A visit to El Yunque National Forest should definitely top on your Puerto Rico bucket list!
This travel guide has everything you need to know about visiting Puerto Rico’s rainforest after Hurricane Maria, including visitor tips, info about open areas, and so much more!
Many Puerto Ricans are still struggling over a year after Hurricane Maria hit the island. If you would like to help, please consider donating to one of these charitable organizations to help provide emergency supplies like food, water, and medicine, as well as long-term support for recovery and rebuilding efforts.
El Yunque National Forest
Did you know that you have to travel to Puerto Rico to visit the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Forest system?
This small, yet diverse rainforest set in the Sierra de Luquillo is home thousands of native plants and hundred of animals, many only found in Puerto Rico … including 16 species of the beloved coquí!
Although the rainforest was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017, it’s coming back. And you definitely shouldn’t travel to Puerto Rico without visiting. I’ve absolutely loved my visits there … it’s such an amazing place!
Keep reading to learn all about this beautiful Puerto Rico rainforest, plus everything you need to plan your visit!
El Yunque History
The long, significant history of El Yunque Rainforest starts with the Taíno people, the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico. The forest played an important part in their daily lives, providing them with shelter, food, and water. El Yunque was the throne of their chief god Yúcahu, making the forest a significant part of their religion, as well.
In 1876, Spain’s King Alfonso XII decreed the forest a Crown Reserve, making it one of the oldest nature reserves in the western world. And when the U.S. took control of the island after the Spanish-American War, President Roosevelt declared the site a national forest, naming it the Luquillo Forest Reserve in 1903. A few years later, the name was changed to the Luquillo National Forest, and in 1935, it became known as the Caribbean National Forest.
Many of the roads, trails, and facilities found in this national forest were built by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC or tres C’s) during the Great Depression. These workers faced very difficult conditions, but their hard work made the forest much more accessible to visitors. During World War II, the second highest peak (El Yunque) was used by the army as a radar site to protect against attacks by the German military.
The national forest celebrated its centennial in 2003. And in April 2007, the name was changed from the Caribbean National Forest to El Yunque National Forest to better reflect the culture and history of the Puerto Rican people.
Visiting El Yunque After Hurricane Maria
Hurricane Maria, a devastating category four storm, made landfall on Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. Like the rest of the Island, El Yunque sustained immense damage.
Trees were uprooted and stripped of their foliage, landfalls destroyed roads and access to much of the forest, and the rainforest’s unique plants and animals were put in peril. After all of this, the tropical rainforest has already started to recover.
Puerto Rico’s rainforest has been hit by hurricanes before, so in that sense, this hurricane was part of a natural cycle. It will take years for the national forest to fully recover, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t plan a visit now!
In fact, if you saw pictures of a brown, deforested El Yunque after Hurricane Maria struck, I think you’ll be surprised by just how green and lush the forest looks now.
On my visits to El Yunque in June 2018 and again in July 2018, I saw a huge variety of plants and flowers blooming.
There’s definitely visible damage (lots of stripped trees), but overall the forest is stunningly beautiful.
I also came across lots of animals. Small lizards seemed to be everywhere (if you look close enough) … including two black lizards, which I’d never seen before. We also saw snails, birds, and fish in the Mameyes River.
Although I was hoping against hope to see a coquí, none was to be seen despite hearing their distinctive call throughout the forest. I may have even mimicked the call myself a time or two (or twenty … ha ha) to no avail. (It wasn’t until I visited the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico that I finally saw a minuscule coquí in their sculpture garden … it was just as adorable as I imagined!)
On both of my visits, I also spotted the same stray cat. And my husband saw him (or her … not sure) in the same area on a separate visit, too!
This cute black cat is very thin and perhaps a touch mangy looking, but super friendly. Unlike most of the strays we’ve seen in Puerto Rico, he came right up to us. I think he might be a pet displaced during the hurricane.
If you visit El Yunque, please consider bringing him a tin of food. He hangs out just north of the park headquarters, by the covered map on the roadside (on PR 191 / the La Coca Falls road).
Park Features … What’s Open in El Yunque in 2019
Reconstruction of El Yunque is ongoing, and accessible areas may change due to construction work, weather, and other unforseen events … something to keep in mind when visiting the forest. Here are the areas that are open right now.
