A day in El Yunque

Half an hour from the apartment in Fajardo where we are staying at the moment, is the gateway to El Yunque National Forest, which the Forest Service bills as “the only tropical rain forest in the National Forest system.” Last Tuesday, a couple of days after arriving in Puerto Rico, we took a half-day to drive up to it, which gave us time to drive as high up in the mountain as private cars are allowed to go, but (since the gates close at 6:00) not time enough to do any hiking. But it was a pleasant enough half-day for all that. For one thing, it was a good way for Helen to ease herself into being driven on Puerto Rican mountain roads without panicking. You start out literally at sea level in Luquillo, where Highway 3 runs alongside the beach on the northern coast of the island, about halfway between San Juan and Fajardo. By the time you reach the highest parking lot under the shadow of El Yunque, you have climbed more than three thousand feet – and are only six and a half miles from the ocean. I myself think Highway 191 is pretty generously wide for a mountain road with that kind of gradient, but Helen could hardly believe at first that it was a two-lane road with room enough for traffic going both directions. A few days later, in the Cordillera Central, she would find out what kinds of road really deserve to be called “narrow;” but this was a good way for her to get her feet wet, so to speak.

PR 191 just south of Coca Falls

Puerto Rico is the first sizable island that the trade winds hit after their trip westward across the Atlantic, and so they are nice and warm and full of water vapor as they pass over the eastern coast…and then suddenly they find themselves forced straight up into the air by a wall three and a half thousand feet tall. By the time they get to the top the water vapor has condensed into clouds and then rain, or at least dense fog; and so the eastern slopes of the upper Sierre de Luquillo get two hundred inches of rain a year. At the peaks, sunny days are a veritable rarity. This we were told on our first or second day in Puerto Rico; having lived in Fajardo for ten days now I can tell you that in my experience, at least, there have always been clouds wreathed around the top of El Yunque, and every late afternoon when I have looked back west from our balcony around five o’clock or so, I have seen the lower slopes perfectly clear, but near the top there has always been the unmistakable grey curtain of hard rain.

We stopped at the places you would expect to stop. The visitor’s center, which is bigger than most national forest visitor centers I’ve seen, has a slightly melancholy air about it. It’s actually a pretty cool place with some very good displays and a theatre and pools and water features from one  end to the other, and they swing the walkway from the parking lot out over the mountainside so that at one point the mountainside has fallen to sixty feet or so below you, allowing you the experience of walking across the canopy of a rain forest without having had to climb any trees. But all the displays look about twenty years old, and there are only five or six people working in the whole place: one ranger sitting at the information desk up front, one lady in the gift shop, two girls at a very small café on the second floor, and presumably at least one or two cleaning staff. You don’t feel that it has been abandoned, exactly, but you certainly don’t feel that it’s gotten much of the Forest Service’s budget in the past couple of decades. Still, the displays were informative enough that we spent nearly an hour there and read all of them; so perhaps they don’t really need to spend much money on cosmetics — they got it right the first try and have been coasting comfortably ever since. (But whatever you do, don’t buy coffee at the café; I managed about three sips before finding a trash can discreetly out of the line of sight of the girl who sold it to me.)

From there, up the mountain we headed. We stopped at la Catarata Coca, “Coca Falls” (and no, I don’t know how it got its name). You’re already pretty close to the top by the time you reach this waterfall; so the amount of water in the falls depends heavily on how much rain you’ve gotten that day. When we were there, there wasn’t much water; but there were lots of signs warning about the danger of flash flooding. (I’m in the picture at the foot of the falls, providing scale, and clearly not worrying at all about flash flooding.)

Coca Falls

The next stop was an old round observation tower, called Yocahú Tower. It was 4:15 when we got there, and the girl in the gift shop at the bottom warned us that she was closing the tower at 4:30. So we hustled up and got photographs. Clouds and mist were starting to move in, so the view down the canyon of the Río de la Mina with Luquillo off in the distance was not as clear as it could have been…

Canyon of the Río de le Mina from Yocahú Tower (Nikon)

…and you could see clouds starting to get caught on El Cacique and Pico El Yunque.

El Cacique and Pico de Yunque from Yocahú Tower

The view on the tower itself was even better, right up until Helen realized I was taking pictures of her instead of the scenery. Don’t bother asking; I am not allowed to publish those pictures, as it is not Helen’s policy to reward sneakiness.

