First things first:
And what better way to celebrate the Summer Solstice than by hiking the El Yunque tropical rainforest?
Because we'd gone to sleep at 9 p.m. the night before, we were up by 7:30 a.m., refreshed and ready to go. We had breakfast at the hotel's Starfish Restaurant and were ready to go.
We arrived at El Portal--the rainforest's visitor center--when it opened, around 9:30. We toured the exhibits, sat for a 12-minute film about the park, and cleaned out the gift shop. That saying about kids in a candy store has been revised to Dawn and Bobby in a rainforest gift shop.
El Yunque is a 28,000-acre tropical rainforest, the only rainforest in the U.S. Parks system. It was first set aside for preservation by the King of Spain in 1876; in 1903, it joined the U.S. Parks system. The forest consists of four distinct sections; we hiked the Tabonuco Forest, which is the lower section named for the Tabonuco trees.
It was another overcast, rainy day--not that rain matters much in a rainforest! El Yunque gets about 120 inches (10 feet!) of rain per year. After finishing in El Portal, we drove into the forest and up the mountain on Rte-191. A few kilometers in, we reached teh first waterfall, La Coca Falls. A few kilometers more was the lookout tower El Torro de Yocahú. Of course, we climbed it. Of course, we'd already taken dozens of pictures. Thank Eru for digital photography!
A bit up the road was the trail we'd chosen, the Big Tree Trail, which wasn't too long, had a moderate difficulty rating, and ended at La Mina Falls. Bobby and I, being nature nerds, had to stop every couple of feet to ogle some or another plant or critter, from moss and orchids to spiders and snails. It was pouring rain--we could hear it roaring on the canopy overhead--but we barely felt a drop. The rainforest is interesting in that: The canopy catches most of the water and it runs via the leaves to the ground. I noticed--and Bobby agreed--that the understory was barely existent compared to our temperate forests at home. There, the ground is barely passable because of the heavy undergrowth--much of it thorny--but in El Yunque, the ground-level plants were small and non-threatening. It was an interesting contrast.
Because we came during a rainstorm, the forest was filled with the calls of coquí frogs. These little frogs call their own name (ko-KEE), and while we never saw one, we heard them everywhere
! So the rain was fortuitous, for us.
We also stopped to admire some orchids and found a hollow full of spiders. Now the 'gund is not too fond of spiders and less spider webs,
but we got to observe one in the process of weaving an orb web, which was fascinating. Despite the plethora of orb-weavers at my parents' house, that was new to me!
After much ogling and about 100 pictures, we found La Mina Falls. It was spectacular, but we didn't stay long. Water are always way too crowded.
On the subject of crowds, I have an announcement.***AHEM***
People. Ugh. People who go to the rainforest
wearing the following should not be allowed past the gate: flip-flops or sandals, fanny-packs, sunhats, or ponchos. And the same goes for people who carry an umbrella. Into the rainforest.
This is not just me being mean and an eco-snob. Really. It does
make sense. Flip-flops and sandals do not work well on trails, especially wet
trails. Sunhats are daft beneath a canopy so thick that rain
can't penetrate. And ponchos and umbrellas...well, first of all, rain doesn't penetrate. Secondly, ponchos are like personal greenhouses. We had to wear them once in marching band when it rained (over our wool
uniforms) and more people fainted during that parade than ever before. In an environment known for its heat and humidity, you are not doing yourself a favor to wrap yourself in plastic.
Here's an idea: If you can't bear to get a little damp, maybe you don't belong in the RAINforest! Besides, I'm sure that those poncho-wearing
people ended up wetter (and dehydrated) from sweating than Bobby and I did from the occasional drip of water.
As for fanny-packs: those are just the dumbest-looking inventions ever.
We have decided that when we come back to Puerto Rico (because that is not even a question!), we will spend more time on the eastern side of the island and will hike the El Yunque trail to the top of the mountain. We weren't really prepared for that this time. It leads into what is known as the Cloud Forest (also the Elfin Forest!) because the mountain peak is swathed in clouds. It sounds really, really cool...and not a place that poncho-wearers would venture! :^P
It's just...if anything, being in a natural setting about gobs of people reminds me what a boorish species we are. Bobby and I--being fairly experienced hikers--stand aside for people on narrow trails. Yet they don't even have the courtesy to greet you or thank you. They just plod past, huffin' and puffin' and complaining about having to--OMG!--walk
somewhere and never even spare you a glance as you wait for their whole sluggishly long twenty-person tour group to plod/gripe their way past.
To stop my own griping for a moment to wax sentimental: Seriously, being in the rainforest was a dream come true for me. When I was small and still wanted to study entomology, my dream was to research ants in the Amazon. To spend a morning in a bona fide rainforest was literally something for which I have been waiting for almost twenty years, most of my life. I finally did it! I savored every moment. :)
After we bade farewell to El Yunque, we made our way back to Guánica, did our second (and hopefully last) pass of Fun Mountain (on the cliff side this time! extra fun!), and returned back to the welcome sight of Copamarina.
We had supper outside at Alexandra's. Bobby had filet mignon and lobster tail; Dawn had sun-dried tomato risotto, and we shared a chocolate sin cake and creme brulee. We learned that black flies love lobster. The moment Bobby's lobster arrived until it was gone, I think that every black fly on the island swarmed to us. As nice as it was to eat overlooking the Caribbean, next time, we'll have our meal indoors because of the black flies and also getting chewed to pieces by these little pain-in-the-arse bugs that nonetheless raise substantial welts.