- La Coca Falls
- Yokahu Tower
- Puente Roto Day Use Area
- Baño Grande
- Rio Sanbana Recreation Area
- PR 191 to the Mt. Britton trailhead (Rd 9938)
- PR 988
- PR 966
- PR 186
- La Coca Trail
- Mt. Britton Trail
- Access to El Yunque Peak along a segment of the El Yunque Peak trail or Rd 10
- Angelito Trail (This trail was open during our visit, but currently, a portion is closed due to bridge construction.)
Visitor Center – Portalito Hub in Palmer
Plan on starting your visit to El Yunque National Forest at the Portalito Hub in Palmer. The Hub is serving as a temporary visitor center while El Portal, the park’s main visitor center, undergoes renovations due to hurricane damage.
The staff at the Portalito Hub is very knowledgeable and can provide you with maps and other info. You’ll also find exhibits (including a 20 minute movie about the forest), bathrooms, and a gift shop. Palmer itself is also super cute with a number of restaurants to enjoy before or after your visit to El Yunque.
Keep reading for more info on the areas of the rainforest that are open. I would say that everything can be explored in a few hours (unless you plan on hiking La Coca Trail), which means you also have time to hit the beach in nearby Luquillo!
La Coca Falls
The popular, 85-foot tall La Coca Falls reopened in February 2018. (Note: La Coca trail is NOT open).
Drive up PR 191 from Palmer to get to the falls. There are two small parking lots: one before the falls and one after.
There is an overlook with a few parking spaces right before you arrive at the falls.
Make sure to pull over … the views are breathtaking. On a clear day, you can see Luquillo and the ocean in the distance.
In the other direction, you’ll see the Yokahu Tower nestled on the mountainside.
I took the picture below on our first visit to El Yunque. You can see some of the damage to the trees. By our second visit it already seemed more green.
Check out these photos from the El Yunque National Forest’s Facebook page. They show La Coca Falls before Hurricane Maria, in October 2017, and in February 2018.
It’s amazing to see how quickly the rainforest has started to recover.
La Coca Falls is a must see on any visit to the rainforest. It’s so beautiful and popular that you may struggle to get a photo without anyone in it. Although I did manage on my first trip!
You’ll probably spot more than a few visitors scrambling onto the rocks in front of the falls for a pic.
Make sure to check out the lower part of La Coca Falls, too. It’s so pretty! It’s located across the street from the main falls.
There’s a small gift shop across from the falls, too.
La Coca Trail
The La Coca Trail (which can be accessed via PR 191) reopened in October 2018.
This trail 1.8 miles one-way (ending at the Mamayes River), and it’s considered very difficult. A round trip hike will take you about four to five hours.
Proceed with caution! The La Coca Trail gets very muddy, and you will climbing steep slopes and other challenging segments. So be realistic about your hiking abilities.
Continue on past La Coca Falls on PR 191, and you’ll reach the Yokahu Tower. The tower is only open until 4:30 pm. So if you arrive at the forest later in the day, make sure to head here first.
The picturesque Yokahu Tower is a round observation tower standing 1575 feet above sea level.
On our first visit to El Yunque, the Yokahu Tower was closed. When I heard that it reopened to the public on July 4, 2018, I knew we had to plan a return trip!
There is a small gift shop located in the base of the tower.
The Yokahu Tower is 69 feet tall, and it’s a relatively easy climb. Follow the winding staircase to the top.
The views through the arched windows as you make your way up are stunning!
At the top of Yokahu Tower, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the tropical rainforest.
Unfortunately for me, it started pouring rain just as I reached the top.
Those gorgeous views were worth getting drenched for though. At least for a minute or two!
Puente Roto Day Use Area
The Puente Roto Day Use Area is located on PR 988. If you’re heading toward La Coca Falls on PR 191, PR 988 will be on your left.
Unlike La Coca Falls, where you’re heading up into the mountains, to get to Puente Roto you’ll be heading down.
Keep an eye out as you drive for a number of small waterfalls on right side of road.
You’ll know you’ve arrived at Puente Roto when you drive over a small bridge.
There’s no parking lot here. Just park on the side of the road.
