Coming back to Puerto Rico to prep the boat and splash into a new season (catch up here) had multiple perks. Chief among them being another trip to the majestic forests and waterfalls in El Yunque National Forest. Puerto Rico is loaded with natural beauty but El Yunque is literally the tops. Today’s blog post sheds a little light into the history, culture and majesty of this truly unique place.
El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. Sitting at 29,000 acres, it’s on the smaller side but one of the most biologically diverse with many endemic species (critters that are found nowhere else). El Yunque lies in the Luquillo Mountains in the northeast region of Puerto Rico. Most of our time in Puerto Rico has been spent in Fajardo, also in the northeast, in the evening shadow of El Yunque, and we often see and sometimes feel the rain storms that form there daily.
El Yunque is full of great hiking trails that, when we first visited them pre-COVID were packed with people. There are also lots of beautiful waterfalls that people love to swim in and explore. During our most recent visit in COVID times, attendance was limited, you had to make a reservation online a day in advance and then upon arrival show your reservation and have your temperature checked. As they warn you coming in, if it rains for more than an hour, it’s time to get off the mountain as the trails and road will become awash. Properly geared up, as we were, it’s actually pretty enjoyable to hike in the rain in the rain forest. Everything is as it should be! But, we’ve seen some fools in dresses and sandals trying to wait out the rain in a rest station; bet they were waiting a while!
To the left you’ll see a non-native invasive mongoose, but at least she’s properly geared up for a hike, swim, or both. Safety over style folks.
It was clear the locals have immense respect and reverence for El Yunque. The town at the base of El Yunque is rife with businesses named in its honor. One of our favorite places to go after a hike is 18 Degrees juice bar. It’s named after the degree of latitude which Puerto Rico is located, and the great folks there make excellent juices, smoothies, and food. It was also our source for El Coqui hot sauce, named after the coqui frog. It’s really spicy!
The history of El Yunque and of Puerto Rico is interesting and intertwined, and worth a read, so we’ll summarize what we’ve learned about it. Archaeologists found evidence of pre-Columbian cultures in Puerto Rico from around 3000 BCE or earlier, and discoveries of pre-Colombian names for different sites in the mountains, e.g., El Cacique, El Yunque and Cubuy. The Tainos and Igneri were pre-Columbian, indigenous societies of significance in Puerto Rico. The Tainos migrated through the Caribbean Islands around 900 BCE from the Orinoco and Amazon River basins (Venezuela and Guianas). What little is known of the Taino people includes written language in the form of petroglyphs (some of which we’ve seen on St. John, USVI and hope to see in Antigua) or symbols carved into stone; spoken Arawakan language; and communal, matrilineal farming and fishing societies.
El Yunque was a significant feature in the culture of the indigenous Tainos of Puerto Rico. There are varied accounts of the origin of the name El Yunque that largely center around the practical and mythological significance of the peak to indigenous societies. The Tainos allegedly referred to the frequently cloud covered peak as Yuke, meaning “white lands”. The name may also be attributed to a Taino deity, Yucahu, representative of everything from agriculture, peace, tranquility and fertility, and who was alleged to reside on the mountain, protecting the Tainos from harm; as well as a deity of other Luquillo origins, Yukiyu, an inhabitant of the Sierra de Luquillo. Scholars are pretty certain the mountain is not named after our dog Youk, but that is just a nice coincidence that they sound similar.
The Tainos met the Spanish sailors upon their arrival in the late 1400s. By 1509, colonists discovered gold in the sands of local rivers and by 1513 mining was well underway in the rivers, including the Rio Fajardo and Rio Blanco near El Yunque. In the span of just seven years, the Spanish conquered and enslaved the Tainos, who were quickly made charge to serve the conquerers, building the new civilization and washing river sands in search of resources for Spanish exploitation. As the Spanish established in Puerto Rico, the natives tried to rebel against the invasion but without great success; the natives were outnumbered and unprepared to face Spanish weapons and imported disease.
