Written by Jose Kevo on 12 Nov, 2005
Unbelievably true, pulling over along Highway 191 for taking a closer look confirmed the obvious. Vibrant red hibiscus blossoms were dangling overhead from tree-sized branches, and I smirked with envy. Living in the Middle of Nowhere, tropical plants have became my pilot of escape, a…Read More
Unbelievably true, pulling over along Highway 191 for taking a closer look confirmed the obvious. Vibrant red hibiscus blossoms were dangling overhead from tree-sized branches, and I smirked with envy. Living in the Middle of Nowhere, tropical plants have became my pilot of escape, a transport to all that's greener and warmer on the other side. Thanks to garden centers in stores like Wal-Mart, basic tropicals, including hibiscus, are turning up in homes all across America. As a self-confessed plant junky, my collection has been "on-growing."
Lowe's Home Improvement Center has became my new quick fix source with healthier plants available with 1-year guarantees, equal pricing, and of a much more exotic selection. Over the last year, forestation includes citrus trees, three new types of bananas, coffee, Medinilla and Bougainvillea, white and colored Bird of Paradise, and four different kinds of the gorgeous flowering Curcuma Ginger.
None of these need extra care beyond proven know-how, but coming to a rain forest like El Yunque was science lab-gone-recess for a botanical geek like myself, a 43-square mile opportunity of hands-on field study in growth patterns and plant management. People frequently ask how I maintain such verdancy, and they've even abandoned wilted patients ushered to death's door. Two obvious factors for healthy tropicals are necessary light and moisture, whether plants are outside or indoors, and finding the appropriate balance beyond the tag's basic instructions.
One of the worst assumptions made is because it's tropical, the plant needs full sunshine. Rain forest density quickly proves 90% of what grows receives minimal filtered sun through the forest canopy. The majority of basic tropicals are popular because they don't require much sun and can thrive in low-light interiors or office settings under fluorescent lighting. Place them in the full sun outdoors or next to a window where direct sun is magnified through glass and leaves rapidly scorch at best. On the other hand, exotic tropicals droop and shed leaves without a maximum dosage of daily sunshine, especially those of the flowering variety. El Yunque's wide-open trails and roadways were adorned with blossoms kissed by the Caribbean sun, varieties bursting with combs and petals towering in natural environments.
The other critical lifeline is moisture, and understanding that too much water can be more detrimental than not enough! Potted plants don't have the luxury of natural runoff, or root systems that can plunge to unknown depths for self-survival. Even with appropriate drainage holes in containers, too much water can turn dirt into mud, which suffocates roots, causing wilting that can be irreversible.
As soon as consistent spring weather permits, tropical plants should be moved outdoors in appropriate lighting. I prefer to soak them daily in the mornings and spray them of an evening when the humidity-driven moisture can have full affect. Unknown to most, plants do their best growing in the darkness of night. Once taken back inside for the season, watering once a week is more than enough, keeping an eye out for midweek thirst quenching if leaves droop.
Beyond this, regular mistings, and running a humidifier when plants are indoors, enhances healthiness in lieu of rains or spraying with a garden hose, which helps keep insects and harmful bacterias off buds and leaves. My hibiscus will never reach island magnitude, because pruning them, before coming inside, greatly minimizes aphids and mites their buds attract, and that can quickly contaminate other plants. And just as children quickly outgrow school clothes, plants will also outgrow containers. Re-potting them immediately after purchase, and then again about every 2 years, ensures that root systems can expand, which flourishes growth and beauty.
Look But Don't Touch?Using film canisters, our mission of a second purpose was to carefully collect seeds, pods, and spors for the nurturing task of germination, and hopefully a new variety of tropicals back home. This method was proven after finding a stray papaya seed had shot up in a few short weeks at the Bayahibe compound. Disappointed that seeds from an imported Mexican papaya had petered out in sapling stages, the Dominican variety hit pay dirt. After lying dormant in pots for a few months, seeds sprouted in spring and have already grown into 4-foot-high stalks showing signs of bark.
Even though the Caribbean's climate is tropical year-round, September ushers in the season when plants and trees in bloom deposit their offspring to germinate before the next growing season. Opportunities were ripe for the picking without really even needing to look, whether snatching from the branch or combing ground cover at the base of trees. I ended up with 17 different specimens from varieties of palms, ferns, and flowering plants. Nutmeg fruit pods littered sections of the Mt. Britton Trail.
