Just inside the forest along Highway 191 is the turn-off for El Portal Tropical Forest Center, open daily from 9am to 5pm. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for kids and seniors. Otherwise, the park is free to the public. Built like an open-air cathedral clinging to the side of a mountain, the facility opened in '96, and was short-lived thanks to Hurricane George of '98. Rebuilt even better, excursion vans filled with tourists line up at the gate for opening.
For those familiar with garden tropicals, the tour begins around the landscaped parking lots with labeled exotic plants and flowers. The elevated walkway entering the center passes through a section of eye-level forest, which is also a worthy introductory course with details. But once inside without a group guide, there are no signs or directions for what's available. At least all displays (and employees) are bilingual with information in Spanish and English.
Especially if arriving at opening time, make a beeline for back of the lower level, pass along covered walkway shrouded with mini-waterfalls, and enter the theater before it fills. A film on constant replay is worth sitting through, with additional information not presented elsewhere. The highlight segments feature ongoing efforts for saving the green Puerto Rican Parrot from extinction through a large breeding-in-captivity station within the forest not open to the public. Clips are appropriately subtitled when need be.
Upper-level areas above the theatre house three open-air halls with educational qualities enhanced through interactive displays and videos. To the left features basic descriptions of this particular forest and tips on what to look for proving valubale to both children and adults. The back hall addresses products and other benefits of the rain forest's biodiversity from a local and global perspective, with some pretty startling facts of destruction rates and potential adverse outcomes. The hall to the right places emphasis on indigenous cultures and how they communed within the forest as a means of survival and preservation.
Architectural enthusiasts will marvel at the center's design, which is largely open air, allowing glimpses of the surrounding forest. Peaked girders run the central length with Cathedral-style depiction, and pristine chapel views best coming from the upper-levels, where bromeliad-clad support columns trail vistas off towards the lower level and beyond to the Atlantic coast. The Forest Center is completely handicap accessible and includes a small terrace-café, restrooms, and an expansive, overpriced gift shop. Free hiking maps are at the entry counter.
For excursion tourists, a stop at the Center is included with travel packages. For independent explorers, it's merely an option. The biggest facility downfall will come with the individuals. Hoping for more than a quick browse, I forced myself to slow down and take time to read information, something easier said than done with anticipations of nearby explorations. There are enlightenments to be found. Otherwise, save the $3 and hit the trails!