Guest Column by Frances Wildman
The island of Puerto Rico holds many treasures to be sure. I had the opportunity to visit the island in April 2000 and I was able on this trip to visit only one of the fascinating areas they have to behold. This special area is the El Yunque Rainforest (photographs). El Yunque is a vast 28,000 acre rainforest located in the Caribbean National Forest under the United States National Forest System. In fact, it is the only rainforest in the National Forest System. It is located in the northeastern portion of Puerto Rico.
I actually made my way to this beautiful forest by way of a native Puerto Rican guide in the form of a bus driver. Our bus was one of two that carried passengers from a cruise ship through the streets of Old and New San Juan and up the long, sometimes steep drive into the forest. Thank God that I remembered my camera, as the sites could never fully remain in my minds eye. However, I will be trying to convey in this story what beautiful sites I saw.
The drive itself took approximately 45 very interesting minutes as we traveled on highway 191 out of Old San Juan across the outskirts of new San Juan, which looks very similar to a medium sized city in North America, and into the mountainous area. My guide, Juan, is a native of Puerto Rico who seems to really enjoy his job and toting people up and down the mountain for a living.
As an avid fan of physical geography, I found out from various information on the forest the following facts: the most common geologic parent material is marine-deposited Cretaceous volcanic rock, alluvial deposits are found near the major water flows and intrusive quartz diorites on the south side of the forest, the forest soils are 50%-80% clay and since the excessive moisture does not evaporation, the soils are saturated and erodable. In fact, landslides are common and constant preventative maintenance is necessary to control the problem.
Juan informed us that the name El Yunque is from an Indian spirit named Yuquiye. The Taino Indians, the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico, believed that gods lived in the highest peaks of the mountains of the forest. He also told us of how many people built their homes at the foot of the mountains because it is a good place to grow crops. I noticed as we drove by all of the shacks that there was lots of garbage along the roadside. It is unfortunate that such a beautiful area has to be trashed by humans leaving debris out in nature instead of placing in the correct disposal containers. It was sad to see that the native people didnt appreciate nature the way they should. Maybe the overwhelming poverty of their life precludes them from extending a helping hand to nature.
Continuing on, as we made our way up the north side of the mountain, he discussed the wildlife that we would possibly encounter during our trip. It is true that one of the ten most endangered species in the world lives in the forest, the Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vitatta). The reason that this parrot is now on the endangered list is its lost of habitat. It prefers nesting in hollowed-out tree limbs and these were felled to make way for farming in past years. The remaining parrots live in the highest mountains of the forest, have green bodies, red foreheads, blue wings, and beige feet. Unfortunately, we could not possibly see it from the areas that we traveled. We did not travel to the tops of the forest, as the bus could not maneuver this feat. Juan says to reach the top requires hiking.
Another most prominent inhabitant of the forest is the coqui frog. This minute little frog sits in the trees and sings. We did hear them singing, however, we didnt see them. The coqui frog is revered and honored in Puerto Rico. Its likeness graces most souvenir shirts I noticed. It is said that when night falls, they jump from the trees like it is raining.
Our guide also mentioned a creature that we could possibly come upon while hiking - the mongoose. If encountered, it is best to back away slowly. Apparently, they can be mean. They were originally brought to the island of Puerto Rico to control rats in the cane fields; however, they proved efficient at killing boas and birds. Luckily, no one ran into a mongoose that day.
It rained on more than one occasion during the trip. This forest is the rainiest of all the National Forests. That means more than 100 billions gallons of water falls on the forest during each year. My visit was during April and the temperature of the forest was not over 80 degrees. The humidity was close to 100%, however, because of the constant rains. The rainforests abundance of water is captured by dams and used for electrical power, municipal, and domestic uses, for fish and wildlife and recreation. In fact, 20% of the population of Puerto Rico depends on rainforest water.
At one point during a rest stop, myself and my group were allowed to hike a short distance on one of the many trails through the forest that is mapped out for hikers. The lush vegetation was totally amazing. Beautiful flowing bromeliads clung to trees and ferns were rampant, as were vines of different types. Bird of paradise and Lobster Claws (Heliconia) were prevalent along with many other exotic plants that are normally seen only in tropical greenhouses in the states. It is a beautiful, dreamy, and exotic place all rolled into one. During this stop Juan and the driver of the second bus pulled out bongo drums and played us a native tune. Nothing could be more natural than these guys providing us with a new cultural experience not soon to be forgotten.
After being serenaded, Juan pointed out huge snails endemic to the area crawling up one of the walls to a bridge. The snails grow extremely large in the rainforest and I was tempted to take some home.
On the other side of this bridge was one of the waterfalls that are plentiful in the forest. People are allowed to climb in and around these waterfalls, but the rocks appeared to be too slippery for me.
The last stop we made was at the Yokahu Tower. It is basically an observation tower in which you can see marvelous sites from all directions. The steps to the top are circular and many. I did not count them but remember them as at least 8 stories high. The main floor portion of the tower has a little store for buying books about the rainforest and other memorabilia. The Indians named the tower after what was known as the god of good according to our guide. This tower is basically a lookout tower in which a good portion of the rainforest can be seen as well as the ocean.
This trip was like no other for me. I recommend all to visit the site. It is definitely worth the trip from anywhere.
Frances Wildman is a Physical Scientist at the Rock Island Arsenal, a government installation located on an island in the Mississippi between Iowa and Illinois. She has a BS in Ecology, Ethology, and Evolution from the University of Illinois and a Masters in Business from the University of Iowa.