Life is full of new adventures,
they say. And, as John Travolta so accurately observed in the film Pulp
Fiction, ‘they’ tend to talk a lot.
Still, when the chance comes to hike
to a rainforest there are only two possible answers. Both of them are ‘yeah,
Puerto Rico (meaning ‘rich port’)
is a self-governing unincorporated territory of the United States. I think this
means it’s nearly a full state but probably took one look at Florida and
decided to float away out of sight just in case. There are, google tells us,
around four million inhabitants. It’s in the north-eastern Caribbean sea, east
of the Dominican Republic and west of the Virgin Islands.
The capital, San Juan, is a rather
major hub for cruise ships and is a curiously fab blend of American slickness
and Spanish tradition. The old town is very European in look – you could be
walking down the streets of Santander – but the convention centre and plush
hotels are resolutely yanqui. Christopher Columbus found his way here;
tribes of indigenous people have lived on the island for four thousand years.
The last great culture, the Arawak Indians of the Taino, lasted for seven
hundred years before Columbus and his men put paid to all that in the name of
Bilingualism – Spanish and English
– rules here and the locals’ easy charm shines through whichever language they
They speak a lot; tour guide
Wilfredo O’Neill’s name and moustache both point to Irish blood somewhere down
the line, and there’s a definite glimmer in his eyes as he drives our party the
45 minutes out to El Yunque rainforest.
Being as Puerto Rico is nearly –
but not quite – part of the US, El Yunque is the only rainforest in the
American National Forest system. There are 26 unique animal species here and
the flora contains many specialities such as Ylan-Ylan which we’re told is the
basis for Chanel No.5 perfume.
Standing in the middle of a
beautiful, lush, sub-tropical forest smelling a
fragrant leaf I wonder is this
one of those unique moments that ‘they’ keep moidering on about. No wonder
Puerto Rico is known as la islo del incanto – the island of enchantment.
Actually, Wilfredo corrects, there
are many other islands in the greater archipelago of twenty around the
rectangular mother island. These include Vieques, Culebra, Mona, Desecheo and
Caja de Muertos, which translates as Dead Man’s Chest. No wonder it’s
We drive up the winding road to the
top of the mountain and sidle toward the visitor centre, complete with
informative plaques and a gift shop. An essential part of any nature trip, the
store sells toy fluffy Coqui frogs that whistle a remarkably accurate representation
of the unique sing-song sound of these little creatures when you press their
All around are ferns and vines and
here and there clumps of bamboo trees. They’re not native but were introduced
to stabilise the landscape.
The forest canopy obscures much of
the wonder beneath but here and there on the path it opens out to a
breathtaking vista; one moment it’s snails, moss, lichen and lizard and the
next it’s a view all the way down to the coast.
El Yunque, in Spanish, means ‘The
Anvil’, but the name quite possibly comes from the Taino Indian god, Yuquiyu,
or the Taino word Yu-ke, meaning White Lands. This link with the relatively
distant past was re-established in 2007 by George Bush, who changed the name
from Caribbean National Forest.
So matter of fact are the Puerto Rican
Amazon Parrots we see soaring past us at one stage we’re inured somewhat to the
tour guide’s excitement that this is only the second time that he’s spotted
them in the wild in sixteen years so close-up. Enchantment, indeed.
The trail route we take is too
easy, in truth, the paths having been laid down first in the 1930s during New
Deal times and subsequently paved. Hardly any of us fall over the edge and
tumble to our doom, which keeps us in good spirits as we follow the babble of
tourists toward the star attraction of our own short walk which is La Mina
There’s only one thing more
breathtaking than a 25ft falls and that is obviously stripping off and getting
stuck in. The water is initially yelp-inducingly, shrivelingly cold but after a
minute of adjustment it becomes utterly refreshing, too. We duly take it in
turns to stand up underneath the bashing water.
It provides something of a curtain
between me and the world. Suddenly, amidst all this beauty, natural wonder and
tourists in bikinis throwing out Pirelli calendar shapes in the freshwater
pool, the world falls away.
For a few moments all that exists
is me, a body covered in goosebumps and hundreds, thousands, millions of tons
of freshwater hammering down at my shoulders.
They say it’s incredibly good for
you. I think, for once, they’re right, whoever they are.
How to get there
Puerto Rico from Cayman require a change in Miami .American Airlines fly into
San Juan and several providers including Cayman Airways fly to Miami from Owen
Roberts International Airport. Fares cost from $400 return depending on routes
and times of day.
National Park is around 45 minutes’ drive outside San Juan. Your hotel can
provide information on tours and taxi costs.