How to Visit Puerto Rico’s El Yunque National Forest

The only tropical forest in the US National Forest System, El Yunque is rebounding from damage by Hurricane Maria, with a newly reopened visitor’s center and eco-friendly accommodation options. Nomad Jessica shares what she loves about this park and her favorite things to do here.

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Two hikers sit beside Juan Diego Falls in Puerto Rico's El Yunque rainforest. Photo © Jessica van Dop DeJesus

El Yunque, the lush green rainforest on the northeastern coast of Puerto Rico, is one of my favorite places in the world. Coquíes (a tiny frog whose call sounds like coh-qui) serenade you along the winding roads of Río Grande that lead to the rainforest. You can't help but admire the palm trees, the pops of color from the bird of paradise flowers, and the darting hummingbirds. Entering El Yunque immediately gives me a sense of peace.

The rainforest was severely damaged in September 2017 by Hurricane María, and it took several years for the park to reopen. Many of the scars of María are still here. Before the hurricane, visitors could enter El Yunque without prior reservations. Now, visitors need to reserve an entry and check the current conditions as some trails are temporarily closed. Here are some tips on how to best prepare for your visit.

Getting there and making reservations

Getting to El Yunque is straightforward by car, and as public transportation is impossible, a rental car is the best bet if you want to explore on your own. Located in the municipality of Río Grande, it’s an hour's drive east from San Juan.

To enter El Yunque, you must make a reservation before arrival. There have been several reservation booking window changes, so I highly recommend checking with the official website before you plan your trip. In 2021, I reserved our entry several weeks ahead, but this year (2022), we could only book 24 hours in advance. I recommend being online the minute the reservations open for the day because they sell out fast. It costs $2 per vehicle to reserve, and there's a limit of two vehicles per reservation.

Certified private tour operators have different reservation systems, so you can always reserve a guided tour ahead of time. Also, if you don't want to do a tour or can't get a reservation for your car, the Angelito Trail, located at the base of the forest, does not require a reservation. The trail is an easy, short hike to the Mameyes River with shallow natural pools that are fun for any age. You can also park and take a short nature path at El Portal del Yunque (visitor's center) without a reservation.

Visiting El Portal de Yunque

I recommend starting your visit to El Yunque by visiting El Portal, the visitor area that reopened in January 2022. As well as information and exhibitions about El Yunque, there are forest rangers on staff that can answer any questions. Given the constant changes with the trails and roads, going over a map with the rangers is a good idea, even if this is not your first visit to El Yunque. They can also tell you about each trail's length and challenge level so you can plan your experience.

Sweeping view of the rainforest from the El Portal visitors center in El Yunque National Forest, Puerto Rico.
The view from El Portal de Yunque. Image credit: Jessica van Dop DeJesus

The space is modern and airy, surrounded by rainforest vegetation. One of the things that caught my eye was the many breadfruit trees I saw during my visit. Breadfruit (pana) is a popular ingredient in Puerto Rican food, and I was delighted that I could order tostones de pana (fried breadfruit) with my lunch at the El Portal restaurant. It's the ultimate forest-to-plate experience. The cost to enter El Portal is $8 per adult but note that there are several ways you can qualify for free entry.

El Yunque trails and hikes

El Yunque has 24 miles of recreational trails for all levels. Due to weather and trail conditions, they are subject to closures. Check this page for a complete list of trails and their availability. Here are currently available trails I find particularly worthwhile:

El Angelito Trail: this trail, outside the restricted area, takes you to the natural pool created by the Mameyes River in just 20 minutes. It’s an easy hike, perfect for those traveling with a family or who could not get a reservation at the park. (No reservations needed.)

Rio Sábana Trail: you can only get to this trail through the south entrance from the town of Naguabo (around an hour's drive). It’s a pretty challenging 2.2mi, with limited cell phone signal. Since it’s off the beaten path, it’s less crowded. However, you must be an experienced hiker to go on this trail. (No reservations needed.)

Britton Trail and Tower: this challenging trail takes you on a steep walk through the Cloud Forest (take a right towards Mount Britton Tower) or go straight or left to continue on to El Yunque Peak. On a clear day, you can see a stunning view of the Northeast coast of Puerto Rico. (Reservations needed.)

La Coca Trail: one of the most challenging trails at El Yunque is only 1.8mi but mostly uphill. Given that it’s a tough trail, it’s less crowded, and you’ll encounter some swimming holes and small waterfalls along the way. Make sure you prepare with water, proper clothing, and shoes if you plan to take this trail. (Reservations needed.)

Juan Diego Trail: this easy trail has a surprise at the end: a waterfall. It's only .125mi long and relatively flat, perfect for families and those with mobility issues. (Reservations needed.)

Panoramic view from the top of Britton Tower in the El Yunque rainforest, Puerto Rico.
View from the top of Britton Tower. Image credit: Getty Images / Jennifer Blount

Eco-conscious accommodations at El Yunque

Currently, camping is not permitted at El Yunque due to damage from Hurricane Maria, but there are plans to open camping facilities in the future. However, Yuquiyú farm, located at the foothills of El Yunque, offers eco-friendly treehouses with rainforest views.

If you're looking for a group retreat, consider Casa Alternavida, located only 15 minutes from El Yunque. It provides a series of group events focusing on the healing powers of the nature of El Yunque and its surroundings.

If you want a traditional hotel experience, the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico is a newly renovated resort with eco-conscious features like a hydroponic farm (currently being built), reusable water bottles throughout the property, and installing solar power in the near future.

Community experiences at El Yunque

If you want to volunteer at El Yunque, check out Love in Motion, a non-profit that focuses on conservation throughout the island. Love in Motion organizes a 7-hour trail maintenance experience. Visit their website for the schedule and details about the cleanup.

You can also support community group, Grupo Conciencia, through its Adopt a Coquí Program in partnership with Discover Puerto Rico. A donation of $25 will allow you to symbolically “adopt” one of the iconic frogs. Coquí adopters will receive a keepsake adoption certificate for their contribution to supporting conservation, sustainability, and climate resilience efforts by the organization.

A coqui frog, endemic to Puerto Rico.
A coqui frog. Image credit: Getty Images / Kevin Schafer

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