Puerto Rico’s El Yunque Rainforest

A stream cascades through Puerto Rico’s El Yunque rainforest (John Gottberg photos)

“There is more biodiversity in this forest than anywhere on the entire North American continent,” said Frank Torres, a ranger for El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico.

After joining Torres on a walk through the only tropical rainforest in the national forest system — covering 29,000 acres in the eastern highlands of this Caribbean territory, between 2,000 and 3,500 feet elevation — I can imagine how that might be the case.

Frank Torres

The annual rainfall here averages more than 200 inches, substantially more than Washington’s soggy Olympic Peninsula. It occasionally exceeds 300 inches, most of it between June and November.

In all, there are 240 native Puerto Rican trees in this conservationist’s dream, 23 of them found only in El Yunque. Some 150 types of ferns, and 50 native bromeliad orchids, take root in many of these trees and in the rich soil beneath them. Among them is the Lepanthes woodburyana, the world’s tiniest orchid.

Rare vines cling to bark and drape from branches. Leathery “elephant ear” leaves, three feet across, lay rotting on the forest floor. Coral hibiscus, yellow heliconia and bright red bottlebrush add color.

Biodiversity: A snail clings to a bromeliad on a vine- and moss-covered sierra palm.

Torres, an Air Force veteran of Desert Storm, has worked in the forest for 17 years. He took me on a hike through an area where the movie “Predator” was once filmed, pointing out the ruins of buildings left by the Civilian Conservation Corps when it built roads and trails — as well as its own public swimming facility and trout hatchery — in the 1930s.

Puerto Ricans no longer swim here. In fact, no vehicles are permitted on the trails, not even mountain bikes. The trails are for foot traffic only.

“El yunque,” Torres told me, refers to “the land of white clouds” in the language of the long-departed aboriginal Taino people. It was regarded, he said, as the place where the earth touches the sky.

There are no carnivores in this forest, save its 11 species of bats, who feast on mosquitoes and other insects — along with singing tree frogs (“coquis”), lizards and dozens of birds. I had hoped to see the island’s legendary parrot, but “that would be like winning the lottery,” Torres said.

Lepanthes woodburyana, the tiniest orchid

Only about 60 of these magnificent green birds survive in the forest today, he said — but that is up from 13 counted in 1975, when the U.S. Forest Service began a preservation program. In addition to the forest’s wild parrots, Torres said, about 300 more are being bred in private aviaries, and are scheduled for eventual release.

I began and ended my tour of El Yunque from El Conquistador Resort (www.elconresort.com), where I am staying. This vast resort, situated atop a bluff at the northeastern corner of Puerto Rico, is at once old-school and classic, with more than 900 rooms and 11 restaurants. Rainforest tours begin daily at 9 a.m., returning to the hotel by 1.


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