A lovely purple flower from El Yunque Trail, 6/7/23
The view from the top of Mt. Britton Tower, 6/7/23
It is nighttime now, and I sit above El Yunque (and below it), looking due West to where, earlier, the sun kissed the mountains and sank below them. The mountains are so black now, especially ‘just right of West’ (slightly northwest), where distant, vague light frames their lush peaks in something other than black.
Venus is watching over El Yunque tonight.
Here I sit, listening to the famous coqui frogs and the neighbor’s peacock (and one thousand other noises—even Spanish music from a house one hundred yards away). Right now I doubt that there is any song as beautiful as El Yunque at night, when the roosters are settled down and the air is cool and still.
Earlier, an hour before sunset, we parked alongside the road and walked Angelito Trail to a waterfall. She was nervous because the trail was dark. Understandably so. I’d just been given a preserved orb weaver spider and venomous centipede on the island of Vieques, a strange and heartfelt gift from a new friend. Spiders and centipedes love the darkness, we knew.
She asked if it was lame to be hesitant about the trail, the waterfall, nighttime in El Yunque.
I hastily said it might be, then retracted. It wasn’t lame. But it was different.
I’m terrified of heights. I cannot teeter on cliffs and ledges; I even had to hold the wall when exploring sentry towers in Old San Juan, but spiders and centipedes don’t bother me much.
If she feels the way I feel around heights, I’d let her turn us back right now.
But we descend toward the falls.
I’m immediately taken with the fauna. The plants are so large, like we’re in a dinosaur movie, or transported to another planet. Plants just don’t grow this large anywhere else I’ve been. Perhaps I haven’t been enough places.
Bamboo towers around us, ferns spread their arms, and rushing water sounds in the distance.
Lame isn’t the right word, but what if we’d missed this walk? What if we waited another few hours till morning to be awestruck? Would I have different dreams tonight? Would we have sat so happily on those boulders, eating passionfruit picked from the hillside, had we turned back because it was getting dark? Because of spiders and centipedes?
Reaching the river, the rapids, the crystal clear water…the sun again played on our faces, if only for a few moments. Soon the river was lit in grey dusk—but still light! Fish tussled for our dropped passionfruit seeds, the coqui frogs rubbed their eyes and cleared their throats, and we smiled the whole time.
I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve had passionfruit. Only once have I picked it myself—dragged myself on the dirt beneath another soon-to-fruit bush for a riper selection—and eaten it with my sandaled feet hanging in a tropical river. Only once have coqui frogs announced that it was time to leave the stream, that the nighttime forest was truly waking up.
The evening was magical. Immense fauna, passionfruit plucked and eaten, and the melody of famous frogs and numerous birds singing us to our parked car, back up the dark trail.
The darkness of the trail—musings of waiting till the morning—were long forgotten.
As the trail got darker, and dusk turned to night, as the mountains to the west became a silhouette towering over distant cities and towns, El Yunque began to sing. I’m sitting in it now, writing this. It surrounds me: in the banana and mango trees just behind me, the passionfruit vines on the fence, carrying down the lush hills before me and back up the black nighttime mountains a few miles away. It’s peacocks and frogs and birds and insects. It’s gushing mountain water, too far away to hear but present in the chorus nonetheless.
This is some kind of beauty I haven’t witnessed before. Like I said, perhaps I need to get out more. But it transcends mortality, this plane of existence. Such a song cannot be only for human ears. I believe it rises from these mountains, this rainforest, and climbs to heaven, leaving an impression on even the angels.
That’s only to say: beyond our comprehension El Yunque is a treasure, a masterpiece we’re perhaps not worthy of. I’m going to try to be worthy of such places, if such character is attainable.
The treasures of this world are finite. Concrete and plastic have given us a limit, stolen some riches, looted some grandeur from existence.
But El Yunque’s song is unspoiled.
Don’t Skip El Yunque: Facts About the Rainforest
Here’re some fun facts about El Yunque. Make this treasure a part of your Puerto Rico itinerary…
- 240+ species of trees and plants, 26 of which are found nowhere else. El Yunque is known for its biodiversity. I was surprised by the size and diversity of flora & fauna, having never been in a rainforest.
