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El Yunque: Illusion of Mystery
A sense of mystery pervades the dark forest. The twilight effect, a result of cloud cover and the forest canopy, adds to the mystery. The mist-shrouded vegetation takes on an other-worldly appearance. I drift into a reverie, mesmerized by the ever present sound of running water. Suddenly the reverie is shattered by the blaring blast of a coqui, Puerto Rico's diminutive tree frog. It produces a sound totally out of proportion to its size. I am walking in the cloud forest of El Yunque, the rainforest of Puerto Rico.
Many people are aware of the importance tropical rainforests hold for all life on earth. Most of the earth's oxygen is produced by tropical rainforests. Over one-half of all living species live in tropical rainforests. Few people are aware that we have a tropical rainforest under the management of the U. S. Forest Service. The formal name of that forest is: El Yunque National Forest, formerly known as Caribbean National Forest.
El Yunque National Forest is a 28,000 acre reserve about a 45 minute drive from San Juan. Here one finds lush vegetation, clear running streams, secluded waterfalls, and yes, the boisterous coqui. The coqui's maximum size is about two inches in length. This native of Puerto Rico is the national symbol of the Island. Judging from the shrill call of this small creature, one would expect something much larger.
In addition to the noisy little frog, a variety of flora and fauna thrive in the forest. There are 225 species of trees native to the region, 23 of which grow nowhere else. There are over 200 species of ferns, some of which grow to heights of more than 40 feet. The Puerto Rican Parrot, an endangered species makes its home in the forest. So does the Puerto Rican Boa constrictor, another endangered species. If one is very observant, one may see the Puerto Rican Tody. The tody is a small bird with a beautiful green color with a ruby colored patch on its throat. It is only about the size of a person's thumb, so it is easy to miss.
The forest area was first set aside as a reserve in 1876 by King Alfonso XII of Spain. That makes it one of the oldest reserves in our hemisphere. Located within the forest is the International Institute of Tropical Forestry. Knowledge gained here is shared with other tropical nations on effective management of rainforests. Also within the forest is the Bano de Oro Research area which comprises 2,172 acres of virgin forest. The importance of this relatively small section of rainforest is recognized in part by it being named a United Nations Biosphere Reserve.
The idea of a tangled, overgrown mass of vegetation is the idea that comes to mind for many when the words "tropical rainforest" are heard. Such scenes are only found at the edges of the forest, along stream banks, or where breaks in the canopy have occurred. In the real rainforest, the area under the canopy is quite open. The canopy is formed by the meshing of the tree tops, essentially forming a roof. The canopy also protects the fragile soil from erosion. It does so by breaking the path of falling rain. The rain strikes the canopy then trickles down tree trunks to reach the soil.
The combination of moisture and sunshine make the afternoons quite warm. At the base of many waterfalls one will find pools of water deep enough for swimming. These offer a welcome respite from the humidity which covers the land like a thick quilt. Although El Yunque is a favorite destination for Puerto Ricans, on weekdays there are few if any hikers on the trails. However, on holidays and weekends some areas can become quite crowded.
Tropical rainforests possess a unique beauty. El Yunque National Forest presents the opportunity to observe a rainforest close-up, in a safe environment. El Yunque is quite "tame" when compared to other rainforests around the world. Neither crocodiles nor jaguars threaten visitors.
The visitor center offers more information on rainforest ecology. Here one will find books and souvenirs to purchase. Videos about the rainforest may be watched, or one may join in on one of the guided tours. The rangers are bilingual, giving tour information in both Spanish and English. On the tours they will give various details on El Yunque's flora and fauna.
The tops of the mountain peaks are covered with what is known as the cloud forest. The trees grow short, few are over 20 feet tall. Many are twisted and deformed from the wind. Couple that fact with the mist, literally one is walking in a cloud, and it can seem pretty eerie from time to time. The mist hinders visibility and adds a sense of isolation. The wind through the trees can make some low moaning sounds, which doesn't help with the spooky sensation. It is in this area of the forest that I have met the fewest hikers. The trails aren't that long or difficult. It is a fact that many people never leave Route 191, the road through the forest.
On one hike, I headed for the cloud forest. I was off to a late start, so I was hurrying along. It was getting late in the evening. On this occasion I met another hiker scurrying down the trail.
"Yes," I answered, "I want to get some photos before dark."
"That's when they come. They come when it gets dark, you know."
"Who," I inquired. I had no idea what he was talking about.
"The aliens, they land up there," he said, fear in his voice and a look of desperation on his face. I laughed. I thought he was joking. At my laughter, he quickly turned and continued his descent in a half-run.
Later I found that in some circles, El Yunque does have the reputation of being a favored landing site of UFO's. I must admit, I thought there was something other-worldly about the cloud forest.
If You Go:
Most visitors to Puerto Rico arrive in San Juan, either via the airlines or a cruise ship. Most go on to stay in the Metro Area. El Yunque is about a 45 minute drive east of San Juan. Take PR 3 east to the small village of Palmer. Watch closely for the small green sign, it is easy to miss. Turn right on Route 191 and follow it up the hill. You will see the large Caribbean National Forest sign when you enter the forest property. (On your trip from San Juan, if you see beautiful Luquillo Beach on your left, you have gone too far. It's time to backtrack.)
Text and Photos Copyright Thomas R. Fletcher