If you only have time for one day of hiking within the greater San Juan area or northern coast of Puerto Rico, go to El Yunque National Rainforest!
When I went hiking in El Yunque, I made a rookie mistake. I went on a Saturday. On any hiking day trip, the trails can be unbearably crowded on the weekends, and as I entered the park, I pulled up behind 4 tour group buses. To my surprise, however, the trails seemed to be empty. Perhaps that was due to the light rain and moderate winds which refused to subside for the duration of my hike. The trail itself was a bit rocky but not threatening or steep though the sound of wind thundering through the trees was enough to send chills up my spine and feel my heartbeat in my ears.
During the first hour of my hike, I didn’t see anyone else and all I kept thinking was it was stupid move to go it alone on a day when the weather was less than desirable, carrying a cloth backpack full of thousands of dollars worth of camera gear and other technology. But wouldn’t you know that by the second half of my hike, I managed to catch up with a few others who had hit the trail earlier than I did and immediately felt much safer. Along the way, I stopped a couple times to seek shelter from the rain when it really started to come down. There are small huts on the trail about every 1/2 mile or so, each with one bench so you can stop to rest or momentarily step out of the rain. Thankfully, the trails didn’t get too muddy or slippery which put me at ease about my decision to wear simple tennis shoes that day. On the return journey, I passed two tour groups worth of hikers who were just starting their ascent, and I felt grateful for having beat the crowds on a Saturday afternoon.
I did the El Yunque trail which takes you to the peak where there is an old observatory tower that looks straight out of the olden days of Great Britain. It is made completely of stone and looks shaped like a chess piece. Do be aware there aren’t any bathroom facilities on the trail or at the top so plan accordingly. It’s about 4km round trip which takes about 3 hours if you walk at a steady constant pace. The trail will take you up to 1,500 feet above sea level, and the whole way up, you’ll be surrounded by greens and on particularly rainy days, dense fog and occasional strong winds. Depending on the weather, you may not get a good view from the top other than the cloud that engulfs the surrounding area.
If you plan to do the El Yunque trail, there is free parking across from the Palo Alto Information Center, but space is limited so best to get there early like before 10am. There are other places to stop and park along the way up as well as different trail heads and photo opportunities.
For detailed instructions on how to get the rainforest, see here. From San Juan, it takes about 30-60 minutes by car depending on traffic. Finally, make sure you have enough gas in your tank because Route 191 up into the forest is about 10km worth of windy uphill roads and there aren’t any gas stations in the rainforest to stop and refuel.