Seeds again escaped discovery when passing through the USDA inspection station at the airport that's supposed to prohibit taking fresh foods and plant life back to the States. Unfortunately, I chickened out, testing luck with one of the coconuts that had sprouted a baby palm. The wilderness coast was blanketed with fallen coconuts and chance to thoroughly examine the growth process to be applied towards the imported Mexican variety potted and waiting. Perhaps there's hope for abducting one next time. Some rather substantially sized sea grape and breadfruit pods went undetected.
Puerto Rico's Jardín BotánicoPlans included tracking down the Jardín Botánico, which doubles as an Experimental Agricultural Station through the University of Puerto Rico. The bamboo-canopied trail leading off the parking lot had a scraggly, unkempt appearance that unfortunately dominated the 75-acre park. Sectors were scattered and overgrown, and I immediately started getting chewed up from bugs after not so much as a bite or scratch in El Yunque. The sunken gardens were centered around pools festering with brown waters emitting a raw-sewage smell, and everything else was soured from that point on.
In all fairness, the day was cloudy and damp, paths were muddy, and the ongoing hiking had physically bested for the amount of walking required here. The garden is more suitable for driving, with still little to get excited about. Should they happen to clean up their act, or curiosity get the best of you, the final deterrent will likely prove finding this secluded place.
Gettin' My Jungle On...Most tropical plants can withstand outdoor temperatures down to 40 degrees. However long before fall temperatures begin flirtations, sultry summers have usually worn out their welcome, and a restlessness necessitates a change of scenery by mid-September. With great anticipation, it takes an entire day for preparing and moving my jungle for the season; this year, 157 containers with larger palms weighing upwards of 100 pounds. Moving the tropicals outside is one thing. Figuring out how to fit them all back indoors quite the other, especially after summer growth. Thankfully, rooms inside are all open. Ongoing rearranging helps maintain the right balance.
Frequently telling myself, "enough, no more plants," seems futile. Blame it on the hormone-driven age of 16 when the obsession took root after having my first beach with palm tree encounter. Returning from Puerto Rico, where giant Heliconias burgeon, hopes were that Lowe's still had a few in stock. Forewarning myself to only purchase one, I'd forgotten it was season for the annual Save the Plants campaign, when stores slash prices once cooler weather sets in. So much for self-discipline when seven plants were acquired for what I'd expected to pay for the one.
A bit much? Perhaps, but well worth the therapeutic hour it takes once a week to maintain the island environment, certainly less than keeping up with children or pets. The soothings, when fondled by palm branches just by walking across the room, are surpassed only from observation deck perspectives while swaying in the hammock. For some, it's a transport to home; for others, the closest thing to a real travel experience they'll ever encounter. And quite contrarily, that's the how's of why Kevo's garden grows.
When scheming adventures, hiking El Yunque Trail had escaped considerations. The island's most treasured peak held unachieveable status as something to be marveled from afar, not traversed by greenhorns. Locals depicted the ambitious effort almost forbiddingly, and I was content until daring the system's other…Read More
When scheming adventures, hiking El Yunque Trail had escaped considerations. The island's most treasured peak held unachieveable status as something to be marveled from afar, not traversed by greenhorns. Locals depicted the ambitious effort almost forbiddingly, and I was content until daring the system's other challenging course. The Mt. Britton Trail was intense, worth every huff-and-puff-step for the tower's panoramas, including across the valley towards El Yunque. There was no second-guessing what had to be done.
Satisfied only two cars were in the Palo Colorado parking lot at 7:50am the following morning, an intimate hush permeated the dank tropical air. Trail-map outlined desired journey: two-and-a-half hours to the 3,496-foot pinnacle of El Yunque; a 2,500-foot altitude gain from Mt. Britton's tower, employing a 2.4-mile challenging trail more than twice as long. The first step launches onto four different routes beginning at Baño Grande. Sweat was trickling long before the Baño de Oro Trail fork, where only one purpose remained beyond the familiar, virgin territory on the pilgrimage to El Yunque.
