I had this dream. A dream to take my four kids to the rainforest before they or I get too old. Perhaps both!
A daunting task. Never mind the price. It’s the hard work of traveling with four kids ranging from 1-13.
And yet….my kids are growing up fast on me. Life experiences count. Family time is cherished.
Turns out, with four kids there was no easy button in Puerto Rico or the El Yunque rainforest. It was hard. It was a struggle. And it was totally worth it.
Every penny spent was worth it. The memories will last a lifetime.
El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. national forest system. At 29,000 acres, it is one of the smallest in size, yet one of the most biologically diverse!
The rainforest had so much to offer that we visited twice in one week and it still didn’t feel like enough time.
Life is meant to be lived. Here’s my best advice before visiting El Yunque rainforest yourself for the best experience possible.Read more: Booking tickets to El Yunque National Rainforest and best visiting tips…
But first…why go to Puerto Rico?
When I realized flying to Florida would cost me almost as much as flying to the Caribbean, I slapped my own forehead.
Forget Florida, let’s see the Caribbean instead. But which island should we visit?
I settled on Puerto Rico because it was a cheaper destination for us to fly to than most others, has reasonably priced food and accommodation options, and best of all….so many natural beauties to explore.
Pristine beaches, eye-popping Islands, snorkeling, hiking, rainforest wonders, and off-the-beaten path adventures. I could ask for no more.
Besides, Puerto Rico boasts the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System and the United States Forest Service.
What are you waiting for?
No pictures could do El Yunque justice. I feel so blessed to have had this experience of spending two days (mornings) hiking in the park with my family.
The plants. The waterfalls. Natural green walls ascend up thousands of feet. Flowers that astound and amaze. Towers to climb. Animals to see. All so wonderful!
Last…but certainly not least, I think it’s nearly impossible to get bad food in Puerto Rico! Reasonably priced, too.
Registering prior to booking tickets to the El Yunque National Rainforest
It’s free to visit the park but there’s a $2 per car registration fee. Registration is per vehicle, not per person. My whole family visited the park for $2. See why I love PR?!
This is the site where you register: https://www.recreation.gov. The reservation is required at the checkpoint at La Coca. In fact, I was asked to show identification so I pulled out my driver’s license!
The easiest thing to do is to go to the search box and type in El Yunque National Forest. From there, the page pops up and it virtually walks you through the process. Easy peasy.
You also need to sign up for an account with recreation.gov, so make sure this step is completed days before you attempt to book tickets.
Realize that it will be stressful knowing you can’t book tickets to the El Yunque National Rainforest until you have registered so check this off your to-do list days prior.
Then simply print out the registration sheet with the QR code from your computer so it can be scanned when you enter the park.
Or, you can bring your reservations up on your phone from the confirmation email they’ll send you. Be advised, your phone service may or may not work in the park. Ours was iffy.
When you arrive at the park, this reservation pass will be checked by a worker and they will ask for a valid ID to prove who made the registration. Be warned!
If you are a few minutes late (we showed up at 8:15 am) the park workers won’t fuss about tardiness. And if you have an 8 am reservation, they don’t kick you out at 11 am either. You can stay until the park closes at 5 pm regardless of your arrival time.
How the booking process actually works…
There are two opportunities to snag entry tickets for El Yunque: tickets are made available approximately 30 days out from the date you choose to visit.
Remember that “30 days out” varies from month to month depending on the number of days in any given month.
There are roughly 30 ish tickets for each slot up for grabs each day seven days a week.
There are two slots available: 8 am-11 am and 11 am-2 pm. You only need to choose 1 (one) ticket PER VEHICLE, not per person.
If you forget to register 30 days prior or are uncertain of exact plans, your second opportunity comes in the day BEFORE the next upcoming date in the calendar. For example, tickets for March 10 will be available on March 9 at exactly 8 am AST.
For “30 days out” tickets open up at 9 am each day and then go quickly. Tickets can go in minutes, especially on a busy weekend. So be ready to purchase at 9 am AST. Be mindful of any timezone changes.
For example, I had to sign on at my computer at 8 am in my timezone as it was 9 am in Puerto Rico when I bought my tickets. If I failed to note this, I wouldn’t have scored any tickets at all!
I checked at 9:10 AM (AST) to see how many tickets were left and they were all gone for both time slots.
To my knowledge, there are no same-day booking options.
