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A Guide To Exploring El Yunque National Rainforest
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Have you ever heard Tarzan’s jungle call?? Well if you have, just imagine my husband making that noise as he swung through the air holding onto one of the vines descending from the rainforest canopy. If you didn’t know better, you would think we were exploring the Amazonian jungle or India’s Satpura National Park, but we were actually in the United State’s only tropical rainforest, El Yunque.
El Yunque is one of the reasons many tourists visit the island of Puerto Rico.
At nearly 29,000 acres, our single day of exploring didn’t allow us to see much of the forest, but we were able to check out a lot of the terrific waterfalls that inhabit this beautiful piece of earth.
Parts of the El Yunque recently re-opened, following the impacts of hurricanes Irma and Maria, and I figured it was about time I gave you a simple and straightforward one-day itinerary to explore it! Below, you’ll find how to beat the crowds, which waterfalls are worth the effort, and where to swing from jungle vines Tarzan-style!
As I mentioned, parts of the rainforest are now open since the hurricanes, but many are not. Be sure to check the USDA website for updates on which areas are available to visit: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/elyunque/recarea/?recid=43397.
Currently, the trail to La Mina Falls is closed to the public.
La Mina Falls
Your day will start early!
El Yunque opens at 7:30 AM, and you want to be there exactly at 7:30. El Yunque is a huge tourist spot and there are hundreds of tour buses that make the trip up the two-lane road winding through the forest. If you don’t start early, you can get stuck coming and going from the forest behind these buses. It is well worth the effort to wake up early for this one.
You will start your adventure at El Portal Visitor Center at the entrance to the forest. This is a great place to stop and grab a map if you didn’t print one out beforehand. From there, you’ll drive up the main road for about 6 to 7 kilometers. You should pass La Coca Falls on the right side of the road and Yokahu Tower on the left side. You are looking for La Mina Trail.
La Mina Falls is the most popular set of waterfalls in the park. It’s a short and well-maintained hike to these beautiful falls with a nice swimming pool at the bottom of them. This means they get packed with tourists, which is why you need to see them first!
Tip: Since it is a rainforest, the ground is often wet from rain or dew, so the risk of slipping is high. Prevent this by wearing shoes with grip! I would recommend real hiking shoes or sturdy tennis shoes.
The hike from the road, where you can park easily, to the falls is beautiful. Having grown up and lived in Arizona, I’ve never experienced this level of green in my life. Everywhere you look the vegetation is bountiful and vibrant. It reminded me of something out of a dinosaur movie (Land Before Time where you at)!
The falls aren’t disappointing either. The exquisite waterfall drops 35 feet! Be careful making your way to the pool though, the rocks are quite slippery.
Going to La Mina Falls early in the morning will guarantee you are in for a great day! You will have the opportunity to explore these beautiful falls in relative tranquility and isolation. The hike back will only rejuvenate you as you head towards our next stop, Mt. Britton Tower!
Mt. Britton Tower
There are a few different ways to get to the Mt. Britton Lookout Tower, but I can only speak to the one we took: Bano De Oro Trail. Throughout this hike, you get to see how humans have tried to change the natural ways of the forest….unsuccessfully.
Across the street where you park for La Mina Falls, Palo Colorado Visitors Center, about 50 yards up is the Bano De Oro trailhead. An uphill paved path leads you to the “Baño de Oro” pool. It is currently abandoned and no longer used as a swimming pool. However, it has a tranquil aurora around it as you glance into one of mankind’s attempts to change nature. As you continue to hike uphill on some gravel-paved switchbacks, you come across an old fish hatchery tank built of stone now overgrown on the right side of the trail. These tanks represent a failed attempt to introduce trout, an exotic cold-water fish, to the tropical forest waters. It is almost laughable that someone would think of putting a fish hatchery or swimming pool in the middle of a rainforest, but that’s just how we operate I guess.
After the fish hatchery, you can continue to meet up with the Mt. Britton Trail. This is the longest trail in the forest, so come prepared with water! The trail crosses two rushing mountain streams and then intersects with Forest Service Road 10 (only official vehicles can use it as a road, hence why you don’t just drive to the tower). Turn right on the road and continue for approximately 500 feet, where it intersects with the remaining portion of the trail. The final leg of the trail leads upward through the Cloud Forest until it reaches Mount Britton peak and the Mount Britton Tower.
The stone tower was built in the 1930s. On a clear day, you get a panoramic view of the surrounding forest, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Caribbean Sea.
This hike was a blast! You’ll feel like a true explorer hiking up the rainforest. Along the path keep your eyes out for large vines to swing from! Of course, be sure to test them with your weight before you start swinging. The tower itself was amazing. One of the rare places you can see both sides of the island.
The hike takes about an hour, so you want to get to the trailhead around 9 at the latest in order to beat the hordes of tourists.
Juan Diego Falls
Once you get back to your car, it is time to head back down to Juan Diego Falls.
Juan Diego Falls are just on the side of the road around Kilometer 10. Keep your eyes out, the sign was removed when we were there. The trail is short and easy to follow once you’ve found the start.
There are a few sets of waterfalls that make up Juan Diego Falls. You’ll get to a couple of little waterfalls first, but as you continue you’ll find larger and larger falls. The “end” of the trail has a nice picnic area with around a 20-foot waterfall behind it, but this isn’t really the end! On the right-hand side, you’ll see a muddy bank speckled with trees. Go up it.
