Discovering Green Puerto Rico
Published in the Spring 2007 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Melanie Reffes
Photo (above) of El Yunque Rainforest: Mario Johnrose
Other Photos: Puerto Rico Tourism Company
Tourists typically travel to Puerto Rico to soak up the sun, relax and read a book on one of its beaches, catch a wave in the surrounding electric-blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the Caribbean Sea, or tempt “Lady Luck” at one of the Island’s many flashy casinos.
However, these days, a growing number of visitors have something else in mind when booking a holiday on this sunny Caribbean island – the promise of experiencing an exciting tropical ecotour in one of Puerto Rico’s stunning natural environments!
Exploring Beyond the Shore
Taking a cue from the Island’s snappy slogan “Explore Beyond the Shore”, savvy travelers are choosing to hike up its mountains; explore its reefs; cycle through its nature reserves; navigate its tropical rainforest; snorkel in its bioluminescent bays; take a dip in a cascading waterfall; or ride a tram that runs through a cave!
Addressing the 8th Annual Conference on Sustainable Tourism, Jorge Silva Puras, Puerto Rico’s Secretary of Economic Development and Commerce highlighted the importance of this new and very desirable trend towards green tourism. “We cannot afford, in Puerto Rico, or in any other Caribbean island, to develop tourism in any other way but in a manner that is sustainable.”
Taking a Green Vacation
Kermit the Frog said it well in that classic double entendre, “It’s not easy being green.” And while that may be true, for many people a ‘green’ vacation is the new ‘cool’ holiday.
The economic potential of sustainable tourism in Puerto Rico is as crystal clear as the Caribbean Sea and several enterprising tour operators are now offering eco-vacations that transcend any stay at a high-rise beachfront resort or a cruise ship stopover at the capital city of San Juan to briefly tour its Old Town.
With twenty-eight thousand acres of majestic crags, rushing waterfalls and awe-inspiring views of the Caribbean and the Atlantic coasts, the Caribbean National Forest, known in Spanish as ‘El Yunque’, is the most popular natural site on the entire Island, attracting some 400,000 visitors a year (250,000 of them booking through tour operators).
Located just one hour southeast of San Juan, towards the Luquillo Mountains, this is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. Forest System. It consists of hundreds of species of trees – some thousands of years old and 30 metres high. Many are covered with brilliantly coloured wild orchids.
The forest park also boasts a riotous array of other flora and is home to many small animals, including the tiny two-note chirping coqui frog, whose image is replicated all over the souvenir mugs and t-shirts sold on the island.
More than 100 billion gallons (trillions of litres) of rainfall are recorded in this forest each year, resulting in a tropical mix of glistening foliage, shimmering rocks and dew-covered walking pathways, which even on the wettest days are pierced by rays of tropical sunlight. When the clouds lift, even for a brief moment, the big rock called ‘El Yunque’, which rises to some 1,058 metres above sea level, is the most visible and stunning feature on the horizon.
The rainforest was born in the thirties, when a corps of conservationists paid five thousand local workers one dollar per day to create the park. Later, honeymoon bungalows were built for couples wanting to consummate their weddings in the woods.
You can still get married in the Forest, but you can’t overnight in it anymore. Today, those bungalows are ramshackle, but they come into use as rest stops along the park’s many nature trails. Nixaliz Crespo, a tour agent with the Puerto Rico-based GSI Tour Company, says ecotours are hot tickets in Puerto Rico these days. “Many of our clients want to get off the beach and out of the shopping malls, for at least one day,” she explained.
Guides for the Asking
The first stop for all visitors of the National Caribbean Forest has to be at the El Portal Visitor Centre (www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean). This massive open-air structure houses a theatre showing films about the park’s history, interactive exhibits and a gift shop that sells the requisite rain ponchos.
“Tours are designed for both beginner and hard-core hikers,” says Carolyn Krupp, Director of Customer Services for the Park. “Our shortest trail takes thirty minutes to complete from one road to the next, and for $5.00 US, an interpretive guide hikes along with you.”
A Closer Natural Reserve
Closer to the city, the Piñones Natural Reserve has a boardwalk through the forest. It affords views of the San Juan skyline from stretches of untamed beaches; a walk through a maze of mangroves; and bird watching par excellence.
This is a popular day tour for those wanting a short break away from their resort. Organized tours take cyclists along the wooden boardwalk or on asphalt trails, while the less athletic can stroll along at their own pace.
On the southeast coast in the subtropical humid zone, the Humacao Nature Reserve is ecologically significant because of its intricate system of marshes, channels and swamps. Kayaking tours navigate the connecting lagoons and appeal to all age groups.
Few destinations in the world have any bioluminescent bays, but Puerto Rico lays claim to three of them. The Bioluminescent Bay Kayak Night Tour takes tourists through the glowing waters of Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve and although safety equipment is provided, the tour is not recommended for people with back or heart problems.
Unique Cave Park
There are only two other places in the world where you will find a cave system as dramatic as the Rio Camuy Cave Park (www.parquesnacionalespr.com) and neither of them has an underground river thundering through it and towering cathedrals of stalactites.
Only a small part of the complex, located two hours northwest of San Juan, is open to the public and it includes a cafeteria, picnic area, gift shop and theatre.
A visit to the Cave Park starts with a tram ride down a giant sinkhole lined with tropical vegetation and a million-year-old network of limestone caverns that house a rare species of blind shrimp found nowhere else on the planet.
Guided tours are offered in English and Spanish. Experienced spelunkers can arrange rappelling tours through the isolated areas of the caves.
Riding on the Beach
The ultimate vacation fantasy is still to experience horseback riding on the beach. Tropical Trail Rides (www.tropicaltrailrides.com) offers two guided tours daily – one in the morning and one as the sun sets – both traversing the beaches and shorelines on the northwest side of the Island.
More than half of the accommodations in Puerto Rico are found in smaller hospitality properties (74%) and amongst the “greenest” of these is the Parador Villas del Mar Hau in the northwest town of Isabella.
These fully furnished cottages sit prettily on an unspoiled sandy beach shaded by Casuarinas pine trees. “This is a back-to-nature experience with all the modern amenities,” says owner Myrna Hau. She also happens to be the president of the Association of Country Inns of Puerto Rico (www.paradorvillasdelmarhau.com).
“Sustainable tourism is a win-win solution: good for the people, the planet and our profits,” she adds with a smile.
For More Info on Puerto Rico
Contact: Puerto Rico Tourism Company