How to Take Full Advantage of Puerto Rico's El Yunque Rain Forest
If your idea of a successful Puerto Rican vacation sounds like relaxing by the turquoise waters of San Juan while sipping on pitorro, you're definitely not wrong. The Island of Enchantment offers some of the best beaches and booze you'll find anywhere in the sun-soaked Caribbean. But sometimes, as rest-seeking connoisseurs of alcohol, we forget that there is so much more to vacation than doing nothing and getting buzzed.
Puerto Rico is home to 28,000-acre El Yunque National Forest, the only tropical rain forest protected by the United States National Forest System. This park holds one of the most intricate and well-studied ecosystems in the country, let alone the planet. While many Puerto Rican locals regard the majestic area as one of the island's top treasures, it's the tourists that frequently forget to take advantage of nature's most beautiful and untapped resources.
Rain Forest Tours
There are dozens of different tour options to explore the wonders of El Yunque, but beginners and first-timers will certainly want to find one that includes the La Mina and Big Tree trails to the rain forest's famed La Mina waterfall. While it's undoubtedly the most "touristy" of options, it guarantees that you (and anyone who may be a bit out of shape) see a little bit of everything the rain forest has to offer: oversized trees and leaves, intricate spider webs, soothing streams and Instagram-worthy watering holes.
On the way down, you'll definitely want to make a pit stop at Yokahu Observation Tower. The 360 degree views of the North Atlantic Ocean, sharp valleys and foliage-covered mountains are surely why iPhone added its panoramic photo feature.
Skip the zip line offerings, as they're said to be quite uneventful, but don't skip the chance to grab a fresh coconut water at one of two family-run bodegas in the mountains. It's the hydration you'll need to get you through any other challenging treks you have in store that day.
Rain Forest Food
A favorite of locals, Luquillo Beach's tattered "kioskos" may project a feeling of impoverishment, but hidden gems like authentic food and homemade souvenirs exist beyond the their unforgiving exteriors.
The El Yunque-adjacent strip offers some of the most delicious, locally sourced cuisine on the island, including meats and produce farmed from the rain forest itself. La Parrilla's renowned seafood mofongo, loaded with fresh lobster, shrimp, calamari, mussels, clams and scallops, is a highlight, as well as the diverse, fruit-heavy cocktails served at the locale's many outdoor bars.
After taking a photo in front of picture-perfect Luquillo Beach, which boasts LA-esque palm trees and a curved pier with one of the prettiest views on the island (ocean on one side, rain forest on the other), you may want to make dinner reservations at Rio Grande's Root & Bone pop-up for a more refined island dining experience.
Also committed to utilizing local ingredients, the restaurant sources its menu components from nearby farmers. Whether it's freshwater shrimp the size of your forearm (pictured above) or ripe produce to create a grilled watermelon salad, the culinary staff offers cuisine that not only honors the rain forest, but stays true to Top Chef alums Jeff McInnis and Janine Booth's southern-inspired menu.
Rain Forest Lodging
Those seeking a nature escape from the hustle and bustle of Puerto Rico's capital should choose to stay in the island's Northeast districts that surround El Yunque. As a way to juggle ocean time with excursions, the Wyndham Grand Rio Mar offers the best of both worlds with a chair and umbrella-lined beach, three pools, two golf courses, 13 tennis courts, a spa and even a mini-casino; all set among El Yunque's emerald green backdrop. Half of its rooms also have unobstructed views of the rain forest from their balconies, leaving you to feel entirely one with the sights of fog-lined mountains and sounds of singing coquís (tree frogs).
The hotel also boasts an on-site tour group (Rico Sun Tours) to plan any day trips into El Yunque. For those who demand the comforts and air conditioning of a tour bus, this is truly the best way to see Puerto Rico's natural beauty up close and personal, all without the fear of getting lost, excessively hot or requiring the emergency assistance of a park ranger.