Puerto Rico: El Yunque & Santurce

This feels a bit like a catch-all post – so I hope I do everything justice! My last two posts focused on specific aspects of Puerto Rico: The island of Vieques and a historical tour of Old San Juan.

But there’s so much more to Puerto Rico! Including one of the activities I was most excited about on the island: El Yunque National Forest. There were two other outdoorsy activities on my list, but both are currently closed (Cueva Ventana & Parque Nacional de las Cavernas del Río Camuy), so I pinned all my hopes and dreams on El Yunque – it did not disappoint.

El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the US National Forest System. There are over 240 species of trees and various small wildlife like lizards, frogs, and birds. I even saw my first mongoose!

Our visit to El Yunque was nearly a disaster (a theme for us in Puerto Rico!). We went online to buy tickets, only to discover that tickets are made available a month in advance and a day in advance. We had missed the window for the first option, which meant we were up at 5:45 am on the day of our flight (which wasn’t leaving until nearly 2:00 pm) to try to snag our tickets.

It looks like there are 55 tickets available for the first round of sales, and when we went on there were 120 tickets for round two. That might sound like plenty of tickets, but they sold out in under 3 minutes – luckily, we got what we needed!

You don’t need tickets to enter the park itself, but you do to enter the section we wanted: La Mina Recreational Area. Our plans were to start at the Mt. Britton Trail and hike to the tower before making our way to El Yunque Trail. That’s not what ended up happening!

We slept in the day after our flight and had a late start – this wasn’t a problem, our ticket got us entry into the park anytime between 8-11 am. We made a quick stop at the Yokahú Tower and got the following incredible view:

Not long after, we started on our way to Mt. Britton Tower. The path was paved(ish) and shaded with absolutely lovely trees. It was warm, but not hot – a perfect day for hiking.

We made it to the tower with little incident, other than being accosted by small gnats when we had the gall to climb up for some amazing views. Then we had a decision to make: The 1.3 km hike was supposed to take 45 minutes, but we made it in under 30. Should we hike another 4.2 km (with an unspecified hike time) to get to El Yunque Peak or should we hike back 30 minutes, drive to the peak (along a scenic as hell drive), and start our hike there.

The second option won because we weren’t sure how shaded the next 4.2 km would be. Only, once we drove away, we discovered the road to El Yunque Peak was closed. You can believe I was pretty disappointed – and it wasn’t until I sat down to write this post that I learned that the hiking path to the peak was also closed!

But we decided to make the most of our misfortune and we chose a few other trails to hike instead. We started at Juan Diego Creek. The trail took us to a series of waterfalls and involved a bit of a scramble to get to the highest one. It was a relaxing spot – had we known about it in advance it would have been a great picnic spot! There were plenty of people lounging and swimming.

Our next stop was La Coca Falls – it’s a waterfall right on the road. Lovely to look at, but not a lot of time needs to be spent there.

Then we were off to Angelito Trail Head. We were so surprised at how well the cell service had worked throughout the park – we’d had no trouble finding any of the trails. That said, it was a little murky where Angelito was actually located on the map, so we stopped when we came to a mass of parked cars. We joined the crowd and made our way to the water. It felt like one big party – music, barbecues, and families.

I walked across the water, using the large boulders as stepping stones, and did some exploring. There was a bit of shade on the edges, but by this point the sun was out full blast and we were feeling hungry. We got back in the car, drove another minute, and discovered we hadn’t stopped at Angelito at all! Turns out, we had joined the crowd at Puente Roto. We discussed if we wanted to make another stop, but decided it was time make our way out of the park and head to Luqillo Beach.

Chandler’s not really a beach person, but he indulges me – we had settled on Luquillo Beach because, in addition to the beach, there are kiosks for snacks and we assumed there’d be chairs and umbrellas for rent as well.

We were wrong. After a nightmarish parking situation – picture 300 cars vying for 30 parking spots – we walked along the beach and failed to find a single shady option. Despite positive reviews, we decided this wasn’t the beach for us, so we made our way back to San Juan.

The hilarious part of the story is, we never needed to make the stop at Luquillo at all. Our hotel was located in Parque, a subbarrio located in the larger neighborhood of Santurce. A block away was a beach much more our speed: Playa del Pueblo.

This beach did have umbrellas to rent, beach volleyball to play, and even kite surfing classes (I am now deeply interested in giving this a try!). I made it my mission to have many walks along this lovely beach.

The rest of our time in Puerto Rico was spent in Santurce. We loved our hotel, La Botánica, which is a sister site to our hotel on Vieques. The line that convinced us this was the place for us was, “All of our rooms have terraces, outdoor showers and are uniquely decorated with Sylvia’s family furniture mixed with one of a kind crafts.”

We were both a bit under the weather our first few days in Puerto Rico and so we ended up spending more time at the hotel than anticipated – this ended up not being a disappointment!

Every morning the hotel serves a vegan Ayurvedic breakfast. Which mostly consisted of soups & stews and were never served before 9:15 am, but they were homemade and delicious.

When we were feeling up to it, we also wandered to the nearby subbario Ocean Park. There were a few vintage shops (recommended by Bad Bunny, NBD) and that was absolutely the right call.

At BackDoor Vintage, I found these incredible Nike Dunk Lows with a candy colorway.

We also found some fun street art, a free outdoor library, and finally made our way to some great bars! La Penúltima had a relaxed neighborhood vibe and a fun drink menu.

The real showstopper was found our last night in Puerto Rico: El Bar Bero. I did not get a photo that does this place justice, but we had a fabulous time. Great speakeasy vibe from a place that looks like a barber shop by day and cocktail bar by night.

I’m not exaggerating when I say these are some of the best mixed drinks I’ve ever tasted. It rivals Hemingway Bar in Prague and that’s no easy feat. My drinks of the night were el bigote de luigi (gin, basil, lemon, cucumber) & lavender fade no 7 (elder flower, ginger, lemon, lavender, with gin replacing the whiskey). Even Chandler couldn’t resist ordering a drink here!

It was a whirlwind of a week in Puerto Rico, with just as many downs as ups, but I think I’ll always value the opportunity to travel. I wouldn’t want to live our lives any other way.

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