Puerto Rico’s varied landscape is a sweet treat for nature lovers, especially those looking to go on a hike or two during their trip. The island is known for its lush and lively rainforests, but it also boasts deserts, coastlines, and caves. These areas all sustain diverse ecosystems, host unique combinations of flora and fauna — some of which are only native to the Caribbean region.
With such fragile lifeforms calling these areas home, it’s best to stick to the marked trails while hiking. Yes, it’s easy to be tempted off the designated route by a colorful bird or flower, but follow what the US Forest Service has laid out as diligently as possible. Leaving the trail may also put your own safety at risk, as it’s not unheard of for travelers and tourists to become lost in the island’s dense forests after some ill-informed wandering.
Also, it’s important to understand that most of the hikes listed here are found in rainforests, a term that should not be underestimated! In these areas, it rains every day, often up to four times. When saddling up for a trek, be sure to bring at least a poncho, if not a quality, waterproof jacket. Shoes with adequate treading are also a requirement when considering these hikes, as the constant precipitation can make trails and lookouts quite muddy and slippery.
Finally, please remember that Puerto Rico is still very much recovering from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria and Irma. This not only goes for its man-made infrastructure found in cities, but also its natural areas. El Yunque Rainforest — the island’s most popular forest for hikers — was closed for a period of time following the storm, and although it is now open again, the Forest Service still needs help with recovery efforts. For all updates regarding El Yunque, and to see ways that you can make a positive impact during your visit, check out the Forest Service’s website. College students can even gain credit hours toward related courses by volunteering at the forest.
Now that the proper etiquette has been communicated, here’s the fun stuff — Puerto Rico’s best hikes!
La Mina Trail
Located in El Yunque National Forest, the La Mina Trail is arguably the island’s busiest hiking trail, and braving the inevitable traffic will reward you with sweeping views of the area’s stunning landscapes. The trail winds through the warm and dense El Yunque rainforest and mostly follows the winding La Mina River, even crossing over the gushing stream at times. The hike is short (around 45 minutes each way), but it has its difficult stretches before finishing off at the picturesque La Mina Waterfall. Like most busy attractions, the sooner in the day you can get yourself there, the better. Crowds will only grow as the day goes on, and if you’re interested in a chance at a peaceful swim, you’ll want to hit the trailhead early.
If you’re planning on taking a dip in the water, though, make sure you’re not wearing bug repellent, as those chemicals can have serious effects on delicate ecosystems! This is especially important right now, considering the strain that storm damage has put on the island’s rare flora and fauna. Rain that falls on the park here supplies 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s drinkable water, but the loss of leaves and mosses on trees will make it harder for the ecosystem to retain this water. Consider volunteering at El Yunque to survey damaged areas and help officials in assessing what kind of work still needs to be done.
Also located in El Yunque, the Caimitillo Trail features the same rich foliage and wildlife that you’ll find along La Mina, but it doesn’t require the same effort. The terrain here is more conducive to a relaxing walk, as Caimitillo features well-kept (when open) gravel and concrete pathways, plus a number of picnic areas. Travelers can expect to reach the trail’s end in about 20 minutes but can extend their stay if they’re interested in relaxing (and BBQing) under one of the picnic huts. Also note that this trail leads to others in the forest, which makes it worth checking out for those curious in longer treks, too. The park also stands to benefit from those with a penchant for exploration: recent damage to foliage also meant damage to trails, so volunteers might have the chance to clear paths and place waymarkers.
El Toro Trail
Though part of the trail is still partially closed (the area where the trail meets the Trade Winds National Recreation Trail), El Toro is still high on the list of best hikes in Puerto Rico. You don’t need to experience the trail’s entirety to achieve the feeling of standing atop one of the island’s tallest points, which is especially enjoyable on a cloudless day.
When fully functional, the El Toro Trail covers roughly 12.5 miles (20 kilometers). At the time of this article’s publication, hikers are limited to a shorter, five-mile (eight-kilometer) loop that leads straight to the namesake peak. Attempting the summit will quickly reveal what kind of shape you’re in (or not), but catching your breath is all the sweeter when enjoying a breezy view of the surrounding Luquillo Mountains from 3,524 feet (1,074 meters).
Cerro de Punta
Moving away from El Yunque, another amazing haven for hikers is Toro Negro State Forest, located in the Cordillera Mountains in central Puerto Rico. Toro Negro covers 7,000 acres of land, boasts a number of waterfalls, and features the island’s highest peak: Cerro de Punta, which stands at 4,390 feet (1,338 meters). To reach the mountain’s summit, it’s best to start from the trailhead near Hacienda Gripiñas, an old coffee-plantation-turned-inn. The hike is only a five-mile (eight-kilometer) round-trip and, at such towering altitude, travels through a unique environment called a cloud forest. If you’re planning on tackling this hike, cross your fingers for a sunny day, as it’s possible to see the entire island from the top, with views spanning up to 75 miles (120 kilometers) in some directions!
The Interpretative Trail is one of two main trails found in the Guajataca Forest, a small, dry subtropical forest in the island’s northwest region. As many people travel to this area for its nearby beaches and coastline, it’s definitely a worthy stop to make for a quick adventure. You can find the trailhead just a few feet from the visitor’s center and, while traversing the two-mile (3.2-kilometer) trail, enjoy the serenity of the forest — full of birds and butterflies — that’s unlike any other protected area in Puerto Rico.
There are also options to explore the forest further, as two trails veer off toward other points of interest. The first is a short but steep walk up to an observation tower, and the other a longer journey to Cueva del Viento (Cave of the Wind).
Due to the continuous efforts toward restoring Puerto Rico’s natural parks and forests, all updates are welcomed. Consider devoting a portion of your time in the area to these efforts, whether through official channels at the U.S. Forest Service or services such as Workaway. If you have any information regarding these issues, please share in the comments below!