When we got back out to the parking lot, a young couple had just pulled up and were pottering about their car, stretching themselves, opening the truck to look for water, etc. I checked the time; it was 4:28. “Excuse me,” I said, and they looked up over at me inquiringly, “but if you want to go up that tower you’d better get there right now because she says she’s closing it in two minutes.”

“Really?” said the young lady in alarm, and I answered, “Really.” So they slammed the trunk shut and took out across the parking lot at a run. Helen and I got in the car and drove on toward the top. Later, on our way down, I saw that same couple standing outside a souvenir stand near Coca Falls; but I didn’t stop to ask whether they got into the tower so I don’t suppose I’ll ever know for sure. My money says they didn’t but I hope I’m wrong.

We drove to the top, circled around, and came back down without really seeing anything else of interest. You can’t see the falls on the Río de la Mina from the road, and really, El Yunque is meant to be hiked, not driven. When you hike the trails, I’m told that it’s one waterfall after the next, just lovely hiking; but we haven’t gotten around to it and probably won’t this trip, as we have had a great time just opening the windows and letting the sea breeze blow through the house and going to bed at night without ever having gotten out of our pajamas. This was a vacation where I, at least, started out exhausted, and it has been more rest than tourism. But on another trip I think we’ll probably hike the trails in El Yunque and I expect to find it more than worth our while.

At any rate, we started back down, and Helen dozed off. Now she doesn’t really like mountain roads, and I had planned to go straight home. But once she went to sleep, I decided it would do no harm to circle around the park counterclockwise, take in whatever there was to see on Highway 186, and then come home from the south up the east coast. And that worked out spectacularly.

Helen was sound asleep in the passenger seat as we wended our way along Highway 186 in Puerto Rico, traversing the slopes of the Sierra de Luquillo near the western border of El Yunque National Forest. We came up on a bridge across one of the streams that bound down the mountain slopes in a long series of cataracts, and as I looked up to my left I saw several locals sitting on huge boulders in the middle of the stream, wearing variously shorts and bathing suits, but all with the air of having just enjoyed a dip.

Locals on Río Espíritu Santo

Now of course there was no pool to be seen, at least from the road, but one thing I know from growing up in the mountains myself, and from having wandered down many side roads in lots of places in this wide world, is that local people are never wrong. So, as there was a place next to the bridge wide enough to park near the car that was already there, I pulled over and went to investigate.

From the road I could see that, while the streambed was at least twenty yards wide where the road crossed it, just upstream from where the locals were sitting it emerged from a narrow crack in a sheer cliff face. The mountain itself was rather gently sloping at this point, and I could see daylight through the trees above the little bluff; but for whatever reason at this point in the stream bed the mountain had jutted out its chin, except for that little crack. The cliff face seemed about twenty to thirty feet tall, and the crack was no more than five feet wide. I couldn’t tell how far back the crack extended because it went back at a rather sharp angle, so that from the road I could only see the right-hand wall extending back for a few feet before the left-hand cliff face blocked the line of sight.

But whatever was behind the crack, I knew what must be in front of it, because I could see those shorts and swimsuits: a “hole” where water was trapped between cataracts, deep enough for a few men and boys to cool off in on a hot tropical afternoon. And I had already stopped at another bridge and another stream and seen for myself how clear and cool the water was. I had no swimsuit with me, but I wanted at least to see the pool. So I began clambering over boulders, making my way along the left-hand side of the canyon up toward where they sat.

It took about a minute to get up level with them, and there it was.

Pool on Río Espíritu Santo from the side

I didn’t really want to intrude upon the other folks’ day, but I was curious about what was behind that crack. So I started working my way from boulder to boulder across the stream, over to the huge rock smack in the middle where they were placidly sitting, taking no apparent notice of me, even when I stopped at the boulder next to theirs and took another picture.

Pool on Río Espíritu Santo from the center

But while I could now see at least a little way back into the interior of that tiny little secretive chasm, and could see more of the sky behind it, I still couldn’t see all the way to the back to where it, presumably, opened up to where the little stream flowed into it; and I could hear the unmistakable sound of water cascading down rock, coming from somewhere upstream. So, with a polite “Discúlpenme,” I crossed in front of them, shifted my weight across to the next rock, found handholds and footholds, and worked myself over the top and down to a nice solid purchase next to the water, almost to the far right of the stream. Then I looked up to see what was hidden deep inside that dark, narrow crack in the sheer rock, and saw this:

Waterfall on Río Espíritu Santo

I had never thought that a twenty-five foot waterfall could be shy; but that was my first thought. A very maidenly catarata she is, hiding demurely back within her chamber.