There were quite a few cars parked when we visited during the week. You may have trouble parking here on the weekend … arrive early, if possible.
Climb down a steep path on either side of the bridge to access the beautiful Mameyes River.
The river is full of large rocks which you can climb on or sit in between to enjoy the flowing river.
There’s a large swimming area surrounding the bridge. It was full of families and other visitors on our trip.
We spotted quite a few small fish here. And supposedly, there are eels in the river, too.
I am terrified of snakes and eels, so that was enough to keep me out!
We spotted lots of little lizards hanging out in a small bamboo grove on one side of the bridge. On the other side, I spied these pretty red flowers that you’ll find throughout the forest.
That’s my husband on the bridge in these last two pics by the way, not just some random creepy guy … ha ha.
***Note: A portion of the Angelito Trail is currently closed due to bridge construction.***
Continue on PR 988, and you’ll find the Angelito Trail just up the road.
There’s a sign marking the trail head, so you can’t miss it. And like Puente Roto, you’ll need to park on the side of the road.
The highlight of this El Yunque trail is the Mameyes River at the end. Like Puente Roto, you can climb the rocks and swim in the river. There’s also a rope swing which was fun to watch people use!
The Angelito Trail is mostly smooth and well-marked, although it may be muddy and uneven in spots. Bear in mind, too, that you will be heading down toward the river (and what goes down must come back up).
It should take you about 15 to 20 minutes to reach the river.
Along the way, you’ll be treated to beautiful views of the forest and surrounded by colorful plants and flowers. We also spotted quite a few lizards as we walked … keep your eyes peeled, and you should see them, too!
If you look on the National Forest website, you’ll notice that it says only a portion of the trail is open. And that’s because there is a bridge out over a creek.
It’s possible to scramble across the rocks, just keep in mind that you’re doing it at your own risk. The rocks are slippery when wet, so be careful.
Keep going after you cross the rocks, and you’ll come to the Mameyes River.
Like the Puente Roto Day Use Area, this spot was super popular. Although it’s a little harder to get to.
We climbed out onto the rocks to take some pics. It was so pretty!
There’s a large swimming hole here, and it was filled with people. After a hot hike, the cool waters felt wonderful.
The highlight of this spot is the rope swing. We didn’t have our swimsuits, but it was so fun to watch people climb the bank, then swing into the river!
Keep in mind that you’re doing this at your own risk. The riverbank and river rocks are slippery. Also, the river is prone to flash flooding. Don’t go in after a big storm.
The visitor center attendant who told us about this area said: “The bridge is out, but some locals like to cross the rocks anyway. I’m not saying you should do it, but if you do cross the rocks, you’ll come to the river. The river is popular with the locals who like to swim there. And I’m not saying that you should do it, but the locals like to use the rope swing to jump in the river.” 😉
Other Trails: Mt. Britton and El Yunque Peak
If you love hiking, there are a few other trails you’ll want to check out in the forest.
Hike the Mt. Britton Trail, and you’ll be be led to a stone tower constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. It’s named for botanist Nathaniel Britton and his wife, Elizabeth Knight Britton, who identified a substantial amount of the native and endemic tree and plant species of the Luquillo mountains in the 1920s.
If you visit on a clear day, you’ll be treated to views of the forest, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, and more from the tower’s observation deck. The trailhead is located on PR 9938, a one way loop road, that’s located off PR 191.
You can also access El Yunque Peak via a segment of the El Yunque Peak trail or Rd 10 and La Coca Trail. Check at the Portalito Hub for directions.
Baño Grande wasn’t open during our recent trips to Puerto Rico, but I can’t wait to return and visit it!
This pretty man made pool is formed by a stone and masonry dam and is filled with the waters from La Mina River. It’s surrounded by a cobblestone path and arching bridge, and the pool is bordered by an old bathhouse that was built by the CCC.
Rio Sabana Recreation Area
The Rio Sabana Day Use area in El Yunque recently reopened in October 2018 (PR 191 South – Naguabo.
This area is currently only open on weekends from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM.
The trail remains closed. Looks like the perfect place to enjoy a picnic though, right?
Visiting El Yunque Rainforest after Hurricane Maria
I hope you enjoyed reading about El Yunque National Forest! It’s beautiful and unique and should be on every Puerto Rico bucket list.
