El Yunque Rainforest Tour – Rainforest Nature Walk to Waterfall Adventure
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Highlight: Very knowledgeable guides with a real passion for ecotourism made this excursion well worth the travel distance. Seeing the exotic wildlife and natural beauty of the rainforest was definitely one of the highlights of our cruise.
What’s Missing: It was an hour bus ride in each direction to the rainforest, limiting the amount of time we were able to spend at the actual location. The tour company also lacked organization for tracking guests once tickets were collected leading to delays boarding the bus prior to departure.
Main Takeaway: This excursion provided a scenic and informative walk in the only rainforest that is part of the U.S.A. National Park Service, allowing visitors to admire the unaltered landscapes of El Yunque Rainforest. The walk is of moderate intensity over a mostly smooth terrain. This tour company provided a backpack stocked with essentials, including snacks and bottled water, natural bug repellent, and an umbrella (this is the RAINforest!). The tour guides had a true passion for their jobs, providing detailed information about the ecosystem during the walk. If you enjoy nature and the outdoors, then an El Yunque Rainforest Tour is a must when you visit Puerto Rico.
Not Everyone Can Hike
Like many cruisers, when we travel we are always looking for some type of thrilling experience—parasailing, zip lining, snorkeling, rhino riders, ATVs—you name it, we have tried it or would try it! However, on our 2014 cruise to San Juan on Independence of the Seas, our ship was only docked on the island from 7:00am to 1:30pm, limiting our shore excursion options.
Inside El Yunque Rainforest Photo Credit mihir samel |Source|CC BY 2.0
Given these considerations, doing an El Yunque Rainforest Tour seemed like a good option. The cruise company offered four different rainforest excursions, three of which were rated at moderate intensity and one as strenuous. While we do like to get our heart pumping, rigorous exercise in a humid, hot, and densely packed tropical environment was not on the Princess’ agenda. Thus, we opted for one of the moderate excursions- the Rainforest Nature Walk to Waterfall Adventure.
Who’s Coming with Me
Unlike other ports of call, the old San Juan port has no shops, tourist information, or other services and amenities. It is literally just a pier with armed security. Upon exiting the gated area, you are greeted with a regular city street. A variety of vendors, tour operators, and taxis are all clamoring for your attention in front of this pier exit.
The Tour Buses Line Up Right Outside of Old San Juan Port
That being said, you can imagine it made for a very scattered and disorganized scene when attempting to check in with the tour operator for our excursion. After finally locating our guide, Melba, she took our tickets and had us stand in a line—no wristbands identifying our tour, no back guide to watch over the line—all the while, more passengers continued to filter off the ship and onto the busy city streets.
After some time the guide did, what she thought was an accurate head count, and the group boarded a bus that must have been sitting there the whole time. We grabbed a seat on the bus and then proceeded to watch the last three people board with no empty seats—a bit of a miscount! After some verbal exchange, the 3 seemingly agitated passengers got off the bus and were hopefully directed to another bus that could accommodate them.
Entering the Rainforest
The trip to the El Yunque rainforest is over an hour from the port. There was brief restroom stop, at a local McDonalds, after about twenty minutes into our drive on the highway. It was made known that this would be the only restroom available during the trip, so after everyone had a chance to use the facilities, it was back on the bus to continue the trek to the rainforest.
A View from Atop El Yunque Rainforest Photo Credit Sarah Richter|Source|CC BY 2.0
During the transport, our guide Melba was providing facts about the history of San Juan and the rainforest. Unfortunately, I was not as attentive as I should have been during her narration.
The bus entered the national park area by about 9:00am and began the climb up the mountain side. It finally dropped us off at our meeting point located at the Palo Colorado Information Center.
Here, we met our second guide, Michael, who ended up being the owner of the tour company, Enchanted Island Eco Tours. He offered everyone a backpack full of the essentials for the trip including bottled waters, snacks, natural bug repellent, and an umbrella. Stupidly, I had brought my own bag that I filled with basically the same stuff, but it was much heavier! Once everyone had their gear donned, a group picture was taken, and we prepared to start the walk into the rainforest.