We then relaxed by the pool and had piña coladas on the beach and watched the clouds thin and the stars peer through, portending good conditions for snorkeling tomorrow at the continental shelf.
|The sign for El Portal, the rainforest visitor's center. We were acquainted here with the forest as well as given the opportunity to go crazy in the gift shop!|
|Breadfruit, taken at El Portal. Breadfruit is edible, though it must be cooked first. It is said to have a starchy taste, like potatoes or bread...hence the name!|
|A variety of rainforest flora, taken from the raised walkways at El Portal. The mitten-shaped leaves serve as an excellent example of how leaves are structured in the rainforest: They are often shaped to catch falling water, which then drips and trickles slowly to the ground below. For this reason, it can be pouring in the canopy and nary a drop felt on the ground, as we observed. This also explains why the canopy grows a rich variety of life and the understory remains far less overgrown than most temperate forests.|
|The raised walkways at El Portal gave a great look over the rainforest canopy.|
|These flowers are common to just about every household garden in the continental US. Do they grow wild in El Yunque? Yes...but the flower was introduced to the rainforest when the American government took over forest management in the early 1900s. Why would they do this? Because they thought that the rainforest was "too green"....|
|Our first critter sighting in El Yunque. These large brown snails are everywhere and are responsible for the toxin in the water that causes schist (short for schistosomiasis), an infection caused by drinking water infected with the snail's toxin.|
|An iguana...or as my grandmother-in-law would say, "Oh, go to hell! Where did they get that dinosaur?!" Lizards great and small are found all over Puerto Rico.|
|La Coca Falls, which is literally a roadside attraction on Rte-191.|
|A close-up of the top of La Coca Falls.|
|Another roadside attraction in El Yunque: Yokahu Tower, one of several towers that overlooks the rainforest canopy.|
|Inside Yokahu Tower, making the climb to the top!|
|The view from the top of Yokahu Tower, looking toward the cloud-swathed mountains. The tops of the mountains in the rainforest are often covered in clouds, earning this section of forest the moniker "cloud forest." (It is also called Dwarven or Elfin forest!)|
|Looking out over the canopy from the top of Yokahu Tower.|
|Thick vines, falling from the rainforest canopy. Many plants in the rainforest have adapted the ability to "climb" the trees in order to get their fair share of rain and sunlight, both of which can be scarce on the ground beneath the rainforest's thick canopy. While vines may be harmful to trees in temperate forests, in the rainforest community, there is a place for everything and everything in its place, and the climbing plants do not harm the trees.|
|I have no idea what this is, but it grew in some of the palm trees in El Yunque! Some sort of fruit, perhaps?|
|The path through El Yunque, showcasing a wide variety of rainforest plants. Because the rainforest is prone to mudslides--and not the kind that you drink!--the main trails through El Yunque must be kept paved.|
|Looking up into the rainforest canopy. The natural patterns of leaf and light reveal a strange sort of logic...but then, the rainforest is a delicately balanced community where everything works in a special niche. Maybe there is more logic to nature than we think.|
|A big old tree in El Yunque. El Yunque suffers deforestation at the hands of hurricanes every couple of decades but--to further illustrate the logic and balance of the rainforest--this actually benefits the forest by allowing new trees that otherwise would not have access to the sunlight necessary for growth to thrive. El Yunque also bears the brunt of hurricanes, absorbing most of the water that would otherwise flood and devastate the low-lying coastal towns.|
|Another huge tree...and the vines and mosses that are taking advantage of its extraordinary height to gain access to the elusive rainforest sunshine.|
|One of the many little unnamed streams that carries water from the top of the mountains to the island below. El Yunque is responsible for providing much of the island's fresh water supply.|
|One of my favorite pictures: as the rain subsides and the sun makes a brief appearance, the rainforest is filled with a dusky light.|
|A forest of trees...and vines! It's easy to see how Tarzan chose his favorite mode of jungle transport--it was the most readily available!|
|A wee waterfall from another of the many small streams heading down the mountain.|
|Another tiny waterfall. Note also that even the surrounding rocks are not safe from opportunistic plants looking for a prime piece of rainforest real estate with easy access to the sun!|
|First sight of La Mina, coming along the trail. What a spectacular find this must have been for the first explorers and settlers in the El Yunque forest!|
|La Mina waterfall, technically our destination, although waterfalls tend to be so crowded that the journey is often more fun than the culmination. La Mina is popular for swimming (as you can see).|
|La Mina again...without people this time. (Except for that pesky head down at the bottom...grrr....)|
|On the other side of the bridge, looking downstream from La Mina falls.|
|A broader view of the bumpy journey taken by water just tumbled over La Mina falls.|
|A cleft in the rocks alongside La Mina. Look closely and you will see a miniature version of La Mina trickles through it!|
|Bobby with La Mina (and random swimmers!) in the background.|
|Dawn with La Mina in the background.|
|The extensive (and impressive) root system of a palm tree growing in the rainforest. Trees that grow in the rainforest often develop such root systems to support themselves in ground that is often saturated and boggy with water.|
|What impressed me about this tree enough to photograph it is the artfully delicate vine that is slowly winding up its trunk, almost like an item of ornamentation.|
|Bamboo growing in the rainforest.|
|As the rain moved in, the clouds grew thicker over the mountains. Hiking in the rainforest while raining is optimal, believe it or not. Rare is the drop that can penetrate the canopy, and the rain is beautiful on the mountains...and only during times of rain can one hear the elusive coquí frogs!|
|Homeward bound...from rainforest back to the dry forest that we are calling home for the next few days. The Caribbean National Forest--El Yunque--is the only rainforest in the U.S. Parks system.|