As dawn broke over the El Malecón waterfront, I stood on the balcony of our hotel room and watched the sleepy morning commuters arrive on the A.T.M Ferry from Hato Rey, on the south side of Bahia de San Juan, as a ginormous Holland America Cruise Ship glided into its docking station in front of the Sheraton like a blue and white apparition. Below me, limping beggars silently worked the garbage train with the rat pigeons, staring with hopeful anticipation into the gaping mouths of the green trash cans along the harbor wall, putting a slightly different spin on the concept of take out breakfast. No matter where you go on earth, the poor always bottom feed off of the tourist areas, but we all like to pretend they really aren’t there. And the poor oblige us for the most part. They feign invisibility, and in return, we share our scraps with them. But around the cruise ship area of San Juan, the street folk were on their best behavior. And even at this early hour, yellow taxi vans lined the streets, the drivers shuckin’ and jivin’ in packs as they awaited their next fare while the black-booted police patrolled the spotless street in pairs. From my lofty perch it looked like another day in Paradise.
We decided to eat breakfast before we left, and ended up on the Sheraton’s sunny veranda, watching the nasty pigeons mob the plates on the empty tables around us. It was better than TV in a sort of creepy way.
After our adventures on the west side of Puerto Rico the previous day, we decided to head east, to the world famous El Yunque Rain Forest.
By now, I had figured out the best way in and out of Old San Juan. Most folks take L Munoz Rivera Avenue on the way into town, and De La Constitucion Avenue on the way out. But the locals know better. Route 1 runs along the Canal San Antonio on the southern edge of the old city and avoids the confusing bends and endless lights of the main drags servicing the heart of Old San Juan. And the yin-yang contrasts caught the eye at every turn.
We began our drive in the newly-transformed waterfront with its wide promenades, abstract sculptures, and glitzy shops.
Next up: three sparkling, 200-feet-long, dark blue and white luxury cruise ships, resembling SPECTRE villain Emilio Largo’s yacht Disco Volante in the James Bond movie Thunderball. After asking around, we found out they were all owned by billionaire Russians. Russian oligarchs sure love their “I have the biggest” toys and they like to show them off in some of the world’s sunniest sandboxes.
Then came a pinky, vacant public housing apartment complex covered in spacy graffiti, looking like the ruins of the “Walking Dead”.
And then, on the left, was a bright white high rise where hometown hotty Jennifer “ J’LO” Lopez owns a $4 million penthouse on the top floor. Or so the story goes …
We took the bridge over the causeway separating the old city from the ocean front hotels and condos along the Condado ocean front. Which brings to mind something you should always remember about San Juan: Old San Juan is drop-dead gorgeous, like stepping back into 18th Century Spain, but there is no place to swim. It’s all rocks and docks. If you want to swim – and who is going to come to Puerto Rico and not want to get into the ocean? – then you will need to either stay in Condado, or catch a cab over there to frolic in the warm Atlantic.
We took the 26 Freeway, a busy three lane highway that passes by the airport, until we came to the interchange by the sprawling regional hospital campus where we caught The 66, which turned out to be a really nice toll road running east through lush farm land interspersed with fancy gated communities and magnificent estates. And what a difference compared to the shanty towns on the west side of the island.
By now, we were totally comfortable running tolls and laughed when the lights and alarms went off. We followed the freeway for about twenty miles until we came to Route 3 which was like a tropical divided highway – lots of traffic lights and bang-bang shopping opportunities – with roadside vendors selling fresh fruit, vegetables, meat, and shiny stuff.
I should probably mention again that distances can be rather deceptive in Puerto Rico. A place that is twenty miles away can take an hour or more to get to because it is essentially a chaotic free-for-all on all of the roads. For instance, the left lane is not the fast lane. There is no fast lane. People just pick whatever lane feels right at that moment. And speed limits are at best a suggestion. Folks drive however fast or slow their little ol’ hearts desire. So, it’s not uncommon for you to be driving along at sixty miles-per-hour and then hit a long back up caused by some campesino in a hamster-powered farm truck laden with coconuts or all of their worldly posessions, puttering along in the left lane, going twenty miles-per-hour with smoke billowing out the back, the driver completely oblivious to the world around him. It’s all part of that “time is a relative concept” thing you have to get used to on the island.
After the tranquil village of Korea, we came to an unmarked little town with lots of rundown houses – more like shacks – and stores with wildly-painted windows. Like I said before, road signs are not Puerto Rico’s strong suit. One thing was certain, we had definitely left the rich confines of uptown east and had suddenly landed in rural Nicaragua.
