Rain Forest, Forts, Beaches Await Down In Puerto Rico

Destination Caribbean

September 24, 2006|By Tom Uhlenbrock | Tom Uhlenbrock,[St. Louis Post-Dispatch ]

RIO GRANDE, PUERTO RICO / / Manuel Maldonado showed us hummingbirds, walking sticks, giant albino snails and other rain forest residents, but couldn't find a single coqui -- although they were singing all around us.

Our visit to El Yunque, the Caribbean National Forest, had been delayed that morning. The rain forest was closed because of rain. Actually, a storm that ebbed as we arrived had scattered tree limbs, and U.S. Forest Service rangers had to make sure the roads were clear.

"The Taino Indians called the land sacred, so the rain up here is holy water," said Manuel, our guide and driver. "We're getting baptized."

Once we were allowed in, we had the forest almost to ourselves. The rain had cooled off the misty trails, replenished the streams and waterfalls, and brought out the coqui, tiny tree frogs named for their "ko-kee" song.

The Caribbean National Forest is the only tropical forest in the U.S. Forest Service system, and the smallest at 38,000 acres. The Spanish preserved the section of the rugged Sierra de Luquillo in 1876, making it one of the oldest protected areas in the Western Hemisphere, with virgin forest that looks much as it did when Christopher Columbus landed 500 years ago.

Often obscured by misty rains, the forest locally is called El Yunque, which is pronounced "yoon-kay" and translates to "forest of the clouds." The forest has more than 240 species of trees and plants, 26 of which are found nowhere else, including the world's smallest orchid. Two of its most-famous animals are the highly endangered Puerto Rican parrot and the ubiquitous, but secretive, coqui.

The coqui is found only in Puerto Rico, and provides the graceful melody that fills each evening. Although introduced to other countries, the exiled coqui never sing once removed from their native land. Likewise, ask a Puerto Rican what he misses most once off the island, and often he'll say the song of the coqui.

Spain's prize

Columbus stumbled upon the island of Puerto Rico in 1493 and claimed it for Spain. Ponce de Leon followed in 1508 and gave the island its name, "rich port."

Because of the island's strategic position as the "gateway to the Caribbean," the Spanish built huge stone forts to protect their prize. The English and the Dutch tested them, but the Spanish held strong until 1898, when the United States landed troops. By then, the cannons mounted on the fortress walls had rusted and were useless as American soldiers advanced on the capital city of San Juan. An armistice was signed and Puerto Rico became a U.S. commonwealth, ending Spain's military dominance, but leaving its traditions and heritage intact.

Today, the great forts still loom over Old San Juan, the historic area that is Puerto Rico's version of the French Quarter, without the seamy side of Bourbon Street. Tourists scamper over the walls and courtyards of the forts, and walk the cobblestone streets of the old town, with its boldly painted houses bedecked with wrought-iron balconies dripping with ferns and flowers.

Puerto Rico's status as not-quite-a-state and not-quite-a-nation perennially fosters political parties that call for the island's independence. But its place in limbo also works in Puerto Rico's favor, as the island is a favorite Caribbean vacation destination for Americans from up north. Visitors from the United States need no passport, wait in no customs lines, spend U.S. currency and are greeted by residents who usually speak English and Spanish.

And while they may feel right at home, the visitors find golden beaches, tropical rain forests and a distinct culture arising from a harmonious mix of Taino, Spanish and African bloodlines.

Manuel, the guide, explained the Puerto Ricans' ingrained exuberance so evident in their music, art and physical beauty:

"The Africans who came haven't stopped singing and dancing -- we owe that to their culture. We have more holidays than any other place on planet Earth. We celebrate our own holidays, and those of the United States.

"Friday is social Friday. The woman expects to go out and dresses very beautifully. If her husband comes home and refuses to take her out, she doesn't cook the rest of the week."

Two for one

As my plane landed in San Juan, the pilot announced: "Welcome to Puerto Rico, home of Miss Universe 2006." The Puerto Ricans onboard erupted in cheers.

The Westin Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort & Spa is in Rio Grande, about an hour's drive east of San Juan. The sprawling resort sits on 540 acres between El Yunque and the Atlantic Ocean -- a pretty place to be.

"We are the only resort on the island with rain forest in front and beachfront behind," said Evy Garcia, who gave me a walking and golf-cart tour. "We are so fortunate to be close to El Yunque. People can go on their own, or take a tour. It's a great excursion."

The 10-year-old resort, which just received a $16 million renovation, has seven floors and 600 rooms, all with balconies facing either the ocean or mountains.

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