Puerto Rico’s two best-known eco-parks are only separated by a slender mountain range and a stretch of highway -- yet the trip of a few miles from one to the other brings travellers to a whole new world.
El Yunque, by far the
more famous of the two, is lush and verdant -- a damp, steamy rainforest full
of vibrant parrots, mossy trees covered in red bromeliad blooms, croaking coqui
frogs and humidity-loving orchids. Inside is the ancient home of
"Yuquiyu", a good spirit that the indigenous Taino Indians believed
lived in the mist-shrouded mountain tops. It is this name -- slightly corrupted
by conquering Spaniards -- that is the source of the "El Yunque"
moniker used today.
Guanica, a short
drive westward along the major Ponce-to-San Juan interstate, is fiery and
desiccated, an inhospitable desert forest of rare, flowering cacti, hissing
reptiles and limestone caves. It is a crumbly, arid atmosphere with petrified,
alien rock formations, strange plants and big sea birds that wheel around the
cliff edges and over the bright blue Caribbean waves.
as they are, the two parks were in fact born from each other. El Yunque owes
its damp beauty to the fat clouds driven inland by Atlantic winds that drizzle
rainwater over the Luquillo mountains. Over centuries, as El Yunque soaked up
most of Puerto Rico's abundant moisture, poor parched Guanica – on the
Caribbean side of Luquillo – went without, slowly transforming into a unique
dry forest that the United Nations deemed a protected biosphere in the 1990s.
looping, hypnotic pathways snake through gnarled, deciduous trees. Some lead to
Fort Capron – a colonial Spanish lookout according to some islanders, but more
likely an old observation tower built by conservationists. Other paths lead to
"El Centenario", a 100-year-old tree that towers above all the
surrounding shrubs. And still more paths trail down to the white sandy beaches
along the coastline.
slow-moving lizards, Guanica appears lifeless to the casual eye, but it is actually
teeming with activity. Sun and water have eroded the clay-like soil,
creating sinkholes and caves that are home to thousands of bats and bizarre
creatures, such as the blind cave shrimp and the purple land crab. Keen
observers may even glimpse Puerto Rico's famous bufo lemur, also known
as the crested toad. Green leatherback turtles lay their eggs here, and
hundreds of mongoose -- brought in to kill the rats that once overran Puerto
Rico's sugar cane fields -- stalk the pathways for garden snakes. Flying in and
around the park's 1,000 types of trees and cacti is a diverse group of
songbirds and warblers, including the Puerto Rican woodpecker, the Puerto Rican
lizard cuckoo, the Puerto Rican emerald hummingbird and the highly endangered
Puerto Rican nightjar. Only about 2,000 of the dark-coloured chirpers remain on
the island and most live in Guanica.
The article 'Puerto Rico’s contrasting eco-parks' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.