We were looking for Route 191 and we knew we were close, but we still missed the cleverly hidden turn. We quickly realized the error of our way when we came to a busy intersection leading to Carmelita. So we did a Kojak U-turn – something I was really starting to get quite good at – and then took a quick left down an alley that had to be Route 191 (and was!) into the small rundown town of Palmer, where people of all ages dressed in their finest peasant garb stood or lounged by the side of the potholed road like sleepy statues. Mangy dogs and cats seemed to be the only animals in town capable of forward motion. Palmer was just three short blocks and then it was onward and steeply upward into the dripping rainforest, past zip line playgrounds, kayak outfitters, the Don Q rum tasting compound, roadside vendors, banana trucks, colorful shacks, and lush fields filled with happy cows.
We followed the twisting road that appeared to have been carved straight out of the jungle to the El Yunque Rain Forest. I had talked to a local guide a few days before and he had suggested that we get to the rainforest as early as we could. I figured he meant in order to beat the crowds. What he had really meant was the forest receives more than 240 inches of rain a year (100 billion gallons) and you want to get there early in order to beat the rain that usually rolls in in the late morning. Our leisurely breakfast back in San Juan had spoiled that plan, so as we came to the entrance station at the crack of noon and paid our $4 to get in, the sky opened up like it can only do in a rain forest – hence the name. We took the narrow winding road through the forest until we came to the El Portal Rainforest Center. The place was crowded but not overly so, and there wasn’t a tour bus in sight, which is always a good thing. We sat in the parking lot overlooking the futuristic metal and glass A-frame nature center as the rain drummed loudly against our rental car, watching the other tourons make mad dashes for the footbridge leading to the forest headquarters.
Inna, as usual, had ignored the prospect of rain – she’s good when it comes to keeping warm, but not so much when it comes to keeping dry. She seemed amazed that I hadn’t brought rain gear for her too. I told her there was a plastic garbage bag in the trunk, but she didn’t find that very amusing.
So, that meant we would eventually have to join the throng at the visitor center where we could pick up a trail map and a poncho. The deluge ended as quickly as it began, but showed signs that it wasn’t finished watering the forest.
El Yunque is a unit of the U.S. Forest Service and is supervised by the Department of Agriculture. I worked on the Kaibab National Forest, on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, for 15 years, and I had often heard of the almost mythical El Yunque Forest. I mean, how could there be a National Forest on a Caribbean island? There are several other rainforests in the National Forest system, including the Tongass in Alaska, and the Mount Hood Wilderness Area in Oregon.
El Yunque is one of the oldest forest reserves in the Western Hemisphere, and as you might expect, the story of its creation is a mixed bag of conquest and good intentions, starting in 1876 when King Alphonso Xll of Spain set the land aside. In 1903, three years before Teddy Roosevelt created the Grand Canyon Game Preserve (the precursor to the Kaibab National Forest), the General Land Office established the 66,000 acre Luquillo Forest Reserve, which morphed into the Caribbean National Forest in 1935. In 2007, President George W. Bush, in a gesture of curious goodwill, changed the name to El Yunque National Forest. And typical of W’s often confusing antics, no one really knows for sure what the hell the name means. It might be native Taino, meaning “white lands” – making little or no sense – or it might mean “anvil” in Spanish, which is equally nonsensical.
Regardless, El Yunque is a very unique place and home to over 240 species of trees and plants, and 23 – like the top ten endangered red and green Puerto Rican Parrott – are found nowhere else on earth. The forest is also world renowned for its tiny, but loud, Coqui tree frogs that are always singing for love and are an island favorite.
The visitor pavilion was filled with many informative multi-media displays. Friendly old geezers manned the information kiosks babbling like broken records about various must see sights in the forest. We checked out the busy gift shop that was doing a land office business – something I had never seen on a national forest anywhere in the States – and I bought Inna an El Yunque poncho which immediately went into my pack, never to be used again, because now that we both had rain gear, it never did more than sprinkle. Isn’t that always the way?
The forest map was a black and white, hand-drawn, tri-fold piece of paper – in English on one side and Spanish on the other. There wasn’t a lot of information on the simple handout which read like an amateur playbill – “Nowhere in the world will your eyes observe a greater wealth of beauty than what is waiting for you in the Luquillo Mountains. According to Indian legend, the good spirit “Yuquiyu” reigned on his mighty mountain-top throne, protecting Puerto Rico and its people. The name Luquillo is derived from the god spirit’s Indian name. Many of the sights you will see today are the same as those that dazzled the first Spanish explorers more than 500 years ago. You’ll see 1,000-year-old trees, strange plants and exotic rainbow-colored flowers, and thick vines with great masses of lush red blossoms waving in the cool breeze. From the heart of this breathtaking beauty you’ll hear the incessant, yet delightful, two-note chanting of the “Coqui”, the chattering of unseen tropical birds and, if you are lucky, the squawk of the endangered Puerto Rican parrot. And while you have already seen all the other wondrous sights this world has to offer, you will never forget the enchantment of … The El Yunque National Forest.
We decided to drive to the top of the forest and then work our way back down the mountain. It will take you at least four hours to adequately explore the forest, and you could easily spend a whole day. But all of the key points of interest are located off the main spine road, Highway 191, and unlike the rest of Puerto Rico, everything is well signed so you usually know where you are and what you are looking at.
