The Caribbean National Forest, Puerto Rico’s Oldest Park
A forest doesn’t immediately come to mind when thinking of the islands of the Caribbean Sea, so the name “Caribbean National Forest” may sound somewhat odd. Get past this impression, however, and you’ll find that you CAN see the forest for the trees! Puerto Rico’s Caribbean National Forest is indeed a very special place, and the world owes Spain’s King Alfonso XII a debt of gratitude for establishing the park in 1876. It was only 12 years earlier, in 1872, that the very first national park in the United States (Yellowstone National Park) was created by an act of Congress.
The Caribbean National Forest is, at 28,000 acres, by far the largest park in Puerto Rico. It is also the only tropical forest in the entire US National Park system. Located in the northeastern part of the island due east of San Juan, the Caribbean National Forest is actually an expansive, wide-ranging ecosystem that rises from the surrounding plains into the Sierra de Luquillo Mountains to a height of 3,357 feet above sea level. As one climbs higher into the mountains, different ecological zones will come and go, each with its distinctive flora and fauna. Dozens of spectacular rain-fed waterfalls tumble from the heights, making the park a favorite with tourists.
The Caribbean National Forest is known to Puerto Ricans as “El Yunque”, a name derived from the ancient Taíno Indian expression that means “Forest of Clouds”. Traces of the original inhabitants of Puerto Rico have been found inside the park, in the form of prehistoric rock carvings. Inside this idyllic Eden are the habitats of plants and animals found nowhere else, many of whom are critically endangered. One of these is the distinctive Puerto Rican Parrot, once common on the island but sadly reduced to less than 50 individuals. The people of Puerto Rico have long respected the importance of maintaining the Caribbean National Forest and it stands today as one of the most important biodiversity reserves in the Western Hemisphere.