Fresh perspectives were quickly roused when a svelte American came barrelling around a blind corner. The narrow trail caused him to down-shift when preparing to pass, but not without friendly banter. El Yunque was how this expat began mornings three days a week, and curiosity got the best of me, charged with that pesky voice of reasoning about what you're really getting yourself into. The old man eyed me, saying I could probably reach the top in about an hour; less than half the listed time. Of course, he didn't know to factor middle-aged soreness on this third day of hiking, or about the extinguished Marlboro butt shoved in my pocket.
With esteem of like speaking to Moses on his way down from the holy mount, asking about the Promised Lands was second nature. Higher elevations were fogged over with clouds brewing in morning humidity--just my luck. When parting in opposite directions, abandonment to whatever waited in the wilderness suspiciously enticed. Height of the most active hurricane season on record had lured me into weather watching more than usual. Two days of clear skies had been a bonus since forecasts had predicted 70% chance of heavy thundershowers during my entire stay in Puerto Rico.
Shelters are scattered along trails for resting, and as places to duck into when rains become too heavy. But where there's thunder, there's lightning; rather defying the "never stand under a tree" rule. Pity the fool that worries too much, or the overachiever who's driven by the hike while lacking a balanced focus that deprives not being able to see the forest for the trees.
Musings of the MistsBent over catching a breath, a light-headedness took charge when standing and slowly rotating to ogle the random scenery. A sheepish grin melted when remembering the preset--VCR back home, and here I was traipsing through a SURVIVOR Guatemala-type jungle fostering the mystic verdancies of LOST. Continuances such as this generate thankfulness for not being tied to watches, but the kid-like marvels of "how much farther?" were mounting and finally received perspective when passing an obscure trail marker that simply read 1.2 miles, the halfway point.
Easing into the Cloud Forest region above 2,500 feet didn't need any fanfares. Valleys are left behind as the trail eases into a gentle meander up the mountain. Foliage, perilously clinging to slopes, annually receives more than 200 inches of rain supplemented by El Yunque's elixir of chilled mountain air inebriated on tropical humidity, a nourishment to the forest and the hiker better than any second wind. Conditions are ripe for photosynthesis, where delicate lichens and mosses gift wrap every rock, branch, and lower-level surface, while air plants and colorful bromeliads blaze overhead attached to trunks.
As elevations increase, density of vegetation begins to shrink into what's known as the Dwarf Forest. A spiritual silence, not even violated by the coquí at these heights, is broken only by foot steps along the trail, accompanied by resonance of heavy breathing. As the forest canopy begins to disperse, presence of shadows multiply, further possessed by pearls of moisture glistening in the sun. Indiscriminate clearings gave way to brief glimpses of the coast, and something more caused a trembling. Darkness was preparing to devour the peaks, and a sense of helpless rapture stepped up the undertaking.
The sun quickly resigned to impenetrable mists caressing the massive ferns, which now hemmed the trail. The eerie shift in ambience was welcomed, if for no other reason than knowing the summit must be near. Patchwork blues began relighting the open-air path when coming to a small side trail, cutting off to the right towards a prominence that overlooked the entire eastern portion of the island. Trying not to swoon, the urge to park was immediately challenged, knowing this still wasn't the summit and hoping views would only get better.
The remaining stretch was perhaps a 5-minute trek onward to El Yunque's pinnacle, and not making the extra effort would've left the adventure incomplete. Dense clouds had swept in, rather symbolic for the defilement of sacred territory. Yukiyú is what Tainos called the spirit of this mountain that protected their island of Borinquen. Spaniards corrupted the name to Yunque, meaning anvil, which the peak does resemble in shape. The crest had obviously long been cleared giving way to mega-satellite dishes and communication towers shunned within the clouds. A small, unkempt fortress was supposed to be the crowning attribute, but even with clear skies, vistas couldn't begin to compare with overlooks from the precipice below.
High-Noon Matinee; the Private Screening Sometimes a person should stop long enough to absorb the opportunity at-hand without succumbing to wanderlust of what potentially waits ahead, even with self-assuring promises to return later. Staring off into overcast oblivion from El Yunque's lower lookout cliff was daunting. Everything was now consumed in a manner that's usually encountered safely from an airplane seat. Exposed and feeling vulnerable, I shriveled onto a rock.