You’ll be able to see a larger and, usually, less crowded waterfall. The hike up this muddy bank is somewhat sketchy, but the reward is well worth it. Once you get to the top of this little hill, you will head to your left to access the 40-foot waterfall and pool. Only the private local guides take people to this spot, so you should have it all by yourself!
El Yunque blew our expectations away. From the beautiful foliage to the breathtaking waterfalls, you won’t be able to get through this park without seeing something new!
The drive home was a slow one, we spent a bit too long at Juan Diego and got stuck behind some tour buses heading out of the park, but we weren’t bothered at all. Completely renewed by nature, we were delighted to have had the opportunity to explore this remarkable piece of the world.
For more adventures in Puerto Rico, check out my other blog posts: “A Guide To Visiting San Juan“, “Icacos & Palomino Islands“, and “Day Trip To Vieques“.
If you are ever in Puerto Rico and itching for a good hike, you must explore El Yunque! What are some of your favorite waterfalls?
Hi there! I’m Angie, a 28-year-old American photographer, travel blogger, and adventure seeker. I hope when you visit my blog you feel inspired and motivated to go out and explore this beautiful world we live in.
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El Yunque National Forest | | Attractions
El Yunque National Forest is one of Puerto Rico’s crown jewels with nearly 29,000 acres of lush, mountainous terrain scattered with waterfalls, rushing rivers, towering trees and bamboo groves, all opening up to spectacular ocean views.
The only rainforest in the US National Forest System, El Yunque (named after the Taíno god, Yúcahu) has 25 miles of trails to suit all hiking abilities. Some are short and paved, others long, steep and overgrown. Almost all gain some elevation; one of the toughest is to El Toro, around 3500ft above sea level.
El Yunque has two entrances: the northern side, 25 miles east of San Juan, receives the majority of visitors, while the southern side close to Naguabo retains a wild pristine feel.
Due to the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria in 2017, check the website for up-to-date information on the trails’ status.
Embark on hikes (short and sweet, with information boards and tourist hoards, or long and lonely, with coquí frogs for company) through the oxygen-rich mist and gawk at Jurassic-sized ferns.
Bring a raincoat and binoculars, too; of the 26 species found here and nowhere else on Earth, you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the world’s 10 most endangered birds.
El Yunque National Park’s northern side has an array of maintained trails © Infinite_Eye / Shutterstock
How to get to El Yunque
Since there’s no public transportation to El Yunque, you will need to get here with a private vehicle or on a guided tour from San Juan or Fajardo.
Driving from San Juan, there will be signs directing you from Hwy 3 to Hwy 191. Turn south at Palmer and follow the signs to El Yunque National Forest.
Take note that some maps still show that you can traverse the forest on Hwy 191, or access El Yunque from the south via this route. However, Hwy 191 has been closed south of Km 13 for years and there are no plans to reopen it.
Some road maps also suggest that El Yunque can be approached via a network of roads along the forest’s western border. Don’t try it: these roads are unmaintained tracks that often dead-end in serious jungle. Be sure to check the latest conditions of El Yunque’s roads before heading out.
There’s a northern entrance near Luquillo and a southern entrance near Naguabo, both off Hwy 191.
The El Portal Visitors Center reopened in 2022 after sustaining structural damages due to hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017.
The northern side is more visited and has lots of well-marked trails and parking areas; the southern side is wilder and less developed, making for beautiful off-the-beaten-track experiences.
Make sure to secure a reservation before heading out.
Best time to go to El Yunque
El Yunque National Forest has year-round trails but the best time to visit is from mid-April to June to avoid the winter rush and the wet summer. Hurricane season – June through late November – can bring sodden conditions to El Yunque National Forest, with the possibility of trails being closed due to mudslides and flooding, so always check the trail status before you set out. But it’s called the rainforest for a reason – you can expect showers every day.
El Yunque’s operating hours
El Yunque is open from 7:30am-6pm (except on Christmas). There’s no entrance fee, however some attractions inside the park require payment.
Attractions in El Yunque
There’s more to do at El Yunque then hike. Get that adrenaline pumping by soaring through the verdant canopies on a zipline. Carabalí Rainforest Park offers horseback riding, go-karts, ATV tours and hayrides.
There’s a host of native flora and fauna at El Yunque National Park © Christian Ouellet / Getty Images
Guided Tours to El Yunque
There are many San Juan and Fajardo-based tour operators offering day trips to El Yunque. All will transport you to and from the park, highlight the main sights and provide you with a mine of interesting information about its flora and fauna.
Camping in El Yunque
There are no developed campgrounds or designated camping areas in El Yunque.
Primitive camping is allowed along most roads and trails except closed areas, but at the time of research, camping was off-limits until 2021. Check the El Yunque National Forest website for up-to-date information.
Normally, tents must be located at least 30ft away from any trail or body of water and at least 50ft from roads and developed picnic sites. Most importantly, campers need a free permit that must be obtained at least 14 days before their visit.
There are several boutique accommodations like Casa Flamboyant, Dos Aguas and the Rainforest Inn on the fringes of El Yunque National Forest, which still feels very wild. Proximity to the rainforest means you’ll be lulled to sleep by the sound of chirruping coqui frogs and wake to tropical birdsong.
Lodging to the north means easy access to Luquillo’s beaches – the south is more isolated but both areas are within reach of Fajardo and the Bio Bay.
Palmer, the colorful strip where Hwy 191 heads south from Hwy 3 toward El Yunque, has some good eating options like Degree 18 Juice Bar, Lluvia Deli Bar and Mi Vida Café & Burger.
Inside the park, there are a few cheap-and-cheerful roadside stands and the visitors center will have a cafe.
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