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Navigate this blog and discover why El Yunque is a true wonder of nature.

A Journey to El Yunque

A Journey to El Yunque from Cemarie Aviles on Vimeo.

What makes El Yunque a unique wonder of nature?

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Situated in the Luquillo Mountains in north-east Puerto Rico, this biosphere reserve comprises a cross section of the natural environments of Caribbean islands, and is valued by the public as assets for conservation, recreation, tourism, education, and research. El Yunque National Forest is a steep isolated mountain on an oceanic tropical island rising rapidly from only four kilometers from the sea to an elevation that supports four distinct forest formations. It contains in a small area most of the reported species in some taxonomic groups and most reported life zones for a given jurisdiction. It contains five out of six life zones reported for Puerto Rico (i.e., subtropical moist forest, subtropical wet forest, subtropical rain forest, lower montane wet forest, and lower montane rain forest).

It contains the highest number of endemic plants reported for Puerto Rico (Eugenio Santiago in prep). It contains all but two of all insect orders reported for Puerto Rico (Torres, 1994). Within this national forest, a person can easily experience five biomes in less than an hour; this through a combination of steep elevation and related temperature and precipitation gradients over very short distances.

Cultural Value of El Yunque

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When Christopher Columbus and his Spanish explorers anchored here in 1493, they found the aboriginal Taino inhabitants living amidst verdant green tropical forests and sparkling white sand beaches. The Taino believed that the good spirit “Yukiyu,” who protected them from storms and other evils, lived atop a high peak in the Luquillo Mountains which they called “Yuk-eh” meaning “white lands” because of its year-round cloud cover. Spanish colonizers called it “El Yunque” or “The Anvil,” probably in reference to the shape of one of the forest’s peaks. The water descending from the mountains seemed of special importance, and they carved petroglyphs on rocks close to streams and rivers. There are eight prehistoric petroglyph sites in El Yunque which archeologists believe were used to perform sacred rituals. Because they are fragile these sites are protected, so El Portal (visitor’s center), is where Prehistoric Era is interpreted for the public.

Early Spanish explorers were lured into the heights of El Yunque in search of gold. There are ruins of early Spanish gold mines in the forest. During the Spanish period, when the peaks were used as navigational landmarks for ships, the forest’s mountain range was shown on nautical charts as “Sierra de Luquillo.” In the 19th century, Spain’s King Alphonso XII named 12,000 acres of the Sierra de Luquillo a forest reserve, one of the first in the western hemisphere.  As the American period began after the Spanish American War ended in 1898, the crown lands passed from Spain to the United States.

The Luquillo Forest Reserve was officially designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. With the advent of the US Forest Service in 1907, the forest became the Luquillo National Forest; under federal supervision. In 1935 the name was changed once again to the Caribbean National Forest by President Franklin Roosevelt. This name change recognized management control of additional island forested lands by the US Forest Service. In April of 2007 the forest was renamed the El Yunque National Forest in a congressional bill signed by President George Bush, recognizing the “cultural values and sentiment of the local population.”

In 1933 at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt, Congress enacted an emergency public works program for the island; the work was carried out by the recently conceived Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Under the supervision of the Forest Service, CCC recruits from the island began working on vital forest projects such as road and trail building, reforestation, and construction of recreational facilities. All this work was done by hand using wheel and barrows. PR road 191, the main road through the forest, the nature trails and many of the buildings in the recreation area are all products of the CCC workers prodigious labor.

The Luquillo forest has increased in size to over 28,000 acres since the Spanish period: in 1956 it was known as the “Luquillo Experimental Forest” designation recognizing the importance of research in the forest, and now it is alternatively known by its Forest Service designation, the “El Yunque National Forest”. In 1976 the United Nations designated the Forest as an integral unit of the international network of biosphere reserves under the auspices of the Man and the Biosphere Program.

El Yunque as a touristic attraction

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More than a million visitors explore El Yunque every year and most reach the recreation areas at the top of the mountain. When you enter El Yunque and stop at El Portal Rain Forest Center, you get your first glimpse of the cathedral-like structure of the tallest rain forests. The center’s beautiful open-air soaring canopy structure, its interior plant-rimmed waterfall, and an elevated walkway overlooking the forest immediately draw you into the tropical forest. Portal means gateway and El Portal is your gateway, not only to EL Yunque but to all tropical forests. Hikers find miles of trails winding through the forest. Some are widely used and well maintained while others are primitive, leading to remote pools and rugged valleys. For those who want a bit more structure, nature interpreters lead hikes from visitor’s centers every day. Nature photographers find themselves in paradise!
Observation towers at strategic locations offer 360º of far-flung vies across the rain forest and down to the coast… that is until the fog drips in, cloaking everything in a pale enchantment.

Biodiversity

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Biodiversity has been defined as “the variety of life in an area, including the variety of species, plant and animal communities, ecosystems and the interactions of these elements.” Due in part to the El Yunque forest’s environmental variety, its overall biodiversity is impressive: 225 tree species, innumerable fern, epiphyte, and vine species, at least 16 amphibian species, 20 known reptile species, 11 native mammal species, 5 introduced (exotic) mammal species, and a combination of approximately 80 endemic, native, winter and summer migrant avian species. The number of species in groups of soil-dwelling organisms such as fungi, bacteria, nematodes and arthropods, is unknown, but greatly exceeds the number of tree species. The biodiversity of the El Yunque forest includes 98 rare and endangered plant species and 23 endemic plant species.

Some of the wildlife of the El Yunque forest migrates to other regions where they perform important ecological functions. Freshwater shrimp reproduce in estuaries and migrate up the rivers and streams. In the process they become part of the coastal food chain. Bats, parrots, and other large birds fly long distances pollinating plants and dispersing seeds and consuming large quantities of insects in lowland ecosystems. Many migratory bird species winter in the forest. Humans have lived in and around the El Yunque for millennia and have benefited from it.

El Yunque is Water

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Water
A drop of water makes all the difference! Imagine then what almost 200 inches of rain, 100 billion gallons of water falling on El Yunque in the space of a year can do. Rain rules in the rain forest. It falls every day, often as light drizzles, occasionally as torrential downpours. It is the most dramatic element in this tropical rain forest, and perhaps the most important. Eight major rivers originate in El Yunque, supplying water to 20% of the island’s population.
To ensure sustainability, these watersheds are managed to guarantee water for the forest ecosystems and for part of the population.