El Yunque National Forest in northeastern Puerto Rico is located on the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo mountains, encompassing 28,000 acres (43.753 mi² or 113.32 km²) of land. Ample rainfall creates a jungle-like setting — lush foliage, crags, waterfalls and rivers are a prevalent sight. The forest has a number of trails from which the jungle-like territory’s flora and fauna can be appreciated. It is home to over 200 species of trees and plants, 23 of which are found nowhere else.
– from Wikipedia
We first attempt visiting El Yunke about a week after arriving in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Everyone we meet, locals and cruisers, tell us You have to go to El Yunke, it’s amazing!
After two hours of driving with a rental car (there is no public transport from Ponce where our boat is to anywhere in Puerto Rico) we get to the national park’s entrance only to be told that El Yunke is closed until further notice, at least few more days, due to too much rain and landslides. Disappointed, we drive back.
About two weeks later we get another chance to visit El Yunke, on a Saturday. This time it’s open. Admission is free. We put on hiking shoes and prepare for some serious hiking. This should be the Puerto Rican equivalent of Dominican Republic’s Pico Duarte. But pretty soon we start seeing disturbing signs, things are wrong.
First red flag: on the parking lot before one of the trails to the waterfalls there are so many cars and busses that we have hard time finding a parking spot.
Second red flag: From the cars and busses descend young girls wearing high hills and miniskirts, obese men, women and children, Asian women wearing romantic long dresses, and Hindu families with silk saris and sandals. Not exactly the kind of people and equipment you see on hiking trails. Suspicion starts creeping in our minds.
Third red flag: The hiking trail is paved! It is not a trail but a narrow “street” made of concrete and there are steps to go up and down. Every now and then there are small rain shelters and the place looks more like a residential area than a forest.
Soon we are stuck in traffic on the narrow “trail”. Hundreds of visitors creep slowly up and down, usually led by the slowest of the group, a large lady who barely walks, passing is very difficult, and we have to stop and wait for incoming traffic too. It gets worse when someone in front decides to light a cigarette and we all have to breathe it.
We are no longer seeing the forest, the trees, the river, the waterfalls. Our entire attention is focused on the traffic of tourists all around us. Guides caution their groups to „stay on the paved trails at all times because the forest is full of poison ivy and there are no hospitals nearby.“
As we get to the famous waterfalls we witness another perversion. People have surrounded the little pool under the fall and wait in queue to take turns photographing each other with the waterfall behind them, the same picture they have seen on the brochure. But it’s hard to take a picture with no strangers in the background.
We can’t take any more of this. We run back to the car and escape this crowded place, heading to a more secluded and less populated area back in the city: the shopping mall.
1. Never visit El Yunke on the weekend.
2. Avoid the popular „trails“ and find some less popular unpaved ones.
3. Go early in the morning when there are less people.
4. Instead visiting El Yunke, which is the most popular tourist destination in Puerto Rico, visit a less popular park or forest, there are plenty of others on the island.
5. El Yunke is the most beautiful rainforest we have seen so far, but we had the worst hiking experience there…