Sometimes it’s easy to forget that Puerto Rico is a part of the United States. This island on the northeastern edge of the Caribbean Sea has the soul of the islands with a tropical vibe that seems so opposite of much of the U.S. When we decided to go for an El Yunque rainforest day trip, it really did feel like we were in a far-off land. But entering what’s labeled as the only tropical rainforest in the U.S., one that is part of the U.S. National Park Service, I was reminded that we were, in fact, in a U.S. territory.
When we visited Puerto Rico this summer, we decided to base ourselves in one spot instead of hopping across the island. Staying in Condado on the eastern side of San Juan meant that we wouldn’t have the chance of exploring some of the coastal gems in the south of Puerto Rico. But we were able to experience an El Yunque rainforest day trip thanks to it being only about an hour southeast of Condado.
And after experiencing the rainforest we spent a few hours at the beautiful water of Luquillo Beach nearby. It’s really easy to combine hiking El Yunque rainforest in the morning with an afternoon at the beautiful and calm water of Luquillo Beach, with plenty of time to be back to San Juan for dinner.
Why El Yunque?
When we decided to go to Puerto Rico, getting out into nature wasn’t a priority. I was excited about discovering San Juan culture while relaxing on the beach. It’s been a crazy summer, and this was going to be an easygoing family beach vacation.
But then I discovered the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. or one of its territories is just an hour from San Juan and I knew we needed to make this happen.
I’m not sure if traffic is ever an issue driving southeast out of San Juan toward El Yunque. Where we stayed, in Condado, it is between Old San Juan and the airport with easy access to the highway. It’s not exactly an interstate highway, but it’s close enough. We went on a Tuesday and left our hotel around 9 a.m. We didn’t experience any traffic issues on the one-hour drive. Part of the drive, by the way, is a toll road, but our rental car included a toll pass and getting through the tolls was effortless.
It was easy to get over to the highway in Condado that goes by the San Juan airport and on to Route 3 out of the city. After about an hour, we arrived at Route 191 that takes you right up into the rainforest.
Get Ahead of the Crowds
If you decide to make an El Yunque rainforest day trip, I’d suggest getting out of San Juan as early as possible to not only have the full day to enjoy the park and possibly Luquillo Beach, but also to somewhat beat the crowds. As mid-morning turned into lunch time, the main road through the park became much heavier with car traffic. And the hike down to La Mina Falls had a lot of people on it.
We entered the park on Route 191 and instead of stopping at the beautiful welcome center we decided to drive up to our farthest destination, the small parking area for the Big Tree Trail.
Because of the somewhat steep road with beautiful overlooks throughout, I knew a stop along the way up would be vital for Stacey, who happens to be deathly afraid of heights.
So our first stop was La Coca Falls. This waterfall is next to the road and can be seen while driving by. Of course there are a couple of parking areas, so getting out of the car and getting a few shots only makes sense.
We then continued up the road, driving no faster than 25 miles per hour on the curvy road in a steady rain. After about 10 minutes we made it to the parking area for Big Tree Trail and headed into the deep rainforest.
We originally were going to go up to La Mina Trail, but as we were driving up and came across the parking area for Big Tree Trail, we joined the already-forming crowd of cars parked along the road and in the parking area. I had researched both trails before hand, and was fine taking either one since they both end up in the same place: La Mina Falls.
The Big Tree Trail is 0.7 miles, descending from 1,804 feet to 1,640 feet. It’s paved, but can be difficult in places, especially as the rain is likely to fall off and on and keep the path slick.
The hike down to La Mina Falls took about 30 to 40 minutes. It wasn’t too difficult, although the off and on rain did make it a bit trickier.
The reward, of course, was getting down to La Mina Falls, which, despite being crowded was still a lot of fun. Colby and I went into the cold water and stumbled our way to the waterfall.
After about 20 minutes of playing in the cold water and taking lots of pictures, we hiked back up the trail to make our way to the car and start heading back down the mountain.
There are several other hiking trails to enjoy in the park, but honestly for this family of three that doesn’t do a lot of hiking, getting down to La Mina Falls proved to be plenty of outdoors fun for us. But before we could exit the park, we had to stop off at Yokahu Tower.
The tower is just on the side of the road, where it faces to the north and toward Luquillo Beach.
Definitely make a stop here to wind your way up the staircase to the top of the tower and its beautiful views of the rainforest and beaches in the distance.
There are also vantage points as you wind your way up the tower with large viewing openings along the walk.
After spending a few hours in El Yunque National Forest, we made our way to the coast and Luquillo Beach. It was only about a 10- to 15-minute drive to get to the beach. This turned out to be one of our most enjoyable experiences of the week.
We first enjoyed a cerviche lunch at one of the many beach shacks before heading over to the adjacent park, where for just a few bucks, we had a nice place to park, an awesome beach and a snack hut that served the strongest — and cheapest — pina colada I’ve ever had in my life.
I’ll have much more about Luquillo Beach in a future post, but I’m happy to share a few thoughts about this little slice of heaven now.
Luquillo is a bay of sorts, protected by reefs out in the Atlantic that gives it a perfect calm. There are no waves, which for our cautious son, was perfect. The water was warm, it was calm, it was beautiful and it made for a fun experience.
It seemed like more of a locals beach than one with tourists, and that made it even better. That’s probably why the pina colada was half the price and twice as strong as what we were buying back in San Juan.
It did rain off and on during our time at Luquillo; I guess chalk it up to the proximity to the rainforest. But we just kept our clothes covered on the towel and stayed in the warm ocean water as the rain fell. There are pay restrooms available, but be warned that they do close at the end of the afternoon before the park actually does.
We left the beach around 5 p.m. and were back returning the car at the car rental agency at our resort in Condado by 6. Our car was about $40 for the day, plus the half a tank of gas it took to get to the rainforest and back. All in all, it was a really good day trip that gave us the opportunity to experience some of the beauty of Puerto Rico during our week of beach relaxation.