El Yunque: Spanish for “The Yunque”.

El Yunque may as well have been our introduction to Puerto Rico.

Our first night in San Juan was little more than a place to sleep, and this one of our few reserved, paid for, and anticipated stops during the trip.

Index:
1. Where We Stayed: Our Own Private Rainforest
2. The “Real” El Yunque
3. Eating in El Yunque

I should start by stating that while we stayed in El Yunque, we did not really stay in El Yunque… If you were to Google “El Yunque National Forest” and follow directions to that destination, you probably would not be anywhere near where we stayed. This is a good thing! For reasons I’ll go into later, you really don’t want to be smack-dab in the middle of El Yunque proper.

We stayed on the south side of El Yunque. This is away from the visitor’s center and all of the waterfalls and vistas you may have seen plastered on the internet. You’ll probably want to visit all of those points of interest eventually, but I’d like to make a strong case for the other side.

Where We Stayed: Our Own Private Rainforest

Here is, more or less, where we stayed. Although we didn’t stay AT the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge, we DID stay at a rental property that they seemed to manage. If you can find anywhere in this general area, go for it! Our general list of necessities at any vacation rental goes something like this…

  1. Privacy
  2. Close to nature
  3. Purdy views
  4. Fire pit (Or somewhere else to burn things)
  5. Basic plumbing
  6. Resident cat, dog, or other friendly animal.

Although this particular location didn’t fulfill my pyromaniac desires, it did manage to nail the other requirements squarely on the head. Besides, what it lacked in fire, it more than made up for in water. Other than that, it was…

  1. On the edge of a cliff. Sure, there were a couple other units on the property, but we never saw anyone.
  2. It’s a jungle, rainforest, whatever.
  3. See above image…
  4. Fire +/- Water in this case
  5. Check. (Although this was a “jiggle the handle just right” kind of place)
  6. Several! I named my personal favorite “Mofongo”, and my partner in crime slipped him snacks in the restaurant.
Home sweet home
Home sweet home

Aside from some rather cushy amenities, this part of the woods really does have a lot to offer to the novice explorer. Immediately outside of our lodgings was a path that led down the hill to a river, and a swimming pool, and a river, and a waterfall, and a river, and repeat, repeat, repeat. It was amazing!

The nice thing about this part of El Yunque is the relative isolation. We did see a couple other hikers in the trails, but hardly any compared to the official park area. (The swimming pools were completely empty.) It also seemed to make you work for it a little. Sure, a dip in a refreshing pool is nice, but it is so much more rewarding if you had to climb a hill, navigate a trail, or even get a little dirty on the way.

Despite the sense of being In The Middle Of Nowhere, there was plenty to do, and hitting up the surrounding towns isn’t tricky at all. For starters, the aforementioned trails, waterfalls, and swimming pools will easily eat up an entire day, if not more. On our first night we made it down to the first river and (incorrectly) thought that it was too big, too fast, and too dangerous to traverse. After spending some time trying to formulate a route of safe-passage, we gave up and returned to the forest. It wasn’t until then that we noticed, Oops, we hadn’t even been on the correct trail. It seems that the point we were trying to cross was nothing more than an overlook for the rushing waterfall that no one in their right mind should attempt.

Not for crossing
Not for crossing

Once on the correct path it became immediately obvious that there was a good place to cross without risking our lives. It was also the spot with the nearest swimming pool. But, we had arrived late, and it was starting to get dark. Better save that exploring for tomorrow.

Good for crossing, swimming, and maybe even living out a few Tarzan fantasies.
Good for crossing, swimming, and maybe even living out a few Tarzan fantasies.

The next day, and with ample time for exploring, that chunk of the rainforest was all ours. Our host had mentioned that a hike through all of the points of interest would take about an hour, but we knew better. It seems that every time a local gives an estimate for hiking a path, it had been done at the speed of a competitive trail runner, and with no interest in enjoying the passing scenery. With that in mind, we tend to budget at least double, triple, or even more time than is advised to us. I believe we spent about three or hours wandering this part of El Yunque today.