So if you’re planning a visit to the rain forest during your stay in PR, you need to pick a specific date in the future, plan your day/visit around that date, and log in to https://www.recreation.gov exactly only 30 days out to grab your (very) limited tickets.
Or while you’re in PR, log in at 8 am the day before you’d like to visit and try to score tickets.
Why choose the 8 am time slot over the 11 am time slot?
With four kids who are early risers, we found the 8 am time slot to be ideal.
The park is virtually empty at this time and it makes for a magical experience. So when you ascend one of the three famous towers~ you can enjoy the vista all by yourself!
A big bonus is that you will see wildlife you would not otherwise see.
After tons of people have walked up a path, the animals all disappear as they get spooked.
We were blown away by seeing two of the five species of hummingbirds on our 8 am hike up Mount Brittain. Truly amazing! We also saw lizards and numerous bird species that others likely didn’t see by arriving at a later time.
In fact, as we were descending Mount Brittain, we encountered hundreds of people going up.
Talk about crowd control! There was barely room to walk. Hiking claustrophobia for sure! The magic was gone.
And. The. Parking. Parking is limited and the later you show up, the less likely you’ll score a spot. When we got to the park, we were one of three cars.
I won’t even mention how long the bathroom lines get at this time!
When we left, we saw dozens of cars buzzing around the lot vying for our spot. Good luck to all!
Should you book a tour guide for the El Yunque National Rainforest?
To this…I say 100% no unless you have money to burn.
There are tons of well-labeled maps throughout the park which you can take pictures of on your phone camera.
It’s not rocket science. The trails are well-marked. I watched lots of Youtube videos to know which trails I wanted to hike prior to coming to the park. This saved us tons of time during our visit!
We choose to hike Mount Brittain on the first day which was a Monday and start the El Yunque Peak for the second visit which was on the Friday of that same week.
We thought two visits to El Yunque in one week spent in Puerto Rico was adequate for our family. But most families will probably be content with one day. We just love hiking!
The prices I saw for hiring a guide were ridiculous, with some over 100 bucks a person! Plus you’d have to tip as is expected in Puerto Rico. With a family of six, that made zero sense.
I loved playing tour guide and calling the shots, just the six of us hiking together instead of being huddled in a tight group of 30.
The people in the back of the tour can’t even hear the tour guide speak and I can locate snails for myself. But do what works for you!
The fine art of snacking in the rainforest
It goes without saying that having snacks and lots of them are the key to success for long hikes. Not to mention hydrating drinks.
Nothing worse than hungry/thirsty kids. I take that back. A starving, cranky husband is infinitely worse! Especially since he’s the one who had to carry our 20-pound baby in a backpack the whole time.
Two bottles of water per person is the bare minimum. I carried three for myself. And bear in mind, empty water bottles are virtually weightless so as you drink, your weight load decreases.
Plus, if you get lost, you’ll appreciate the extra water and extra snacks.
I had the kids carry small mesh bags with 1.) two bottles of water 2.) a granola bar, 3.) an apple 4.) an orange. 5.) a cheese stick
As the mama bear, I also had a bag of Doritos, extra apples, and trail mix including m & m’s with no raisins. Because nobody really likes raisins, right? I mean, the word “sin” is right in there.
When we got to our first tower peak, out came the Doritos to celebrate. A win for all!
What to wear to the rainforest to be most comfortable
It rains in the rainforest. That’s a no-brainer. Wet kids are zero fun. Another no-brainer.
So be sure to check the weather specifically for El Yunque on your phone before you leave your rental unit.
The day I visited called for no rain, so we left our jackets in the car. But in life…expect the unexpected. So I included a lightweight, cheap poncho from home in each mesh bag.
Gift shops sell them in the park and they’ll charge you a mortgage payment for each one so bring your own! Although we ended up not needing them, it felt good to be prepared!
Even if it’s just misting, you’ll appreciate staying dry.
Bear in mind, it’s cooler in El Yunque than in the rest of Puerto Rico, and the higher you climb the cooler it gets.
I was comfortable in loose shorts and a tank top. But you might prefer three-quarter yoga pants with a lightweight windbreaker.
The kids and Tom also all wore tank tops and quick-dry shorts. I put pants on the baby and a long sleeve shirt to protect him from both bugs and the sun.
And yes, Tom just told me that in the pic the baby is wearing shorts. I did pants the second day learning from my mistake from the first!