During Spanish colonialism, Puerto Rico (“Rich Port”) remained a farm economy. The primary source of Spanish exploitation was first and foremost gold, which was heavily mined and sent to Spain. But before too long, as with any unmitigated exploitation of natural resources, the “Golden Years” in Puerto Rico concluded with swift resource depletion and redirection to the next source of wealth, which in PR was coffee, sugar, and the breeding and exportation of horses. By the 1800s, through land grants offered to South Americans, Spaniards, and other Europeans to encourage growth of a European population on the island, the island’s economy began to shift from small farms to large coffee and sugar plantations. This transformation coupled with the decline in native slave labor led to the growing import of African slave labor. But the Puerto Rican abolitionist movement was growing, and by 1873 the Spanish National Assembly abolished slavery in Puerto Rico. Shortly thereafter, in 1876 Spanish King Alfonso XII designated the Luquillo mountains and surrounding forests to be a “crown reserve”, establishing one of the first nature reserves in the West. All the while locals had begun rebelling against Spanish rule, and the stage was set for the Spanish-American War.
In 1898, Puerto Rico was ceded to the United States as “war payment” through the Treaty of Paris following the Spanish-American War, and in 1917 Puerto Ricans gained official U.S. Citizenship. Following acquisition of Puerto Rico, recognizing the significance of natural spaces, President Teddy Roosevelt established the rain forests of El Yunque as the Luquillo National Forest, but more often referred to as “the Caribbean National Forest” in light of its regional significance. The area continued to serve many functions, including as a radar site to keep watch for German submarines and aircraft in the Caribbean during WWII.
Today the U.S. Forest Service manages the “Caribbean National Forest”, which was renamed “The El Yunque National Forest” by President G.W. Bush in 2007, honoring the mountains’ significance to and connection with the indigenous peoples. Before Spanish colonization, indigenous societies lived harmoniously with the forest ecosystems in the lower slopes of the Luquillo Mountains. Rock art (petroglyphs) seen on boulders and along various waterways at El Yunque offer some insight into the connection between the indigenous communities and the Luquillo Mountains.
In the presence of these mountains – with incredible vistas, thick and lush green canopies, so much thriving wildlife, and a rich history – it’s difficult not to feel incredibly humbled and deeply connected to the natural world. From humid lowland rainforests ripe with chirping Coqui frogs, to high elevation dwarf forests shrouded in clouds, the diverse and unique ecosystems sustain incredible biodiversity and epic sights. El Yunque is home to hundreds of native plant species, including 240 species of native trees, 88 of which are rare and 23 of which can only be found in these mountains. El Yunque also hosts 50 species of native orchids and over 150 species of ferns. The rainforest is green as they come, incredibly lush and consistently nurtured with precipitation (over 200 inches per year), setting the stage for both aesthetically surreal and slippery hikes (appropriate gear is strongly encouraged).
The U.S. Forest Service protects endangered and threatened species in El Yunque, which include the Puerto Rican Parrot (critically endangered), the Puerto Rican Boa, the Puerto Rican broad-winged Hawk, and the Puerto Rican sharp-shinned hawk. Many of these species are threatened by deforestation, loss of habitat, and non-native invasive (mongooses, rats, stray dogs and cats). Endemic Coqui tree frogs are abundant and vocal, their chirps will populate your hike. There are also many species of lizards and insects which form an important part of the ecology of the rainforest. Upwards of 35 species of neotropical migrant birds winter or pass through El Yunque on their passage south during the winter. Perennial and ephemeral streams meander through the forests, providing aquatic habitat for 7 species of fish, 9 species of freshwater shrimp, and a species of freshwater crab.
Hurricane Maria in 2017 however had a massive impact on El Yunque from which it has not entirely recovered. Literally tens of millions of trees were destroyed on Puerto Rico in the hurricanes, and many of the trees in El Yunque which are home to birds and other critters came down as well, affecting the entire ecosystem. On the one hand, the forest is resilient and recovery began immediately as life adapted to what was left. On the other hand, it takes 100 years to replace a 100-year old hardwood tree that was snapped so the forest will not look the same it did before the hurricane for a very long time, if ever. As for the park and its human visitors, trails were closed for some time, and even one trail is still closed to this date as it has not yet been cleared.
We hope you enjoyed learning a bit about this truly remarkable place and that in the future you will visit Puerto Rico and be sure to make a full day of hiking El Yunque and marveling in its unique wonder. In our next blog post, we make the passage from Puerto Rico to Antigua, where we will spend most of the winter. Stay tuned!