Here is some of what we found.

Okay. This is a pretty small snapshot of our private chunk of the forest, but it’s hard to capture the grandness of things in photographs.

The “Real” El Yunque

I tend to make it sound like we discovered some secret garden on the south side of the park. That is hardly the case. Plenty of people go there, in fact YOU should go there, but the truth is that 99.99875% of visitors spend their time on the north side. Of course this only makes sense. The scam visitors center is located on the north side. The most famous waterfalls are all there. Several observation towers are available for incredible views. Vendors sell fresh coco frio, arepas, souvenirs, and other goodies. It is also paved, well-marked, and hard to actually get off of the beaten path. Exactly what most people want in a bite-size sample of the great outdoors.

Getting there is easy, but it seems like there are many posts on the internet regarding proper directions to the park. So, here you go. Clicky-click. Keep in mind that if you simply Google “El Yunque”, or something as vague as a 28,000 acre park, you just might get some wacky directions. Save yourself a few u-turns and get directions to the Visitor Center. (El Portal Visitor Center to be exact)

Once you’re there you have a very important decision to make. Actually stop at the visitors center, or save yourself a few bucks and head straight into the park. That’s right, there is an actual fee to visit the visitors center. Don’t get me wrong, it IS a very very nice spot to learn about the park’s history and check out all sorts of interactive maps and dioramas of Puerto Rico. However, the idea of paying four bucks a person to have the opportunity to spend even more money on postcards, magnets, and something to drink, just seems like double-dipping the pockets of your guests. My only explanation for this unsettling commercialism is the fact that nearly every student in PR will, at some point, take a field trip to El Yunque and probably be required to actually learn something while they are at the park. All those $4 fees add up real quick.

Whether or not you drop a few dollars is up to you. We did, and it was probably a good thing. Where else are you going to get your El Yunque swag?

See… It is very nice.
See… It is very nice.

From here you can actually make your way into the park. Apparently there are some restrictions during the peak (summer) months, but we found it pretty easy to get around while we were there. Restrictions might be nice though. We found ourselves following tour busses for much of the drive, and it seemed that every landmark or vista was overrun by herds of tourists recently ejected into the middle of the road, selfie-sticks waving in the air.

Disclaimer: I get it. These are public parks for a reason, and I’m there too, contributing to the problem. But don’t stand in the middle of the road for your family photo.

By the time we got to the Yokahu Tower, it was closed. The tower on Mt. Brotton WAS open and seemed like a much better option anyway. It requires a fairly steep (but paved) trek to the top. I think it took us about a half hour to get there. Once you’re to the top, there is a good chance you’ll have the spot all to yourself, and the views are pretty amazing.

The views never stop
The views never stop
The walk isn't as bad as it looks
The walk isn’t as bad as it looks

After all of this hiking it seemed like a good idea to check out a waterfall and cool off a bit. El Yunque does have one of the most popular waterfall / swimming pool combos on the island, La Mina Falls. Unfortunately this also means that it is one of the most densely populated locations in the park. We went in spring, during what was presumably a slow period, and it was packed. For starters, the hike to the falls is pretty far. It probably took us at least 25 minutes to get there. Keep in mind that much of this time is spent dodging, tour groups, grandma & grandpa, kids, and people who suddenly decide to rearrange their day packs in the middle of the trail.

A very nice trail, but a very busy trail. All culminating with…

Sea lions everywhere...
Sea lions everywhere…

Now you can see why we are so fond of the OTHER side of El Yunque. Most of the attractions in the park just aren’t very big. Granted, it is a beautiful spot and you should take a moment to get wet before heading back. Just don’t expect much privacy or time to relax and enjoy the moment.

3. Eating in El Yunque

There isn’t a lot to choose from in the rainforest, but there certainly are a few things you should make time for.

If you are on the south side, keep in mind that the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge also has a restaurant. It is open most nights and has a good variety of food and drinks. The views, of course, are great. This is also handy if you’re staying at the lodge. But… BUT… B U T  . . . There is a better alternative!