Footwear for the forest….hats and bug spray…
But your biggest concern is your footwear. Wet feet. Bleh. So water socks might be a good choice. I wore plastic Croc sneakers with socks. Ideal choice since I noted it hadn’t rained the day before and the paths were dry.
Comfortable and stylish. What more could I want? Mount Brittain is a “dryer” path so I wasn’t hesitant to wear socks, besides, they prevent blisters.
My husband was too cheap to buy real Keens which are an excellent choice, but his knock-off Keens worked well.
If you know that it hasn’t rained, sneakers or hiking shoes are your best bet. Almost all the paths can get slick, especially after rainfall, so be careful! You don’t want to fall and get hurt due to poor footwear.
As a final option, you can wear sneakers and bring water shoes, but that’s a pain. Flip flops are a solid no.
Also, have a hat on hand. This can be a sunhat or baseball cap.
Although it’s not particularly sunny in the park (we didn’t even bother with sunscreen) the hat keeps pesky bugs away and makes you feel adventurous.
I did not notice a single mosquito but brought bug spray and soaked all of us before hiking. I left the can in the minivan because I didn’t want to carry it.
To swim or not to swim in the rainforest…
Finally, there are watering holes and waterfalls you might want to swim at. Juan Diago Creek for one.
So you can hike in your swimsuit and then do the swimming on your way out. (No one wants to hike in a wet swimsuit).
Or you can plan on two days in the park as we did. One day with a more hiking focus where no swimming is planned and a second day with a swimming focus.
For the second day, just wear your swimsuit to the park. There are bathrooms in the park you could change in as well, but be advised, if there’s a tour bus in the parking lot expect a long wait.
Or, if you find the idea of hiking in your swimsuit repulsive (Tom does) hike in your clothes and change in the bathroom right before your swim.
Diago Creek is close to the open bathrooms for a quick stop.
And bring towels. We found the water to be a tad chilly. Besides, you don’t want to get your seat in the car wet for the drive home.
Parking in El Yunke
Perhaps the justification for the need for reservations to El Yunke is the parking situation.
There’s just not enough of it. Parking can be frustrating if you’ve rented a car, or not frustrating with a little planning.
To visit the Yokanu Tower, we used the first lot on the left.
For the Mount Britton trail, we used the Palo Colorado parking lot. There are two smallish parking lots adjacent to each other here, the first having the bathrooms.
The first lot has about 10-12 spots and the second lot has about 15-20 spots. Very little parking!
First come, first served. If you don’t come early, you may find yourself waiting around till someone else leaves to snag a spot.
There is roadside parking but it’s sketchy and somewhat dangerous. Not only do you risk getting hit when getting out of your car, but you risk getting your car hit because there’s not much room to pass and roads are curvy.
I’ve also heard that you can get ticketed for parking along the road. Zero fun on vacation. You might get away with it (many do by my observations) but it’s probably not worth the stress.
A few non-reservation options to booking tix to the El Yunque National Rainforest…
If you end up not being able to reserve tickets all is not lost.
You can still visit the park and hike the Angelito trailhead as this trail does not require tickets to be reserved in advance. Added bonus: it’s an easy hike!
The Angelito Trail winds for 0.5 mile downhill to some large pools on the usually clear Rio Mameyes. The canopy of the surrounding forest reflects the recovery from several devastating hurricanes.
Expect to see ruddy quail-doves. Also present are Puerto Rican lizard cuckoos and many wintering warblers, such as northern parula and black-throated blue warblers. The pretty yellow and brown striped sharp-mouthed lizard is common in this area.
Mountain mullet, gobies, and several species of freshwater shrimp can be seen in the pools.
El Portal is another non-reservation option.
The well-designed visitor center in the midst of the forest provides interactive displays and viewing of tree ferns, cecropia trees, and other rainforest plants from a paved sidewalk, making it handicapped accessible.
Viewing is best early morning when birds are most active and calling.
Commonly seen birds include red-legged thrush, gray and loggerhead kingbirds, bananaquit, black whiskered vireo, Puerto Rican bullfinch, black-cowled oriole, stripe-headed tanager, and Puerto Rican woodpecker.
The lizard cuckoo and Anolis lizards can be seen during the day. At night, expect to hear Puerto Rican screech owls and the call of the coqui.
If all else fails why not visit the natural water slides just outside the park? Check out Las Pailas where the natural water slides are. Pay a guy $5 to park outside his house. Also check out Las Tenajas. Both rainforest sites are located right outside the park.