The rugged protrusion was less than 5 square yards and felt even more entrapping with waste and void beyond. Wisps of clouds slithered over the borders with gestures of further engulfment. Pacing about only enclosed the scant stage and prolonged the delay. Delusions of flight lured closer to the edge; a defiant step, for knocking on heaven's door, concealed with a hellacious plunge like the serpent took towards Eden. Caged and fidgety, the battle of wills persisted without resolve.
Fine mists had laundered the sweat, but it was something else that surged a spine-tingling chill that retrieved lucidness. Suspended moments passed before another occurrence verified there'd been no deception. The sun was piercing through quick-moving clouds with a sweeping motion that circled through the valleys like a floodlight from heaven. The tease of preview, for coming attractions, grew with each appearance until darkness was finally whisked away, and the rain forest was clearly unveiled at my feet.
The beacon of El Yunque, a single red bromeliad, had been radiating the entire time with tell-tale signs of why Puerto Rico's called Isla del Encanto; the Enchanted Island. The outlook of the narrow 35-mile-wide island faded off into the Caribbean shimmering like ice to the south, San Juan and the Atlantic's coastal mesa to the northwest, and the endless miles of Luquillo beaches straight ahead. Film could not penetrate haziness for capturing the resplendent waters visible to the eye; be sure to imprint the images in your mind.
Gazing across the forest canopy is quite the opposite with clarity, especially when glancing straight down, or across to Los Picachos. Views seemed close enough to reach out and touch, much like the earlier allure of stepping off into the clouds. Time could've slipped away, but all that looking down served as a constant reminder that the trek back still waited.
Funny how a return segment, by any means, always seems a bit shorter, especially when the effort has exceeded any expectations. Downhill made for an even easier walk where processing reflections was already better than taking in more forest. After countless returns to Puerto Rico, who knew this was what really awaited beyond the tourist excursion taken 11 years ago. Smugness only sweetened the satisfaction after getting robbed of the last similar opportunity.
The car clock read 2:10pm once returning, a little over 6 hours, encountering less than a dozen people on a Saturday. There's reason why one should always save the best for last. Everything else was worthy, dramatic overture, because nothing compared to experiences from the El Yunque Trail. Heading out, salsa music was gaining momentum around each downhill curve when the timeless Frankie Ruiz hit Lluvia registered that these monumental endeavors had foregone only one thing. After 3 days of hiking through the rain forest, the only thing that had been missing was rain.
For sake of curiosity or convenience, there are numerous options available using side trails that can be pleasant rambles or shortcuts for piecing together an extended hike. Trailheads and intersections are marked with maps, somewhat misleading when trails weren't to scale, appearing much longer than what…Read More
For sake of curiosity or convenience, there are numerous options available using side trails that can be pleasant rambles or shortcuts for piecing together an extended hike. Trailheads and intersections are marked with maps, somewhat misleading when trails weren't to scale, appearing much longer than what was actually found. And unless a person is sorely out of shape, actual completions of trails averaged half the listed times.
Baño de Oro TrailOne of the most enjoyable hikes passes along a pair of spring-fed stone pools built during the Depression as public swimming holes. Baño Grande is across from Palo Colorado Information Center at the trailhead, while Baño de Oro trailhead is less than a quarter mile up Highway 191. Swimming has since been banned, and both pools were currently drained and looking rather shabby.
The Baño de Oro Trail was a vibrant and colorful trek. The 30-minute easy hike makes a large loop setting out along El Yunque Trail before the last fork slices back towards the Highway. This lower section is where the Palo Colorado forest merges into the Sierra Palm forest, and the variety of plantlife is astounding, with flowering tropicals and species of palms in their blooming season. The trail was paved in some parts or hard-packed, which likely turns muddy with rains. The canopy wasn't as dense, affording more sunshine and random clearings gave some of the best upward views from lower elevations.
Los Picachos TrailOn clear days from Highway 191 and lower elevations, most confuse the distant jutting rock peaks as El Yunque. Impressive as they are, they're still not the highlight. Los Picachos, the peaks/summits, loom over the forest sprawl like watch dogs. Their only access is from a brief side trail that splits off from the El Yunque Trail in the Cloud Forest. The sign lists this as a 10-minute walk, if even that, but the brief, level path appeared to be the least used and most treacherous. Fallen branches and other debris at least carpeted over the mud.
