In between my three weeks in Nicaragua last month, and my upcoming trip to Laos, I thought I would share a very interesting place, and person, from a recent visit to Puerto Rico.
I had no idea, and perhaps you don’t either, that the U.S. territory is home to an amazing rain forest with an incredible number of plant and animal species; many of them rare or endangered, often not found anywhere else.
El Yunque National Rain Forest is 29,000 acres of incredible biodiversity; in fact, in these few acres, there is more biodiversity than in the millions of acres of all the other U.S. National Parks and Forests combined.
“This is a very special place,” says Pablo Cruz, Forest Supervisor. He begins telling me about the ecological importance and history of the rain forest, but then he pauses.
“I’m not a hippie,” he starts with as if feeling the need to make that disclaimer first. He goes on to reveal the sad history of the land.
When the Spanish made their conquest of Puerto Rico 400 years ago, they deforested the entire island. They created agricultural land out of everything, planting their endless tobacco and sugar cane crops. “Most all of the forest and vegetation on Puerto Rico is less than 400 years old,” Cruz says. “The only old-growth to survive is here in the oldest parts of El Yunque, which were on too steep of inclines for farming.”
The native people didn’t settle in the area that is now El Yunque, instead of using the cloud forest as a holy place for ceremonies and religious rites. The name El Yunque, in fact, is an indigenous word that means in the heavens. The U.S. forest system had to learn about rain forests here in El Yunque, as all previous forestry had come from Germany and was all about temperate forests. This national preserve is the premiere learning spot for rain forest science and preservation in the entire world.
Although I only have the morning, I could easily spend an entire day hiking around El Yunque. Excellent groomed, marked trails run through the entire forest, ranging in difficulty from an easy stroll close to the visitor center—manageable by nearly anyone—to slightly longer and more strenuous hikes. There are a number of unique plant and animal species, such as the endangered Puerto Rican Parrot and the tiny coqui tree frogs that you will hear serenading each evening on the island. There are 150 species of fern and 240 tree species – 88 of which are rare and 23 found only in El Yunque.
Guided forest tours are available, and camping (free with permit) and lodging are also offered. There is a beautiful waterfall and an interesting tower that gives terrific aerial views of the rain forest and surrounding parts of Puerto Rico.