The Caribbean National Forest

by Bridget Geegan Blanton

A tropical breeze off the Caribbean Sea carries moisture-charged air to the Loquillo mountains in the northeast corner of Puerto Rico where a rainforest known as El Yunque thrives in the same exotic splendor seen by Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago. The Caribbean National Forest is the only tropical rainforest overseen by the United States Forest Service and I've recently had the opportunity to spend time there.

When my husband first suggested that we plan to visit El Yunque, I wasn't exactly keen on the idea of stumbling down a machete-cut pathway that might be shared with reptiles. My hasty, fear-based projection of this tropical rain forest could not have been further from reality. Upon pulling into this national forest, the visitor is greeted by the El Portal Rain Forest Center; an architecturally impressive visitor's center of interlocking buildings all geared towards education and rain forest conservation. Pick up a trail map on your way out and return to your car. Trail heads are accessed by paved roadways.

Another marvel of this national forest, are the actual trails. To describe them as well-maintained is an understatement. Beneath the forest canopy, a complex ecosystem comprised of 1,000 year old trees, tropical flowers, exotic plants and animals all thrive due to humidity and the rainfall. All of this moisture could make trailways dangerous considering erosion caused by wet conditions. On one of the trails named 'Big Tree' visitors follow a narrow cement pathway with deeply etched grooves that allow you to maintain your footing if conditions become slick. This paved pathway hardly intrudes on the exotic life bursting forth, it simply allows a safe, close encounter with the all the tropical beauty of a rainforest. At one point along the trail, you come face to face with La Mina waterfall. Bring along your bathing suit, as you are welcome to cool off at the base.

My husband Chris at the base of La Mina Waterfall.

Hiking along any of the trails is a multi-sensory experience. You'll enter a patch of sunlight as you emerge from areas of cool shade. Everywhere, you are surrounded by lush, green tropical flora typical of the humid tropics. There is an endless array of plant life from moss, ferns and elephant ear shrubs to banana trees, sugar cane and massive evergreens. You'll think that you've entered a terrarium. When you visit El Yunque and I strongly suggest that you do, close your eyes and listen. Hear the songs and calls of exotic birds and frogs as you feel the mist and breathe in the fragrant air. I've visited several national forests and the Caribbean National Forest in Puerto Rico stands out as truly unforgettable.

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