Hiking the Río de la Mina (El Yunque National Forest)

The morning of Friday, the 24th of July, was to be our last day in Puerto Rico (our flight out was scheduled to depart at 6:00 a.m. Saturday morning). We had made arrangements to spend the night in Viejo San Juan, just a few miles from the airport. So Friday morning we finished packing and cleaning the apartment – rather to the surprise of Amarilys, to whom we handed the money for the cleaning fee anyway along with the key, because we liked her. “You didn’t have to clean the apartment,” she told us reproachfully. But we told her that we felt like guests, not customers, and neither of us had been raised to leave a mess behind us after enjoying hospitality.

After cordial farewells, we drove out through the main gate for the last time and headed back out on the now-familiar streets. But it became obvious very rapidly that Helen was not feeling at all well, especially in the car. Now, we had planned to go hiking around El Yunque in order to do advance scouting for a friend who was due to arrive in Puerto Rico on vacation a week or so later; but I could tell Helen was not feeling up to hiking and really didn’t even want to be in a moving vehicle. So I decided a change of plans was in order: I would take the road to El Yunque as slowly and gently as I could, find a place to park in the shade, and leave her in the car with the air conditioning running so that she could take a nap for an hour or so while I went down to check out the Catarata de la Mina (La Mina Falls). Then maybe after the nap she would feel better for the last half of the trip. Going straight to the hotel was not an option, you see, because we couldn’t check in until 3:00; and it seemed to me the air would be cooler in the clouds and shade three thousand feet above sea level than it would be under the sun on the coast. But certainly she didn’t need to be hiking.

I will tell you now that this was a bad mistake on my part, because of four miscalculations on my part. First of all, of the entire two weeks we were in Puerto Rico, this was the only day on which the skies of El Yunque were perfectly clear and cloudless. On the way up I wasn’t too worried because I figured it was morning and the clouds would form up any minute, as they had for the past two weeks. But I hadn’t checked the weather report. It was sunshine and heat the whole time we were there; so the weather on the mountain was no better for sleeping in the car than the weather on the coast.

Everybody else in Puerto Rico, however, had checked the weather report, and they had all decided that this was the perfect day to go up to El Yunque. Which was my second miscalculation: I had to park a half-mile from the lower of the two trailheads for the La Mina loop, which meant I was leaving Helen a half-mile from the bathrooms.

The third miscalculation, a more serious one, was that I had underestimated how far it was to the Falls (largely because I hadn’t realized there were two ways to get there and I took the long way). It took three hours, not one, for me to make the round trip, even though I only allowed myself ten minutes or so to take pictures and test the water once I got to the river and didn’t even wear my bathing suit lest I be tempted to dally.

But by far the most serious miscalculation was that I misdiagnosed the core problem. I thought Helen was tired and carsick. It turned out she was genuinely sick, as in bugs-and-germs sick – once we did get to the hotel that afternoon she collapsed into bed and spent a thoroughly miserable afternoon and evening. Not until 11:00 at night or so did she finally start feeling reasonably human.

So the hike that I am going to describe was, for us, rather a bad thing, as Helen wound up calling me in desperation three hours after I left (and five minutes before I got back to the car, naturally), having, in her wretched state, had to walk half a mile in the heat to find a bathroom and then walk back. If you’re sitting around with Helen and the subject of Puerto Rico comes up, you should certainly avoid the subject of that last day. In fact you’re probably better off not bringing it up to me, either.

But the thing is, it wasn’t the fault of the hike itself. If you, O Gentle Reader, ever go to Puerto Rico and drive up to El Yunque and hike the La Mina loop, you will almost certainly enjoy yourself enormously (at least if you’re in good enough shape to handle a narrow mountain trail with a whole lot of change in elevation). And it would be a shame to waste the pictures. So I’ll tell you about the hike, and I’ll try not to remember what my very sweet wife was going through while her shamefully irresponsible husband was doing a meanwhile-back-in-the-jungle.