Eventually I heard Helen calling me from the road; she had awakened and come looking for me. By then I had fallen into conversation with the others there at the pool, who had been amused by the care I took not to fall in and get Helen’s iPhone wet (my own iPhone was useless for pictures because the memory was full as I hadn’t gotten around to downloading pictures for, oh, maybe a year or so). I called to Helen that I was on my way down, and the others decided their day was done too and started clambering down as well, each of us taking a different route.

Once back on the road I took Helen all the way to the very far edge of the bridge, and sure enough, you couldn’t see the waterfall. So I showed her the picture. Then something occurred to me, and I asked one of my new acquaintances a question, speaking English without thinking (we had been mixing English and Spanish willy-nilly up to that point):

“Does this waterfall have a name?”

He looked confused for a moment, and I was surprised that he didn’t understand that bit as his English had generally been better than my Spanish up to that point. (This, you understand, is not a high bar.) I tried again. “Esta catarata, ¿como se llama?”

He said slowly in English, “I don’t know…I think it must have a name…”

Espíritu Santo,” said one of the boys, who was walking past us at that moment headed for the car.

The older man and I both translated simultaneously for Helen: “The Holy Spirit.”

Later, however, I realized that we were standing at that moment on a bridge over the Río Espíritu Santo, so that the boy may not have understood the question and may have been telling me the name of the river rather than of the waterfall itself. But as I would like to have a name for that waterfall, and as there is nobody to tell me I’m wrong, it is, as far as Clan Pierce is concerned, henceforth la Catarata Espíritu Santo.

And sometime before we leave Puerto Rico, I’m going back there with a bathing suit. For I grew up, after all, as a country boy in the mountains; I was a local long before I was a tourist. And I have never felt anything but deep pity for those deprived persons who have grown up swimming in swimming pools rather than swimming holes.

But I didn’t have my swimsuit with me then; so reluctantly we got back into the car, and started making our way out of the mountains. Helen was awake now, of course, and took over camera duties. It was close to sunset when we stopped at the side of the road a few miles south of Espíritu Santo, where a local resident kept part of the roadside mowed, opening up a true panorama out across the hills to the west.

Day dies in Puerto Rico PR 186(cropped)

From there we followed 186 as far south as we could. But then it made a U-turn and headed back north for miles — a little more than four, to be exact, but on these roads where thirty miles per hour feels like eighty, a nine-mile detour costs you half an hour. I was sure there must be a shortcut, and so I zoomed Google Maps in as far as it would go. And thus it came to pass that in the village of Benitez, on the high ridge between the canyons of the Canovanillas and Cubuy rivers, we found la Calle Ceiba, which took us to la Calle Yagrumo, which turned into “Highway” 953, which took us to Lomas and saved us seven or eight of those nine miles. And also, in passing, my shortcut taught Helen what it is that we folks from mountain country have in mind when we describe a road as “small” or “steep.” I urge you to find that village, and those streets, on Google Maps, and then switch to the Google Earth perspective. It is, shall we say, instructive.

The one thing missing from this tale, by the way, is simply how much fun it is to go anywhere, or do anything, with my wife. I mean, I grant you that when she is asleep, she’s like anybody else who is asleep in a car (though unlike some uncouth males of your acquaintance, O Gentle Reader, she neither snores nor drools). But when she’s awake, the running commentary – and the occasional gasp of alarm, or astonished question as to whether it’s really possible that such a road could be meant for two-way traffic – is endlessly entertaining. And since she takes anything that goes wrong with perfect good nature, albeit with cheerfully snarky teasing, there’s never any reason to quarrel or feel stressed. She is, simply, a perfect travel companion. Which is hardly surprising, as five years into our marriage I have found her to be a perfect life companion. There may be husbands more blessed than I am but I haven’t met anybody I’d trade places with.

Especially this past couple of weeks in Puerto Rico.

Edited to remove some typos, and to incorporate the material from this earlier post so that the day could exist in a single narrative.


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