I am expecting to hear a melody of coquis, the noise a species of frogs native to the rainforest of Puerto Rico are rumored to make. But as we enter the screening room at the El Yunque National Forest visitor center, the first sound I hear is the voice of actor Benicio del Toro.
After a short narration in which del Toro outlines the history of the magnificent El Yunque rainforest in Puerto Rico, frogs fill the screen and I am able to confirm that coqui is indeed the sound these frogs make. (I prefer the sound of del Toro’s voice, however).
Located in the northwest of Puerto Rico, El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Park system, a boat the land can make thanks to the island’s political status as a territory of the united States. Puerto Rico was once mostly covered by thick rainforests, only to be largely destroyed during the era of Spanish colonization. Today the protected lands cover 28,000 acres.
My family and I visited El Yunque in the month of May, which happens to be a great time to visit – the skies were blue and beautiful the whole day, meaning I didn’t get to share the misery of rainy season during the rainforest I lived in previously with my family in the least.
For being such a large area of land, there is a surprisingly narrow well-beaten path that most visitors follow while visiting El Yunque – a path that is literally marked by the one lane road that leads up the mountainside from the park’s entrance at the visitor center. Here’s the essential stops you can expect to make within the park.
La Coca Falls
The first stop for most visitors is La Coca Falls, an 85-foot waterfall that hugs the side of the road. There’s a small parking lot nearby, so we were able to stop and enjoy the falls for a few minutes before a tour bus stopped and a dozen tourists stumbled into the sunlight, crawled over the rocks and blocked our peaceful view of the falls.
The next stop on this trail through the rainforest in Puerto Rico is Yokahú Tower, a red lookout tower that rewards a climb of a hundred or so steps with 360 degree views of the rainforest. From here one gets especially verdant vistas of the rolling mountainside, and from the vantage point of 65-feet in the open-air, no number of tour buses can wreck the view.
La Mina Trail
We didn’t come all this way to just look at a waterfall in the rainforest of Puerto Rico; we wanted to swim in one, and so we pressed on to La Mina Falls. After parking our car, we trekked down La Mina trail, a .7 mile trail that leads down hill through palo colorado forest to a waterfall open for swimmers.
On the 30-minute hike we walked as a family, phone-free and increasingly worry-free as well as stress rolled off with every step. We fell back into a cadence once so familiar to us as we spent many weekends of my childhood walking through the forest behind our house in Maryland.
When we reached La Mina falls all of us decided to swim – even my mom and dad who aren’t your typical swim in a waterfall type. Much to the chagrin of a man who spent far too long trying to get a perfectly posed shot, we swam together, against the rushing current and under the mouth of the falls, closing our eyes and laughing, moved by the power of the water.
Afterwards, my brother, sister and I escaped the crowds and followed the river further down stream. We crawled up and over rocks to discover a smaller, secret waterfall that we had to ourselves. The scene, albeit situated far away in Puerto Rico, was so reminiscent for me of scenes from our childhood in Lake Tahoe, our former summer escape. The three of us spent summer afternoons scurrying down the river that ran past a family friend’s cabin, absorbed by nature in a quest to discover someplace new.
Relaxing here in the falls we were together again, the way we used to be. The puzzle pieces still fit. We know each other’s buttons and we push them hard, but we also push one another, further down the path to discover waterfalls that few ever see.