Use these tips to help plan your trip:
- Location: Puerto Rico’s rainforest is located near Palmer. It’s about a 30 minute drive from San Juan or 20 minutes from Fajardo. Visit the park’s website for directions to Palmer. From Palmer, take PR 191 into the forest.
- Visitor Center: The Portalito Hub in Palmer is the park’s temporary visitor center. It’s located at #54 Calle Principal in Palmer. The hub is open from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm daily.
- Hours: El Yunque National Forest is open from 7:30 am to 6:00 pm. The Yokahu Tower closes at 4:30 pm.
- Fees: Admission is free.
- Facilities: You will find very minimal facilities in the park, apart from a few porta potties. There is no garbage collection in the park. Plan on carrying out everything you bring in. You’ll pass a few shops on PR191, the park’s main road.
- Map: Use this map to plan your visit. You can also pick up a copy in the Portalito Hub on your way into the forest.
- What’s Open: Currently, the following areas are open. Stop at the Portalito Hub before heading into the park, as open areas can change due to constructions, weather, etc. If you’re planning on swimming at Puente Roto or theAngelito Trail, I’d recommend visiting La Coca Falls and the Yokahu Tower first.
- La Coca Falls
- La Coca Trail
- Yokahu Tower
- Puente Roto Day Use Area
- Angelito Trail *Currently closed for bridge construction … hopefully this trail reopens soon!
- Rio Sabana Day Use Area
- Toro Wilderness Trail (stop by the visitor center to make sure it’s open)
- Portalito Hub: Palmer (the park’s temporary visitor center)
- When to Visit: There’s limited parking in the forest, and with only a few areas open, it can get crowded (especially on the weekends). If at all possible, visit during the week to escape the crowds and to enjoy a more peaceful experience.
- Driving in El Yunque: Roads are very narrow and curvy in the forest, and some areas may be reduced to a single lane. Hug your side of the road, because many visitors seem to drive right down the middle. There are small parking lots at La Coca Falls and Yokahu Tower. In other areas, you will need to park on the side of the road. Do not leave valuables visible in your parked car.
- What to Wear: It’s a rainforest, so you may get rained on! Keep that in mind when planning your outfit (we got drench on our last trip), and wear sneakers or hiking shoes. Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat to protect your face. Bring a swimsuit and towel if you plan on swimming in the river at Puente Roto or the Angelito Trail.
- What to Bring: Though there are a few shops on PR 191, you’ll want to bring in everything needed during your visit: food, water, etc. And plan on carrying out everything you bring in, there are no trash cans to collect your garbage.
- Where to Eat Nearby: You’ll find a number of restaurants in Palmer, and the Kiosks in nearby Luquillo will provide you with tons of options. We enjoyed a wonderful meal at El Yunque Treehouse during our first visit (you’ll pass it on your way into the forest). The food was amazing and fresh (with lots of vegetarian-friendly options), and the staff was super friendly. I can’t wait to go back one day!
- Learn More: Visit the park’s website for the latest park news, maps, and more. I’d also highly recommend that you follow them on Facebook for up-to-date photos, info about the park (including its history), and educational and volunteer opportunities.
Looking for more things to do in Puerto Rico?
There is so much to see and do in Puerto Rico! Here are some ideas to keep you busy after your visit to the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico:
- Explore colorful, historic Old San Juan. Here are 10 Things to Do in Old San Juan that you don’t want to miss.
- Experience Puerto Rico’s vibrant art scene. Spend an afternoon at the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico … don’t leave without visiting the sculpture garden!
- Get artsy! A visit to Santurce, Puerto Rico is a must on any trip to San Juan, especially is you love street art, museums, and good food.
- Learn about Puerto Rico’s colonial history. A visit to the forts at the San Juan National Historic Site will give you peek into the island’s past.
- Hit the Beach. You can’t go to Puerto Rico without spending a day (or ten) at the beach. Two of my faves are Isla Verde Beach in Carolina (the perfect place to stay when visiting San Juan, by the way) and Luquillo, Puerto Rico which has multiple beaches to choose from and is located right by El Yunque.
Have you ever been to Puerto Rico’s rainforest? What was your favorite part?