- Home to the rare Puerto Rican Parrot, an endangered bird, and many other species. A birdwatchers paradise!
- Puerto Rico’s famous coqui frog calls El Yunque home. You’ll hear thousands and thousands of them sing in the forest at night, if you’re lucky enough to stay nearby.
- El Yunque is divided into four forests: Tabonuco Forest, Palo Colorado Forest, Palma Sierra Forest and Cloud or Dwarf Forest. Depending on your altitude, you’ll notice variety in the plants surrounding you.
- Less than an hour drive from San Juan. Basically, you don’t have an excuse to skip this park.
- El Yunque’s steep terrain and massive amounts of rainfall create a wonderful system of waterfalls, streams, and pools with crystal clear water. The waterfalls alone are splashing, dunking, diving reasons to visit.
Waterfalls in El Yunque
El Yunque is full of waterfalls. Driving between our Airbnb and any other location we’d pass multiple waterfalls, often filled with locals and tourists cooling off.
The crystal clear rivers around El Yunque are filled with massive boulders, skittering fish, and happy people. The boulders themselves create waterfalls and rapids (like at El Hippie, my favorite place we visited in all of Puerto Rico), but waterfalls also spill over cliffs, plunging into clear swimming pools.
Scrambling around upper Juan Diego Falls, a favorite El Yunque waterfall, 6/7/23
Angelito Trail to the Río Mameyes ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
The Angelito Trail is accessible without a reservation to the National Forest, making it a popular cool-off spot.
Our first night in El Yunque, we hiked the short Angelito Trail down to a wide, boulder-strewn river with plenty of swimming holes and boulders to relax on. We watched fish play in the water and ate passionfruit as the sun went down.
While not so much of a waterfall (more like a river with some rapids and swimming spots), the Río Mameyes via Angelito Trail is peaceful, scenic, and great for hanging out and swimming. It was our first rainforest experience and truly felt like another world.
Juan Diego Falls, El Yunque National Forest ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Note: You’ll need a reservation to visit El Yunque to see Juan Diego Falls.
The trail along Juan Diego Creek leading to the lower falls is easy to walk and only takes 5-10 minutes. You’ll know when you get to the end; the trail opens to a ~15 foot waterfall with a nice pool at the bottom. Along the way to this lower waterfall you’ll see pools in the creek formed from boulders. This creek is a bit quieter than the popular waterfall at the end of the trail, nice for relaxing in a current.
When we visited this waterfall, it was super crowded with lots of families. However, there is a extremely rugged, slippery, precarious trail that leads to a larger waterfall above this lower area. This trail was challenging: very steep & slippery. It doesn’t seem to be an official trail, though it is worn in enough that it’s easy to spot. Just before you reach the lower falls of the Juan Diego Creek, there is a steep incline that leads up on your right side. If you visit during a busy time, you’ll see people climbing (or trying to climb) this trail to the upper falls.
Up the trail is a large, ~40 foot waterfall with a relaxing pool at the bottom. In June, the water was freezing and gushing, fun to stand under.
Juan Diego Falls was amazing, although quite crowded. We escaped some of the chaos by ascending a well-worn (and quite precarious) trail to the upper falls.
Relaxing beneath upper Juan Diego Falls in my Teva sandals, 6/7/23
El Hippie Waterfall ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
You don’t need a reservation to visit El Hippie as it’s outside the main El Yunque National Forest.
Charco El Hippie gets it’s own story and post, so I’ll save that for another time. It was our favorite part of our entire Puerto Rico trip. We rode a swing hanging from a flowering Flamboyan tree, plunged into caves with a new friend, jumped from cliffs, and received a private tour way up high above the main pools of El Hippie.
You must visit El Hippie while you’re in Puerto Rico. And make sure you get there early!
We hiked waaay up above the main pool and rapids with a local named Chelo, who showed us onto private land he had access to. 6/8/23
La Coca Falls ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Note: You’ll need a reservation to visit El Yunque to see La Coca Falls.
La Coca Falls is an 85 foot waterfall beside the road as you enter El Yunque. It’s not swimmable and there’s no hiking trail leading closer to the falls, but it’s beautiful and worth stopping to see (on your way out of the park, I recommend).