The sign out from simply states, “WELCOME NOELIA’S, BEST Local Food”. Keep an eye out for it. The house/restaurant is rather unassuming except for the exclamatory sign out front. Google Maps probably won’t do you any favors, just keep in mind that it is about a mile down the mountain from the Casa Cubuy Ecolodge and sits on the side overlooking the forest. Noelia’s certainly has no website, but her Yelp reviews will give you an idea what is in store. For some reason my review has not yet been approved, but here’s a breakdown of our experience. . .

For starters, plan on feeling a little out-of-place. When you walk in there may be Noelia’s family and friends shooting pool, drinking, and acting like they grew up there. They may have. Don’t mind the dog. (Tomás just likes to say “Hi”) He lives there too. Just find a seat and make yourself comfortable. You’re about to get a uniquely Puerto Rican experience.

Noelia herself is enough to make this a must-see on your list. She is incredibly friendly, and seems to have a lot of pride when it comes to her homeland. Along with our drinks she gave us a couple of books and some photos of Naguabo. (This part of PR) The nice thing is, this isn’t just propaganda for “Big Steve’s Zipline Tours!”, it’s genuine literature about the area and its history. Fun to page through while you’re deciding on dinner.

We ordered a pork mofongo, and a kingfish steak. Both were great. The mofongo was pretty traditional, and the steak was huge. I don’t think I’ve ever received such a large (and delicious) slab of fish at a restaurant.

Much fish, so wow.
Much fish, so wow.

As wonderful as dinner was, it doesn’t begin to explain what makes Noelia’s such a great experience. At some point during the meal a gentleman in white with a matching fedora came in. He sat down at a pair of congas (where did THOSE come from!?) and commences to play along with whatever is on the jukebox. It isn’t long before Noelia stops by our table and drops off a postcard. “This is him”, she says. Tito Rojas.

Okay. I’ll be the first to admit that I was only somewhat intrigued. A percussionist who likes to play along to salsa music? Is that so weird? It wasn’t until later that we had a chance to Google Tito Rojas and discover that he is actually a pretty big deal. Go ahead, I’ll wait. After this, Noelia spent much of the night accompanying Tito on the congas or singing along with the jukebox. (Don’t worry, she’ll be singing even if there isn’t a prolific salsero nearby.) Maybe this doesn’t seem like much of a shock to you, but keep in mind that we are the only other ones in the restaurant at this point, and we are halfway up a mountain in the middle of the rainforest.

She must have noticed that we were enjoying our drinks, because we were then presented with two shot glasses of liquid. “Guess the flavor.” she insists. Okay. No reason to turn down free drinks. We guessed lime and papaya. Lime was correct, and the second was actually passion fruit. (I think) It also turns out that neither of these drinks are officially on the menu, but rather a sort of rainforest moonshine she’s been working on for some time. Apparently our guess of “papaya” amused her enough to question whether or not we knew what a papaya was. Fortunately, we had (rather unsuccessfully) grown a papaya tree a few years before. After hearing this, Noelia proceeded to take us outside, in the dark, for a full tour of her garden which included papayas and all sorts of tropical plants.

It wasn’t long after that we decided to leave. Besides, you probably shouldn’t have too many drinks before driving back up the mountain in the the dark.

Is it wrong to have a favorite bamboo?
Is it wrong to have a favorite bamboo?

Here’s my list of blog entries for Puerto Rico.

  1. Vieques: The Island We Couldn’t Leave
  2. El Yunque: Spanish for “The Yunque”
  3. Cabo Rojo: Southwestern Puerto Rico
  4. Lechon: You’ll have to be a stronger vegetarian than me…
  5. The Western Coast: Boqueron & Bacalaito, Mayagüez & Maize, and Rincón
  6. Bosque Estatal De Guajataca, y la cueva del viento: Guajataca State Forest, and the Cave of the Wind
  7. So, this guy has a waterfall in his backyard…
  8. Arecibo Observatory
  9. Old San Juan

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