My children have been saving the rainforest for years -- what American child hasn't been pelted with this eco-message? -- but they had never actually seen one. So they willingly gave up another day at the beach in San Juan to drive west of town to the El Yunque National Forest. Within seconds of stepping through its gate, we were enveloped in a lushness so profound, we knew at once that all those school recycling projects had been worth it.
Formerly known as the Caribbean National Forest, El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system, a 28,000-acre patch of virgin forest that looks pretty much the way it did when Columbus first sighted Puerto Rico back in 1493. We spent a good hour first in the El Portal Rain Forest Center, with its three pavilions setting forth the four separate forest microclimates that comprise the park. The best exhibit of all, though, was simply the bridge leading to the center, set high up near the tree canopy, where we got our first close-up views of the forest's lively birds. At last we hit the walking trails through the forest, and by now we knew what to look for on our hike to the waterfalls, and what to listen for -- the distinctive coquí peep of the tiny tree frogs that live here in the millions. We could spot orchids blooming in the treetops, and incredibly tall ferns swaying among the tree trunks. We hiked along the quiet signposted trail to La Mina Falls, which announced itself through the trees as we drew closer, not only by the roar of tumbling water but also by the unmistakable salsa beat of picnicking families with portable sound systems. On this weekend day, every family in the park, it seemed, was at the falls, sitting waist-deep in deliciously cold water on the slippery, pot-holed rock shelf below the cascades.
The other trail in the park is longer and steeper: the El Yunque trail, which winds upward through forests of sierra palm and palo colorado, before descending into the dwarf forest of Mount Britton, which is often shrouded in clouds. There are great views here from various peaks, including Yunque Rock.
The weather looked overcast when we started out, and at one point a light rain shower began to spatter upon the canopy, barely enough to get us wet. Somehow, that seemed absolutely perfect. After all, what should you expect in a rainforest if not rain?
Nearest Airport: Luis Muñoz Marín International, San Juan, 40km (25 miles).
Where to Stay: $$ Comfort Inn, Calle Clemenceau 6, San Juan (tel. 800/858-7407 or 787/721-0170; www.comfortinn.com). $$ The Gallery Inn, Calle Norzagaray 204–206, Old San Juan (tel. 866/572-2783 or 787/722-1808; www.thegalleryinn.com).