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, of 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 straight-forward one-day itinerary to exploring 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/detail/elyunque/home/?cid=fseprd579158. 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….unsuccesfully.
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 attempt to change nature. As you continue to hike uphill on some gravel-paved switchbacks, you come across an Old fish hatchery tanks 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.
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?