by Jim McGee
I didn’t know what to expect from El Yunque rainforest. The previous evening a waiter had asked me if I had ever seen Jurassic Park.
“It’s just like that but without the dinosaurs.” he said in all seriousness.
Hmm, interesting mental image.
He also said to make sure to hike down to La Mina falls. “Many people think that the falls have cleansing powers.” He said it as though he was above such superstitions but it was pretty clear he’d taken many a trip down to the falls himself.
From San Juan the best route out to El Yunque is along the coast road through Loiza. Route 3 is a direct route but it’s heavily trafficked and there are no views to break up the drive. The coast road doesn’t take much longer to when you factor in traffic but it has infinitely more possibilities for the photographer. The coast road will also take you through areas of Puerto Rico where you’ll see the poverty that is endemic on so many Caribbean islands. Take your time passing through small towns and watch out for animals, chickens, children and speed bumps in the road. You’ll eventually link back up with Route 3 a few miles from its intersection with Route 191, which climbs quickly upward and eventually into the park.
El Yunque is part of the Caribbean National Forest, a 28,000 acre preserve established by Teddy Roosevelt and the only tropical forest in the U.S. Forest Service system. Jurassic Park was an apt analogy. As you climb higher the forest around you changes quickly. It becomes more thick and lush and huge ferns are common. It would be very easy to imagine a raptor or t-rex peaking at you through the underbrush.
As you enter the park bear to the right for the El Portal Tropical Forest Center. It’s open 9am to 5pm daily and for a $3 admission you get a map of the park and entry to a large pavilion with displays that explain the various micro-climates that make up El Yunque. While you’re there check out the short movie about the forest for some background on the park and the various plants and animals it contains. There are 240 species of tropical trees, flowers, and wildlife including 20 varieties of orchids. In fact you’ll see brightly colored flowers throughout the park.
The visitor center is also a good location to do a little bird shooting if you’re so inclined. The bridge leading into the center puts you at a level with the forest canopy. This gives you an opportunity to shoot birds at eye level rather than trying to shoot up at them from the forest floor. The best time for bird shooting is just after sunrise or just before sunset. The center itself opens at 9am but the rangers will let you in at 7am if you tell them you’re there to shoot birds. As serious bird shooters know you’ll need some serious focal length to get these active little guys in the wild. I was using the 80-400mm VR with a 2X tele-converter and still found myself wishing for a longer lens.
A myth that was burst for me at El Yunque was the idea that all tropical birds are brightly colored. It turns out that most of the birds in the park have chosen to dress conservatively. The exception being the Puerto Rican parrot. But this brightly colored bird, once as common in Puerto Rico as robins are in the lower forty-eight, is now an endangered species. A preserve has been set up in the park to hand raise the parrots which are released into the wild in a secluded area of the park. The location is kept strictly secret to prevent tourists interfering with the birds until they are no longer endangered.
Taking the trailhead that led away from the visitor center puts you in a part of the park that feels particularly old. A sign on the trail informs you that many of the plants in this part of El Yunque actually date back unchanged to the Jurassic period. So it turns out that Jurassic Park was an apt description after all. I check both ways on the trail but the closest cousin I find to the dinosaurs is a bright green hummingbird. But she’s only inquisitive for a moment then she’s gone into the forest. Hiking back out I see a large snake (boa?) up in the branches of a tree off the trail. Too much foliage and too dark where he’s at to get a clear shot but I try anyway. He chooses to ignore the nosy photographer whose flash no doubt is disturbing his nap.
This lower trail is the only one where I was really assaulted by insects. I’m still not sure what got me but when I came out of the trail my legs were covered in bleeding bites. You always forget something when you travel. This time I’d forgotten the insect repellant and the local stuff I’d purchased must have tasted like dessert to whatever got me. So make sure you pack the good stuff along, something loaded with deet.
If you’re going into the rain forest you WILL get wet. 100 billion gallons of water fall here annually, and that’s not a typo. Hiking down in the lower part of the park I could hear almost constant thunder further up the mountain. Driving higher I encountered light passing drizzle. Getting out to shoot from pullouts along the road the cold misty rain felt good in the tropical heat. I didn’t really care if my clothes got wet since that would keep me comfortable in the heat; and in spots I could watch the rain laden clouds march over the surrounding peaks and see the rain coming down under them.
But when I reached the trailhead for La Mina I encountered a different kind of rain. It was heavy, hard, and relentless. So hard that I even broke down and purchased one of those $2 rain ponchos (they’re very fashionable by the way). The rangers at the top of the trail were warning about flash floods and people were streaming up the trail looking for shelter. I decided to buck the trend and head down toward the falls. What the heck I was already wet.
A flash flood is an amazing thing. It’s also something to respect. When I crossed the footbridge pictured here the stream was just starting to change from its normal tranquil course through the rocks. Just a few minutes later it had risen five feet and was licking at the bottom of the bridge.
Trails in El Yunque are well maintained. The trail down along the river to La Mina falls is made of rock and concrete. But in the rain it’s slippery in places as it runs along the river. There are quite a few spots where you can climb down off the trail and out onto the river rocks to shoot up or downriver.
