Monday, February 22, 2016

A Tropical Escape: Puerto Rico - El Yunque

La Coca Falls, El Yunque Forest
     Nothing thrilled me more than than the thought of hiking through a tropical forest with my husband, disregarding EVERYTHING TLC said about chasing waterfalls. One thing that makes me fret and feel unmotivated in New York is the gray skies, emptiness of the trees, and that cold, dry air. I was so happy to feel warmth on my skin from the sun, see lush trees-- so lush they were covered in a myriad of other plants like epiphytes and vines. And the air, I was so happy to sport a ponytail as the moisture in the air rejuvenated my body, frizzed my hair, and my dry hands of the north were happy to feel moisture once again.
     El Yunque is a National Forest and part of the National Forest system-- it is also the only national forest that is a tropical forest! The park is located in the mountains, where it rains daily as clouds pass through daily and release their rain as they pass through the forest. Upon arriving we were welcomed with the most refreshing, steady rain. The sun shined, and for once, the rain didn't feel like a burden, instead it was easily accepted and enjoyed by myself and the forest too.
     The forest does charge a small fee if you want to visit the visitors center, but otherwise, all the trails and viewing areas are free. I suggest a visit to the welcome center, it was a great way to see the variety of people visiting- we saw a high school/middle school group on picture day, in the forest. They all were dressed in white, with their hair done, clothes pressed, looking pretty fabulous. The center also provides information about the tropical forest, species there, products from forests like these, conservation, and so on.
     The forest was a very beautiful place, photos do not do it justice. Also, there are a lot of pictures, giving you some seriously fair warning-- but I'm not sorry :) enjoy:
Before our trip to the forest, we were woken up in our B&B by the calls of the grey kingbird, the coos of the white winged doves, and the sounds of life from the mountains. The kingbirds flew out and caught insects on the wing, bringing them back to their perch to consume.
I can't not give some kitty love - pets are kept more so for reasons of safety, cleanliness, and utility-- our host did very much seem to have a lot of love for her pets, but animals are treated so differently. Cats keep the open air homes free of insects and vermin. This one cat was particularly sweet and had a very sweet face. Dogs are your security system, they alert you to people on the road and strangers in the vicinity.
The post right outside our guest house had Puerto Rican Woodpeckers on it every morning!
These woodpeckers are endemic to Puerto Rico - you can't find them really anywhere else! It sounds similar to other woodpeckers when it vocalizes, so when I heard the call without seeing the bird- my first instinct was woodpecker!
This grey flycatcher was the welcoming committee at the visitors center in El Yunque. I will say, if you are not someone who enjoys driving, or feels super confident behind the wheel, the mountain roads are not for the faint of heart. They are narrow, edging alongside drop-offs, and people do drive with zero cares to give- people drive fast, don't use signals, and don't always move over- so use caution when traversing your way up to the forest.

It acted like a robin, looked like a gray scale robin, and ran around on the ground like a robin...
I was not alarmed to find out that the red-legged thrush is a thrush, like our American Robin. With a thicker bill, these guys were mostly seen near the ground, foraging in mud along the roadsides.
A view from a parking area.
The wonderful, and sometimes frustrating thing - these tropical forests are SO diverse! The number of plant species in one area can be overwhelming, and then since there really are no mammals on the island- lizards take up a lot of space, everywhere you look an anole-- but there are quite a few anole species. And the birds, their voices bounce off the wet, thick leaves-- making it so hard to find things.

The coast from the top of Yokahu tower- a great vantage point for great views!

The tower is an easy climb- and I have height issues, especially with grated metal stairs-- like those in lighthouses... these were solid and I made it to the top with no problem!
And that is El Yunque, with a height of just over 3,500 feet above sea level.
A face in the mountains
A black-cowled oriole

A large tree snail on the side of a picnic gazebo as we hiked to La Mina Falls.
Normally I would never, but I am staring to feel comfortable around these types of insects the more I learn about them- these are a type of paper wasp, like yellow jackets, Polistes crinitus americanus. I found their little nests on the under sides of leaves, so be careful if you decide to look under leaves for things- there may be a little wasp on the other side! 
Little and flitty-- also very common and always calling, the Bananaquit.
So apprently there are mammals on PR, the introduced mongoose. They were of course brought over in attempt to control rat populations.
I enjoyed their reminders along the trail to take your trash with you.
I watched this little PR Crested anole climb a stem to catch something yummy.
When he reached this point he encountered a stink bug that was just about as big as he.
....And so he retreated and left me with a typical rainforest photo op.
This I have ID'd as the Trunk Crown Anole, Anolis stratulus. And there is one very distinct feature on him that helps in identification....

Do you see in this cruddy, highly cropped/zoomed in photo-- the BLUE around its eye? Yeah- they have blue eyes! This species and a few others have some pretty sweet baby blues. Blue eyes don't normally impress me, but on these lizards, they are pretty amazing!
Amazing stilt roots!
A spiny orb weaver hung tight over the trail on its web.
Getting closer to La Mina falls...
And there it is! You could take a dip in the waters at the bottom of the falls- but the water is quite chilly.

Tim got under the falls, braving the chilly mountain river water to get this shot with his goPro.
Our bed & breakfast hostess, Nilda, was very proud of her Puerto Rican heritage, she taught us about her rock garden and how each rock was special, and how she saw something more than a rock. She took great pride in her rocks and had a closeness with the land she lived on. She also showed us many of her belongings, relating to Taino culture including a painting of a Taino woman in front of the waterfall- she assured us that we would see this woman in the falls when we get there. She asked us to do one thing on our visit to the forest, and that was to bring her back a rock that we could see more than just a rock.
I found this rock... as I dropped my camera into the river (and it is thankfully in the process of being repaired). But I was super stoked to get it back to Nilda, it was the woman in the falls! She was so overcome with happiness and adored this rock.  The lady is not afraid to show her affection, she will shower you in hugs if you asked her to- she was so happy that we brought this back to her. I was really happy to find it and share it with her to keep forever. If you are ever looking for an incredibly hospitable place to stay in the amazing mountain forest, I highly recommend Nilda and her La Paloma Guest House. She took such great care of us, cooked for us, introduced us to her family-- the very least I could do was find her the best rock in all of El Yunque!
Nilda really made it important to let her guests know that they should look at things not only with their eyes but with their heart, and her belief in doing just that really resonates with me.