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Puerto Rico Travel Guide

This U.S. Rainforest Is an Accessible Alternative to Costa Rica’s Jungles

There might not be sloths, but the flora and fauna of this Stateside rainforest is just as fantastic as Costa Rica.

Coarse gravel crunches beneath my boots as I stroll along a pathway that weaves through a canopy of towering trees in El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System, located near the northeastern edge of Puerto Rico. I hear the familiar croaking of a coqui frog, a small species that I would later learn hails from Puerto Rico but somehow accidentally found its way to Hawaii back in 1988. I had heard the same singsong “ko-kee” call on a summer visit to Kona but hadn’t realized that the species was endemic to the Puerto Rican rainforest where I stand now.

The forest and the frogs all feel familiar here but different. Like a jumble of the jungles I had explored in Costa Rica and Hawaii but on a micro-scale. El Yunque, after all, is one of the smallest rainforests in the world at only 28,000 acres in size. As I stroll and take in my surroundings, I realize that I’m standing in the perfect place for the adventure curious–those who might be looking to dabble in the delights of hiking rainforest trails and spotting wildlife without wandering deep into the woods, or having to take a rigorous road trip to get there.

Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Forest feels like the best kick-off point for nature newbies, and as I trek, I take mental notes of the similarities and differences I discover along the way.

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Adventure Travel for Beginners

On my first visit to Costa Rica, I found myself behind the wheel of a wobbly rental van, swerving my way along snaky switchbacks for several hours, with trucks thundering towards me down narrow, dirt roads and spotty cell service. Driving through the diverse landscapes of Costa Rica–from mangroves to mountains and beaches to bustling towns–is an adventure in and of itself, and the time it takes to navigate from one landscape to another is worth the trek–for those who love an adventure-fueled journey to places found further afield.

When I arrived in the Rio Grande region, where the El Yunque Forest is found, I made the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico my home base and was delighted to discover its proximity to the island’s most diverse landscapes. The property is situated on its own private 72-acre peninsula–a nature reserve boasting bare beaches and raw natural beauty. It’s also adjacent to El Yunque, making it possible to take a hike through the rainforest and swim in the ocean within less than 30 minutes by car.

El Yunque is a teaser for those looking for a taste of rainforest roaming, a delightful dupe with many of the same draws as the larger (and more challenging) rainforest destinations. And for Americans, you can visit without having to travel internationally to try it. Forget foreign currencies, leave your passports at home, and savor the surroundings that are similar to other rainforests but on a small scale.

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Accessible Trails For Everyone

My journey through the rainforest began at the newly-updated El Portal de El Yunque, the main visitor center of El Yunque National Forest, and I was dazzled by its design. The community and visitor center reopened in January 2022 after seeing significant structural damage when the region was rocked by Hurricanes Irma and Maria back in 2017. Showcasing sustainable, 40,000-square-foot open architecture, the renovated space now beautifully blends into its natural surroundings.

The center features art installations, an educational and interactive exploration pavilion, and new exhibits, including one on the elusive Puerto Rican Parrot and the recovery efforts for the endangered species. If you’re lucky, you can even get up close with the rare birds here.

Stretching 700 meters long (2,296 feet), the new Explore and Discover Trail is a wooden walkway that weaves out of the center, and provides an accessible, ADA-compliant trail experience that showcases the sights and sounds of El Yunque Rainforest from above the forest floor. Covering over 700 meters, it is the first accessible trail found in El Yunque, making it possible for those with mobility challenges to enjoy the stunning surroundings too.

Unique Flora and Fauna Found Only in El Yunque

El Yunque may be one of the smallest rainforests in the world, but it’s also one of the most biodiverse. Many rare wildlife species can be found here, including the extremely rare and endangered Puerto Rican Parrot (or “Iguaca” as they are called by the Taíno people who first called the land home). While they can be tough to spot, their bright green bodies easily blend into the emerald trees, I’m lucky enough to spot one during my tour, thanks to my eagle-eyed guide. There are also 240 unique plant species found here that are endemic to Puerto Rico, such as the Puerto Rico Raintree.

And the coquis, the loud-chirping tree frogs that are native to Puerto Rico, can be seen and heard (mainly from dusk until dawn) throughout the rainforest as well, often tucked into the folds of leaves. There are 17 endemic species of coqui in Puerto Rico, 13 of which can be found scattered throughout El Yunque. Coquis are the island’s national animal and their scientific name, Eleutherodactylus, translates to “free toes” because, unlike other frogs, they don’t have webbed feet. And while they’re tiny and often tough to spot, they’re easy to hear, known as the loudest amphibians on Earth.

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Fun for Thrill Seekers, Too

Not just a rainforest fit for beginners, El Yunque has some more advanced adventures on offer as well. Adrenaline junkies can zoom along one of the longest ziplines in America, take a riveting rainforest horseback riding tour, explore the backroads on an ATV adventure, or embark on a challenging hike along one of the many tropical trails found throughout the forest. As someone who prefers to adventure “softly,” I was happy to gaze at the gushing La Coca Waterfall, easily accessed from the roadside.

I wrap up my visit to El Yunque with a climb up the winding stairs of the 69-foot-tall Yokahú Observation Tower, that take me to an elevation of 1,575 feet. From the top, I’m stunned by the sweeping views, with four types of forest in sight. As I stand there, soaking in the scenery, I’m reminded of the far-reaching forest views found in Costa Rica and just how different-yet-familiar El Yunque feels.


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