Passing along the first peak, a sheer rock wall was rather hard to gauge within the dense vegetation. Just around the base was a small route marker saying the trail ended, and I thought, "You've got to be kidding." Well, perhaps the official trail. Off to the side, grasses look a little trampled, but conceal a passage leading to a steep staircase and large lookout platform from the outer summit. The area was overgrown and forgotten, wading through waist-high weeds to the perimeter. The rock wall was tall enough to obstruct looking straight down, and outward overviews were secondary compared to higher elevations. For the brave and/or foolish, it would be possible to stand on the wall, but with winds whipping and nothing to hold onto, even my sense of adventure cringed at depths to the bottom.
El Yunque Rock TrailFrom the lookout area below, El Yunque's summit, a large rock protrusion, is visible on the mountain's western side. From atop the peak, a trail sign indicates the path to El Yunque Rock is right there, but I gave up before finding it. Supposedly, it veers off the service road, which plunges down back of the mountain, and after walking for a good 5 minutes, I began calculating the steep climb back. From the rock, vistas would be somewhat closer for gazing across the coastal plateau towards San Juan. But unless you're up for the adventure, the lookout area from El Yunque will more than suffice.
Mt. Britton SpurAfter the grueling, uphill trek to Mt. Britton's lookout tower, expecting more of the same along the Spur Trail was further shunned thanks to trail maps outlining this jaunt as rather extensive. Thankfully it's not, and this uneventful 10-minute walk across level ground was merely a convenient connection between the park's summits. The spur splits off from the El Yunque trail connecting to the short path to Mt. Britton's lookout tower. Walking along the service road, connecting back to Britton's main trail, was rather nostalgic swallowed in jungle.
The Best of...; a Combo Gad-AboutThere were no regrets spending the better part of 3 days, mornings through early afternoons, hiking around the forest. With a little knowledge, it's possible to maximize time, especially if you're independently exploring and have only one day to spend in the park. The following recommendation links the highlights of El Yunque and is well worth the effort. It's a guestimated 6-mile trek that could be done in 4 to 7 hours, depending on fitness and taking time to enjoy yourself.
Hiking for the real AdventurousWith all that's available through the park's main trail system, it wasn't until later information revealed these inspiring treks were for the amatuers! El Yunque's hard-core hiking is rather concealed in the southwestern section, beyond where Highway 191 terminates to public usage at the km 13 marker. Tradewinds Trail is one-quarter of a mile ahead, unmarked, and cuts off to the right through unmaintained terrain. The 3.9-mile trek is the park's longest and most strenuous trail and is an estimated 4-hour journey to El Toro, the rainforest's highest peak at 3,522 feet. From there, the El Toro Trail is another 2.2 miles to Highway 186.
This arduous duo is part of the National Recreation Trail System and is recommended only for the experienced who come prepared with a full set of backwoods hiking gear and supplies, including that for off-trail camping. The almost 8-mile round-trip to El Toro alone from Highway 191 is supposedly too much for one day. Camping permits must be obtained from the Catalina Work Center, which is just beyond the Portal Visitor Center at the park's entrance.
Guest Centers & DiningThe Palo Colorado Information Center is hub of forest activity surrounded by parking lots that lead off to six different trailheads. There's a small office with information and free hiking maps should you bypass the $3 entrance fee to Portal Visitor Center. Restrooms are available here and at the Sierra Palm Food Concession also located along Highway 191. Potable water makes for a convenient place to refill containers for drinking along the trails.
Picnicking is the popular form of eats within the park, including camouflaged shelters off trailheads along the main highway. The one pictured above is just inside the Big Tree Trail entry, a perfect spot for natural seclusion. On weekends, locals hosting family reunions enliven the major picnic areas surrounding Palo Colorado, Sierra Palm, and Caimitillo Trail, where facilities include expansive, open-air shelters, and scattered grills.
If a picnic tops your list, stop and purchase foods/beverages before heading to the park. There's some roadside "tourist traps" along lower Highway 191 hawking snacks, rain ponchos, and other last-minute junk, but limited selections are overpriced, just as they are at the Sierra Palm Food Concession or small snack bar inside Portal Visitor Center.