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 different 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.
Today, Guanica’s 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.
Apart from 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.