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240 inches of rain a year ... yes, it is a rain forest.

The only tropical rain forest in the U.S. national forest system, Puerto Rico's Caribbean National Forest, was devastated by Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Winds stripped trees bare and swamped trails with deadfall.

But the forest's leafy roof has already recovered, and trails are being repaired. If you're planning a Puerto Rico trip, the rain forest is worth adding as a day trip from San Juan. Now into May is generally the dry season and a good time to visit.


Under the canopy of twisted vines, waving palms, and giant tree ferns, you'll find tree snails as wide as your palm and catch glimpses of colorful birds. Listen for the chirp of the gumdrop-size coqui tree frog.

Known locally as El Yunque (the anvil), after the shape of the mountain it sits atop, the 28,000-acre forest ranges from 330 to 3,500 feet in elevation. As you drive up the sole access road, Route 191, you'll go through four vegetation zones.

The lower montane is marked by the white-barked tabonuco tree. The upper montane features canopy-forming palo colorado trees. Higher up is the palm forest. At the highest elevation is an elfin woodland, so named because its shrubs are stunted by poor soil.

Hike the Big Tree Trail (3 miles round trip) for a look at the first three forest types. You pass groves of tabonuco, then sierra palms and the tall yagrumo tree with umbrella-size leaves. The trail climbs for 1 1/2 miles before reaching the thunderous whitewater of La Mina Falls. Backtrack to return.

The day we hiked, a brief deluge cooled us off and demonstrated why most trails here are paved--they'd quickly wash out otherwise.

Stop by the Sierra Palm Visitor Center (open 9 to 5:30 daily) off Route 191 for displays, maps, and books. Pack a lunch or try Las Vegas Restaurant (open daily 10 to 8) on Route 191 near Palmer for good local dishes.



El Yunque gets 240 inches of rain annually; even in the dry season, brief showers occur daily. A rain poncho offers handy coverage plus ventilation (days rarely dip below 80[degrees]). Wear shoes with gripping soles, and carry an extra pair to change into. Bring binoculars to look for Puerto Rican bullfinches, stripe-headed tanagers, lizard cuckoos, and the rare Puerto Rican parrot (only 35 remain here).

Excursion desks at big hotels offer brief bus tours to El Yunque (about $20), but these leave no time for hiking. It's better to rent a car--the road is in fine condition. From San Juan, take Highway 3 east 27 miles; at Palmer, turn south onto Route 191 and follow signs about 2 1/2 miles to El Yunque (allow 1 1/2 hours for the drive).
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Title Annotation:Caribbean National Forest, Puerto Rico
Author:Finnegan, Lora J.
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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