Exploring El Yunque’s trails and waterfalls is a popular activity for visitors to Puerto Rico. Full day and half day hiking tours leave from Old San Juan and allow tourists to explore the magical rainforest and its miles of breathtaking terrain.
Within the national park there are a number of trails which can be explored with or without a guide. We opted for a half-day hiking tour with Bespoke Lifestyle Management, which took us to the Juan Diego Falls.
Juan Diego Falls is actually a set of waterfalls that cannot be seen from the road. This hike is less popular than others and considered to be one of El Yunque’s best kept secrets. The trail is steep and muddy but very rewarding.
The trailhead is located at kilometre 9.5 on Road 191 in the El Yunque National Forest, near La Coca Falls, and follows the river deep into the heart of the rainforest. Be prepared to get muddy (and sweaty) as you clamber up steep ascents, holding tree roots to keep you from slipping.
Close to the beginning of the path, a sign warns visitors of flash floods. These floods can occur throughout the year but are more frequent during the rainy months of April and May. Intense, heavy rain can create flash flood conditions and a sudden surge can claim victims in less than one minute.
Soon the path reaches the first waterfall. Beautiful as it is, one cannot help but notice the larger, higher waterfall behind.
The trail becomes steeper as it continues upwards towards the next waterfall. Shoes with good grip are a must and tread carefully to avoid tripping over tree roots.
The curtain of water falls into a shallow pool below and visitors can paddle around the edge to cool off in the water or have their picture taken behind it.
For many, this is where the hike ends, however Juan Diego has one more hidden gem. The trail becomes more strenuous as it continues upwards and the final approach requires hikers to clamber up the small cascades. The next waterfall flows into a watering hole that is deep enough to swim in. After a short but tough trail the water is delightfully refreshing and, being so well hidden, you are likely to be the only ones enjoying it!
Return back to the road by following the same path and a short drive or walk will then take you to La Coca Falls, a popular waterfall due to its unique rock surface that appears to be very smooth.
Before setting off on a hike through El Yunque rainforest, it is important that all visitors take into account some safety considerations. Always have respect for the rainforest and discuss how to alert one another and climb to safety in case of a flash flood. Always be alert for sudden storms and the sound of rushing water.
Wear good hiking shoes that you can also paddle in water with, as you are likely to be crossing streams and rivers, as well as climbing over muddy and rocky terrain. Although the weather is often hot and humid, it does rain a lot, so make sure to bring light rain gear and a bottle of water to keep you hydrated on the way.
Visitors are asked not to spray insect repellant in the rainforest and not to wear insect repellant when wading or bathing in the rivers or waterfalls. The rivers have a very fragile ecosystem and such toxins can be very dangerous to the flora and fauna. Luckily, mosquitoes are not a problem in El Yunque and so insect repellant should not be necessary. Anyone walking or hiking in the national park should also take care not to litter.
The trails are well marked but the forest is vast and parts of the terrain can be dangerous. It is important that hikers stick to the trails and avoid heading into unmarked areas, which could lead to steep drops or other hidden dangers. Visitors can pick up a trail map from a ranger station or download one online.
Camping is allowed in El Yunque but permits must be completed two weeks in advance.