During my vacation in Puerto Rico, my family and I took a small tour of El Yunque Rainforest, which is Puerto Rico’s national forest. The company we did the tour with, El Yunque Tours, is completely independent from the forest administration, but our guides knew a lot about the forest and its history. I found the tour and the information they gave along the way so interesting, that I decided that El Yunque deserves its own blog post!
The rainforest is not far at all from where we were staying, but still we had to get up pretty early! It was 7a.m. for me. Not really a time you’d associate with vacationing on a tropical island, but alas. It was very worth it though! After entering the rainforest, you wind your way up the mountain some more. Both sides of the road are completely packed with tropical trees and shrubbery, which makes for a very green views.
We arrived at the trailhead a little before 9a.m., and our tour guides and fellow tour members were already there. Our tour group was tiny; only six people and two guides! After introductions were made we had time for some pre-hike snacks. The tour company actually took care of everything for you! They had a van full of backpacks you could take to put your stuff in, towels, cold water, healthy snacks. They even had fresh fruit from the forest! I found out I love passion fruit…
When we started walking we hadn’t even gone on the trail yet before one of the guides wanted to show us something… He had found a very interesting plant at the side of the road, which is called a Shameplant. If you touch it, the little fern-like leaves will fold in on itself!
One of the first things we learned about the forest is that a vast chunk of its original canopy was gone after hurricane Maria swept over the island in 2017. While we did not have any shade from the sun because of that, the rain forest was able to recover in astonishing ways. For example, the shrubbery that normally hardly gets any sunlight has never been this tall. Additionally, some of the trees are very stubborn and grow where they fall down. We saw some trees that were completely horizontal on the forest floor and somehow new trees were growing from its trunk. Nature is crazy.
The land where our trail is on used to be privately owned before it became part of the national forest. The people that lived on the land actually brought some non-native species of plants and trees with them, because they had to live off of what the mountains could give them in terms of food and drink. In those times, everyone still lived in the more urbanized coastal areas.
There is also quite a bit of of history mingled with local mythology. The name “Yunque” may be derived from the aboriginal Taíno word “yu-ke,” which means “white lands.” So why did they call a tropical rain forest white? Well, in the two weeks I’ve been in Puerto Rico, I’ve only seen the complete mountains once. The rest of the time the peaks were covered in thick white clouds.
Just like how the Greeks believed that their gods lived on mount Olympus, the Taíno believed their god to live on the mountain called El Yunque. Yucáhu was the god of agriculture, peace and tranquility, and represented goodness. Yucáhu also had a sister, that was rather jealous of her brother according to myth. Her name was Guabancex, and she was the goddess of chaos and disorder, and was believed to control the weather and in particular hurricanes. The Spanish colonizers used the word Juracán, which in Taíno culture merely means the storms themselves. Either way, that’s why we have hurricanes instead of typhoons or cyclones like they have in the pacific!
Moving along the trail we also came across some cool critters. There is only one native mammal species in the rainforest, and that is the bat. We didn’t see any since it was day, but we did see some pretty huge snails. These are tree snails that live on the stems of trees and come down to the forest floor at night to eat fallen leaves. The shells of these snails are about the same size as my palm!
The highlight of our hike was the endpoint, which was a small river in which we could swim! The water was freezing cold, but very refreshing after a hike in tropical temperatures. Here we just relaxed and swam around. There were also tons of fish in the water that were not shy at all because visitors have taken to feeding them.
One of our guides also found rocks that give off a natural paint when put in contact with water, so he made some cool traditional art on our arms! On my arm he painted the mountains, a lizard, the symbol for the river, and the symbol for the hurricane.
After our dip in the river it was time to head back to the beginning of the trail.