El Yunque Rainforest Tour – Seeing the Wild Side of Puerto Rico
At an elevation of 2,132 feet, almost a half a mile above sea level, we started our nature walk. We made our way, winding through the rainforest at a gradual downhill slope, about a half mile to the La Mina Falls, with a total change in elevation of almost 500 feet. Let’s just say that getting down the path was much easier than getting back up!
Clearly Marked Walking Path in El Yunque Rainforest Photo Credit Sushant Jadhav |Source|CC BY 2.0
While the path is relatively smooth and well defined, there are many steps and steep inclines along the way. Even descending, you need to be careful as the ground is wet and very slippery at times. The tour guides are mindful of this and try to point out the safety risks along the way. It is also very narrow and can lead to bottlenecks. We were forced to step off the path at times to allow other non-escorted guests to pass our group.
At the beginning of the tour, the guides instilled some basic knowledge about the rainforest including size and average rainfall—over 200 inches of rain per year. It rains in some quantity every day. During our trip, we were able to see and hear the rain, but were luckily shielded from getting wet by the tree canopy.
Inside the Rainforest
Along our guided tour, we were able to experience the flora and fauna of the rainforest firsthand. The guides directed our attention to the different plants and trees specific to this ecosystem as we passed, including the prominent tabonuco trees which can grow over 100 feet tall and the Molito trees which have adapted to the rocky landscape of the rainforest by growing buttress roots- large roots that are found above the surface.
There are 26 unique tree species in El Yunque in addition to many ferns and mosses that grow abundant here. Beware as there are a few poisonous species of plants to watch out for as well, which the guides made sure to point out along the way.
A Rare Shot of the Puerto Rican Tody Photo Credit Marcel Holyoak|Source| CC BY 2.0
Up Close and Personal with a Coqui Photo Credit Angie Shyrigh| CC BY 2.0
Another must see is the coqui, tiny little frogs that are also known for their song. Finding them is difficult, but Michael was able to find one under some debris for us to get an up close look. Unfortunately, it did not stay around long.
This Lizard is Trying to Blend into his Surroundings in the Rainforest
In addition to the frogs and birds, a plethora of lizards and snails could be spotted camouflaged among the trees, and fish and shrimp were plentiful in the water areas.
At one point during our El Yunque Rainforest Tour, we came upon a fallen termite hive. While the Princess did not see it coming, I certainly knew what was about to happen next-Michael lifted the hive, grabbed a termite, and chowed down on it. I guess he didn’t have a chance to get room service for breakfast that day!
Termites as a meal?
Michael, the second guide, was very passionate about the rainforest and while he provided amazing information, his detailed descriptions and tangents did put us a bit behind schedule. At some point, he even made his way down a steep cliff to pick up some trash left behind by other travelers.
Looking Over the Side of the Trail
Race to the Top
By the time we actually made our way to La Mina Falls, we only had a 15 minute stay instead of the advertised 30 minute break—but that was fine. The waterfall was pretty, though rather crowded and too small for everyone.
DB and The Princess in front of La Mina Falls, El Yunque Rainforest
Due to our delay leaving the port and longer than expected walk to get to the waterfall, we had to hustle back up the path to get on the bus for our hour ride back to San Juan. Melba and Michael let some of those that were in better shape walk ahead, while older and less physically fit travelers stayed with the guides at the back end. We were somewhere in between, not leading the pack by any means, but we were not the last ones up the trail either.
More Falls in El Yunque Rainforest
Back at the top, all gear was returned, and we quickly boarded the bus. While on the bus, we were informed that we could get free pictures from the tour just by leaving a review on TripAdvisor, which of course we did. The ride back was relatively quiet as I think many of us were a bit worn out from the adventure. Some of our fellow cruisers were commenting that the walk was more demanding than expected. Count us in on that!!
The all aboard time was 1:30pm, so the Princess was getting a bit upset that we were cutting it so close. Albeit late, we did arrive back at the port only to be greeted with a sea of other people trying to get back to the ship as well. Despite the few small bumps in the road, we can now brag that we have walked, or maybe shall I say “hiked”, the only U.S.A. rainforest. And, we would definitely recommend it to those with some degree of physical ability!
Have you done an El Yunque Rainforest Tour in Puerto Rico? What is your favorite thing to do in Puerto Rico while visiting on a cruise? Drop us an anchor below to help your fellow travelers make the most of their next visit to Puerto Rico.