Getting around in Puerto Rico is not as easy as one may think. On a map, Puerto Rico looks like this smallish island with a network of intersecting highways, and one would assume being an unincorporated U.S. Territory and all, that driving should be a cinch, right? Quite the opposite. There are no rules when driving in Puerto Rico. You just hope for the best. Having said that, we were quite lucky (except for that part where our rental car was rear ended, but that's another story). Yes, there are stop signs. Although, no one uses them. Sure, cars have turn signals, but I don't think locals have quite figured out what they are for. And those nice little highways on the map? Well, they are more like parking lots with a lot of angry, honking drivers. All my grand plans for circumnavigating the island were dashed when we realized that just getting out of San Juan required navigating through an hour of gridlock traffic. Despite these small obstacles, we put plenty a mile on our rental car. We didn't quite make it around the island, but through a series of short excursions we put over 600 miles of wear and tear on our vehicle.
On our first full day in Puerto Rico we discovered El Yunque National Forest. Nestled just about an hour east of San Juan, we felt as though we were truly miles away from the congestion and pollution of the city. El Yunque was luscious, green, and tropical, and getting there was just half the fun. When our guidebook suggested we keep a lookout for a certain building because the sign "is not always visible and heavy winds sometimes knock it down" we should have known. As luck would have it, the sign was very visible and finding El Yunque was not the difficult part. Rather, navigating the winding, narrow roads deep into the middle of nowhere was the exciting part. The climb was tedious at times, and oncoming cars were often difficult to see until they hurdled over a hill or sped around a tight curve. With white knuckles gripping the steering wheel we somehow made it.
Now before you start imagining El Yunque as a tropical oasis of colorful birds and brightly blossoming flowers, think again. It was a tropical jungle alright, but more of the vines hanging from trees and endless stretches of green variety. We had only one bird sighting. The Puerto Rican Tody briefly graced us with his appearance, but again, he was green and not like the colorful Amazon Rain Forest type I was expecting to see. Our liveliest encounters would turn out to be insect related, as Natalie's legs could attest to for days to come.
As we made our way further into the jungle there were lots of scenic spots to stop and take in the view or a trickling waterfall, some places had look out towers you could climb up or little paved pathways to hike through the trees. In the beginning we stopped at them all, but then we discovered they were sort of a waste of time. As tour buses lined up and hoards of (most likely cruise) tourists emptied out, we found the experiences of each spot to be sort of artificial and suffocating. Instead we drove as far as the road took us, away from the old ladies wearing St. Thomas t-shirts and carrying Bahamas emblazoned beach bags. At the dead end we parked. And then we hiked.
We took the Mt. Britton trail to a lookout just below the El Yunque peak (3,496 ft). The hike was easy and we were just one of several exploring it. Feeling worlds away from the Spring Breakers and Cruise tourists below, we took our time and enjoyed the scenery. The 90 degree weather was unnoticeable under the thick cover of trees, but once at the top, the heat was intense. The view from the top was spectacular as we had a nearly 360 degree view of the beaches in the north and the jungle all around.
Having gone as far as we could without wielding a machete and utilizing our bushwhacking skills, we headed back for our car and braced ourselves for the treacherous drive back to the the city. El Yunque wasn't quite the Amazon I had imagined it to be, but between the white haired tourists, the roller coaster drive, and our brief encounter with a Puerto Rican Tody, it turned out to be decent day. Considering our sightseeing success in the days to come, looking back we accomplished quite a lot.