I did it the wrong way, not knowing any better and not having looked carefully at the map. I didn’t actually realize the trail was a loop until I was at the Falls themselves, and therefore I didn’t take care to start at the top end rather than the bottom end. You certainly should start at the top instead.

At any rate, the two halves of the trail are quite different. The upper half comes down the canyon right alongside the little Río de la Mina, all the way down to the falls. Then the lower half leaves the river and heads back to the road through the rain forest, with lots of quite usefully informative signs along the way to tell you what you’re looking at (an innovative concept that I bring respectfully to the attention of the Jardín Botánico y Cultural de Caguas).

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Or, of course, if you’re traveling the wrong direction, you do the lower half first. This part of the trail is partly paved. The purpose, I imagine, is both to reduce erosion (since you are moving across the gradient rather than following a river directly down it) and to improve safety.

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You walk for quite a long time, mostly downhill. Finally, if you go on one of the days when everybody has checked the weather report and discovered that it will be a rare sunny day in El Yunque, you begin to hear a sound of falling water mixed with a babble of voices. Then you come around and corner and see…no, not the falls. What you see is God’s own chaos of bathing suits. THEN you see the falls.

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The falls really are lovely, of course, and I imagine that’s especially true on a foggy day when one’s view consists of a higher proportion of nature and a lower proportion of nature-lovers. Though if you can strategically locate yourself where trees will help filter out the crowds, you can get a decent picture or two even on a crowded day.

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What caught my attention, however, was the discovery that the trail continued on up the canyon and back to the road. Now I had spent much more time getting to the falls than I had expected, and having given it some thought, I decided that the way back up the canyon was probably shorter, albeit steeper, than the way I had come; so I decided to take that way.

The trail up is pretty much one long, long staircase, with an occasional brief landing, so to speak.

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I climbed the first flight of stairs, rounded a corner – and realized that here in the river up above the falls, there was practically nobody, in very marked contrast to the seething mass of humanity down below. I gave myself five minutes for the river, clambered over the handrail, and scrambled down the bank to the riverbed. There was one family with a father and mother and a couple of young daughters there exploring a pool beneath a much smaller, but quite lovely waterfall; but otherwise I was alone.

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I did a quick bit of scouting and then decided that I was pretty sure that I could safely (though of course carefully) get all the way to the top of the big falls and maybe even get a picture looking straight over the falls from a dry rock outcropping in the middle of the stream right where the water went over the edge. Now, you Gentle Readers are not allowed to tell Helen I did this; but…

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I was very satisfied with the picture, and was amused to see that from my seemingly precarious perch I was attracting the attention of a group of gringo teenagers down at the base of the falls who (from their matching T-shirts) were clearly on a church mission trip. I didn’t have time to waste in further showing off, however, and I wanted to put my feet in the water. So I went back upstream to the little pool, with its one deep hole right where the little waterfall cascaded into it, which hole was just a few feet wide but – as the Puerto Rican dad demonstrated by jumping into it – was at least as deep as I am tall.

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I took off my shoes and socks for a moment, waded carefully into the pool until the water was more than halfway up my calf, and then took a picture:

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Now that is some clear water.

Well, this was all very nice, but I wanted to get back to Helen. So I stepped back onto dry ground and started putting on my shoes and socks. And as was pulling on my shoes, suddenly I heard voices coming from the trail. I looked up…

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and here came a small army of mission-trip-T-shirt-clad gringo teenagers. So much for the peace and solitude…but then, I was leaving anyway.

The rest of that trail was one long string of pool and rock and cascade, to the point where after a while I simply stopped bothering to take any pictures.

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And most of the time, if you looked either up or down the river, you could see children and their parents sitting in the water or clambering among the rocks. I think this would bother some people but I myself think there is no better use of a river in the world than for children to play in it.

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I think I made the right decision in using the steeper but shorter path to get back the road; I think it did turn out to be faster that way. But when you go, you won’t be worried about a sick wife that you left in the car, and you can simply take your time and enjoy the walk. So – assuming you are reasonably fit and healthy – I say you should do the loop. But if instead you decide you’ll just go to the falls and then go back the way you came…well then definitely take the upper trail, not the lower one.

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