El Yunque Trails: Our Favorite Hiking in the Rainforest
Most of the trails in El Yunque National Forest are short hikes that lead to favorite swimming holes and waterfalls. It’s not a long-distance hikers paradise, necessarily, but we spent just half a day in the National Forest and saw many of the amazing views the rainforest offers. There are a few towers and overlooks that show off the rainforest canopy stretching for miles. I felt like I was in the tropical Smoky Mountains hiking the famous El Yunque Trail.
Here was our itinerary in El Yunque…(use the “Current Maps” on this USDA page to plan your trip)
Step 1: Park and Hike to the Mt. Britton Tower
- First, drive all the way to the end of the only road in and out of the park. Unless you’re there just for swimming holes and waterfalls (nothing wrong with that), I’d start at the top and work your way down. Of course, doing this means you won’t be the first to the waterfalls later on. If you’re visiting El Yunque to hunt for your favorite waterfall, I’d start at Juan Diego Falls.
- You can also park on the road near the Palo Colorado Information Center to begin your hiking adventure. We drove all the way to the top, but you can park at the El Yunque Trail and (across the street) the closed (as of this writing) La Mina Trail to head up the mountain. This will require more hiking (who’s complaining?), so if you want to maximize waterfall time later, consider driving all the way up, closer to the Mt. Britton Tower.
- Park on the roadside and hike the 0.8 mile Mt. Britton Trail. When you reach the end of the road, find a parking spot with a view. The trail is quite steep before it spills onto a paved access road. Turn right toward the trail at the end of this road. The Mt. Britton Tower climbs above the lush canopy so you can see for miles. Don’t skip the towers and overlooks in El Yunque!
Step 2: Continue on the El Yunque Trail to Los Picachos
- After visting the tower, descend the Mt. Britton Trail back to the paved access road, and head toward El Yunque Peak. From the paved road, instead of heading right toward the tower, there is a trailhead off to the left. This trail descends and wraps around the Mt. Britton Tower before climbing up toward El Yunque Peak (unfortunately closed when we visited in the summer of 2023). Luckily, though, our favorite views in the whole park was just beyond El Yunque Peak at Los Picachos.
- This portion of the trail will reach a three-way intersection. To the right, the trail descends to the parking area I mentioned above in bullet point #2, the roadside parking at the La Mina Trail / El Yunque Trail. To the left, the trail climbs up toward El Yunque peak and Los Picachos. You can see this layout and route at the top of the current maps on this page. Keep climbing to Los Pichachos! (and El Yunque Peak if it’s open)
Images from El Yunque Trail, 6/7/23
Step 3: The best place to hike in El Yunque!
- The southern-most region of El Yunque is the best place to hike the scenic spots (big views and diverse plant life) in El Yunque, including the aforementioned Mt. Britton Tower. Los Picachos was my favorite place inside the national forest. While the turn toward El Yunque Peak was closed during our visit, the climb to a stone masonry platform with a 360 degree view (Los Picachos – “The Peaks”) was open. That’s right, 360 degrees! You can see all the way to the eastern shore of Puerto Rico from this Elfin Woodland Cloud forest–an uncommon ecosystem characterized by short, gnarled trees draped with air plants, mosses, and ferns. While not very biodiverse, the short trees of high-elevation Elfin Forests give amazing views.
The stairs and view from Los Picachos, El Yunque. 6/7/23
Step 4: Lunch, Waterfalls, and Yokahu
- After taking in the views at Los Picachos, we returned to our car the way we came, passing the Mt. Britton Tower and going back down the steep trail to where we parked.
- We stopped for lunch at El Yunque Rainforest Café, a short drive down on the right side of the road.
- After much hiking and a quick lunch, visit any of the waterfalls you passed on your way up to the Mt. Britton trailhead. I recommend stopping anywhere you see lots of cars parked, and referring to the maps right here when planning your stops. Juan Diego Falls was amazing, but very crowded. If your visiting El Yunque for the waterfall experiences, perhaps start your day at these tourist hot spots (and make sure you check out Charco El Hippie, the best waterfall for swimming and hanging out near El Yunque).
- Finally, check out the Yokahu Tower for amazing views of the Luquillo coastline, tropical plant life, and the surrounding mountains your climbed earlier in the day.
Yokahu Tower, El Yunque National Forest. 6/7/23