forest is the Emerald Anole (Anolis evermann), a bright green lizard about two inches long that hangs out around the observation towers. “It is usually quite sociable,” according to Mowbray, “but when a male feels challenged it puts on a show by puffing out an orange pouch from under its chin, performing push-ups and sticking out its tongue.” If you are not frightened, you can look for it on bamboo and palm trees near Yokahu tower and on the Baño de Oro and El Yunque trails.
The Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo
In the best of worlds, you would be able to spot the Puerto Rican Parrot in the forest, but unfortunately the odds of winning the Puerto Rico lottery are better (our parrot is one of the ten rarest and most endangered birds in the world). Efforts are underway to restore the parrot population, but the process is off limits to everyone except scientists. There is a chance you will hear the parrot, but a better choice is to listen and look for the Puerto Rican Lizard Cuckoo.
This bird has a gray chin and breast and a reddish-tan underbelly. It has a very long dark tail with prominent white spots underneath and red ringed eyes. Its call, said to be heard only prior to rain, has been compared to a witches’ laugh. “On a clear day during the filming of Swiss Family Robinson a few years ago, after hearing the Lizard Cuckoo’s distinctive cry, a ranger warned the incredulous crew that rain was imminent,” Mowbray says. “Shortly after, it poured.”
Your best bet is to watch for it at the El Portal Visitors Center, around the parking lots, and especially on the El Portal Trail near the lower parking lot. The best times to hear and see any birds in the forest are early morning and late afternoon.
The Caribbean National Forest (787-888- 1880) is located on Road 191 in Río Grande and is open daily from 7:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. For more information about these and the hundred or so other attractions in the forest, visit www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean/index.shtml