This is rated a moderate trail, which can be deceiving. It’s a good hike that covers a decent vertical. Make sure you pack along bottled water to drink while you’re climbing. The only water fountains are on the upper part of the trail and in the heat and humidity you’ll sweat out a lot of fluids; especially if you’re hiking with a heavy pack full of gear.
Hiking along in the rain you’re surrounded by the call of the coqui (ko-kee), a small frog that lives throughout Puerto Rico. You’ll normally hear their calls in the early morning or the evening, but they are particularly active when it rains. With the downpour raining all around me and no other sounds the coqui seemed deafening. But finding and photographing the little guys is difficult as they are shy of humans.
La Mina falls are normally light and lacy and the pool under the falls is almost always filled with bathers. But the heavy rains produced another kind of falls. The final portion of the trail consists of a long series of steps that switchback down out of sight of the falls before leveling out and winding back to a bridge that crosses the lagoon at their base. Coming out onto the head of the bridge during a flood was cool!
Instead of gentle falls coming down the rocks the force of the water propelled it outward from the rock face where it thundered into the pool below. Normally boulder strewn, no rocks could be seen at all under the onslaught of water. The roar was deafening and you could feel the power of the river right up through the rocks under your feet. If you get the chance get wet. It’s definitely worth it. Just make sure you hike back out before closing or you may not be able to get your car out of the gated parking lot.
That was a weekday. Coming back a few days later on a Saturday I found a very different El Yunque. Tour buses had invaded.
The main road through the park twists like a boa constrictor and there is little room for error on some of the tight hairpins. But the tour buses were rolling up and down, seemingly oblivious to other traffic. As they approach a turn they simply lean on the horn and it’s up to oncoming traffic to stop. Forget the quiet solitude of the trail. Everywhere I went in the park there were people on the trails.
It was interesting to walk along the river again. Now at it’s normal level and trickling placidly through the rocks. The pool at the base of La Mina was quiet and calm, the waters cold. I walked out into the pool to find an angle where I could compose the base of the falls without the horde of swimmers. Using my tripod to balance on slippery rocks, I managed to get this shot without dunking my camera.
El Yunque has a variety of trails to satisfy most every taste from mild hikes to bouldering. It’s hard to come here and not be awed by this place.
Here are some simple tips can help you find your way around.
Avoid weekends. As noted above crowds and tour buses intrude on the solitude of the park. Not only do they take away from the experience but they make it difficult to frame images as you’re forced to compose around people and buses. This does not make for a pleasant photo experience. During the week the park is a wonderful place.
Plan to get wet. Hey its a rain forest. A simple tip to protect your camera is to get an oversized resealable freezer bag and cut a hole in the bottom just large enough to poke your lens through. Put a rubber band around the lens to hold the bag in place and zip it closed when you’re not using your camera. Then slip your hand inside to operate the controls. As for your body I really don’t like wearing wet weather gear in the tropics. I’d rather get wet and let the rain cool me off. Its better than sweating inside a rain jacket.
Wear good hiking boots or shoes. You’ll be up and down muddy trails and climbing out onto boulders in the middle of rivers to shoot. Wear good shoes and you’ll be happier at the end of the day especially after your feet get wet. A hat of some kind is also a good idea. Even if it gets wet and soaks through it will keep falling rain out of your face while hiking.
Eat Local. There are a couple of little spots in the park itself along Route 191 but the one we stopped in didn’t look very appetizing and the others didn’t look much better.
In Puerto Rico you can find some great food at roadside stops. We drove back down the mountain (about 15 minutes) and back out onto Route 3. We found a great little spot called El Verde where the roast chicken was wonderful. They also had good fried plantains, good blood sausage, good rice, heck, just about everything on the menu we tried during several visits was good. Judging by the amount of people flowing in and out of the place it’s a favorite among locals as well.
But don’t even think about stiffing these guys on the bill. Watching the folks there skillfully carve up roast chickens with a machete should be enough to make any would be thief pale at the consequences.
Take care of your gear. It’s going to get wet. That won’t be a problem as long as it doesn’t get soaked. Keep you camera in a good quality water resistant camera bag. Keep a small towel in the car and take a few minutes at the end of the day to wipe everything down carefully. Pay attention to zoom lenses. Extend them out fully before wiping them down. Otherwise you may be trapping moisture inside.
Keep both fresh and used film in your camera bag not in your pockets. If you get caught in a downpour any film in your pocket is as good as submerged. Finally be careful when changing rolls of film. If you’re really wet water tends to run down your arms and hands and right into your camera. You also have to be careful that rain doesn’t fall into an open camera back. During heavy rains I got pretty good at slipping my camera into my backpack and changing film by feel.
Look for these plants for shots of fauna. One of the rangers tipped me off to this one. These flowers are found throughout the park in a multitude of colors. Their thick petals are angled out to catch rainwater. Camp out a little distance from one of these with a long telephoto and you may catch hummingbirds, insects, and even small animals stopping by for a drink. Talk with the rangers at the visitor center for tips on what you’re likely to catch in various parts of the park.