It was about 8 miles to the end of the road where the trail to the Mt Britton Tower began. The 2-mile roundtrip trail is essentially straight up, rising 595 feet in a mile and ending at an elevation of 3,087 feet. What made the hike like no other I had ever experienced was that the entire trail consisted of embedded blue stones meticulously laid a few inches above the natural terrain, a 3-feet-wide ribbon winding through the Sierra Palm forest, crossing two rushing mountain streams and leading steeply upward through the Cloud Forest until it reached the Mount Britton peak. Given the daily downpours, the trail would have been a muddy mess that would have eventually just washed away if it wasn’t paved in this unique manner. It made for easy walking and the jungle vegetation was like a green explosion of color. But I couldn’t even begin to imagine how difficult it would have been to build the jungle trail.
The trail to the tower was pretty busy, including quite a few younger folks hiking barefoot, which seemed crazy as hell to me but didn’t appear to be causing them any trouble.
The oddest thing about El Yunque for me were its tall, brown brick circular towers. They immediately reminded me of the Anasazi towers at Hovenweep in the American Southwest and seemed completely out of place in a jungle rainforest. Our destination, the Mt Britton Tower, dates back to the 1930s and was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and named after botanist Nathaniel Britton and his wife Elizabeth who discovered many of the native tree and plant species in the Luquillo Mountains in the 1920s.
It took us about 45 minutes to get to the tower which was perched above the jungle like the stone turret on a Scottish castle. We climbed up the interior steps to the tower’s observation deck and while we might have been standing at one of the highest points on the island, we found ourselves enveloped in clouds with very little to see. I gazed over the battlements and had a strong urge to pour some boiling oil over the side onto the heads of some silly, bedwetting English pigs. Slowly, the clouds blew away like mist in the wind and there before us lay panoramic views of the Atlantic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea and the lush farmlands and ranches of the coastal plain. Other hikers came and went, but we stayed there taking in the swirling sights until the clouds returned and we found ourselves covered in soft dew.
By the time we returned to our car the sun was back out and it was closing in on two o’clock. We could either keep exploring the forest or head back down to the coast highway and zip over to the nearby Luquillo Beach. We opted for the La Mina Trail, which led to the most popular waterfall in the park. By this time, the crowds had greatly diminished and we pretty much had the trail to ourselves. To be honest, there was nothing special about the trail that followed the La Mina River through a narrow gorge, dropping over 500 feet in the course of about a mile. It was slippery and muddy, and there were several small drop-offs, culminating at the crown jewel La Mina Waterfall where a large number of people frolicked in the pool below the cold cascade. I’ve never been much for swimming in a small pool with lots of other people, so Inna and I snapped a photo and then headed back to the car. What struck me the most about the trail were all of the elaborate picnic shelters, many of which had been built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There were at least thirty of these attractive wood and stone pavilions, each with a picnic table, benches and barbeque grill. I could easily imagine hundreds – if not thousands – of locals, picnicking and god knows what else, along the La Mina Trail on weekends and holidays, undoubtedly making for a fear and loathing scene. But every picnic shelter was empty on this quiet weekday afternoon.
We noticed another trail on our way back to the car that led to Baño Grande and Baño de Oro, two small bathing lakes adorned with several sturdy CCC structures, including a native stone bathhouse and dam. The CCC was America at its finest, and there was nothing they couldn’t build. Their masonry and wood-working skills always stand out, even where you least expect it, like a jungle forest in the wilds of Puerto Rico, and their legacy lives on with a style and grace that always makes me smile. Thank you, FDR!
There were other interesting places to stop, like Juan Diego Falls, La Coca Falls, and the ever popular Yokahú Tower, but Inna and I had walked our tails off at that point and it was getting late. We still had a long drive back to Old San Juan and it was time to hit the road.
We got back to the Sheraton in about an hour without incident and after changing our clothes, we walked over to a very hip block of small restaurants along Calle del Recinto where every cuisine under the sun was well represented. We ended up dining at an outdoor table in front of an outstanding Japanese sushi bar called J-Taste where we downed another fine local beer called Magna and toasted our good fortune.
February weather is always a crapshoot in North America and we had decided not to take any chances when we booked our trip back in the Fall. We intentionally planned to arrive four days before our cruise and that was a great call because we ended up just missing a killer winter snow storm that cancelled thousands of flights and left passengers living in airports up and down the east coast for days on end. Our friends Richard and Olga from D.C., who were joining us on the cruise, were stranded back in Maryland, trying to find any flight south. Two days after their scheduled departure date, they had been reduced to options like flying north to Boston in order to catch a flight to Florida. They ended up arriving at two in the morning the day our ship sailed and felt lucky because many other people missed the boat. There were still poor souls arriving with their luggage on day three of the cruise, down in Dominica.
So my advice to you is give yourself at least three days leeway when booking a trip between December and March, because anything can happen, and it usually does.