Wanderlust and a need for recovery from the byproduct of American work life brought my best friend and I to Puerto Rico. Forget the beaches, islands, and casinos, our objective: Mountains and rain forests. If you’re interested in a backpacking trip on the cheap with a similar itinerary, see below for much recommended campgrounds and some logistics of how to get through a short 4-day trip like ours. Otherwise, feel free to skim past and enjoy the photography :).
Some immediate travel tips in Puerto Rico:
- You need a rental car if you’re there for a shorter time than 5 days because bus can be slow/not dependable
- People speak English in the city areas, but not anywhere else. Pick up some Spanish, or at least the important sentences, including:
- How do I get to ___? –> ¿Cómo llego a ____ ?
- How much does it cost –> Cuánto cuesta? / Cuánto?
- Its tropical climate, dress for rain.
- There are supermarkets for food, supplies, etc (Look for Supermercados Plaza Loizas. That’s where we got all our food supplies)
- 2-person Tent
- Sleeping Bag
- Good hiking shoes (with ankle support)
- Full travel backpack to fit everything
- Day pack with drinking water storage
- Swim Suit
- Decent rain poncho (We got a cheap one and it didn’t really work, so spend a little bit if you are bothered about getting wet)
- Extra socks
- Bio-degradable soap (If you enjoy waterfall/spring showers ;D)
- Basic toiletries (tooth brush, tooth paste, etc.)
We arrived around 10 pm on a Thursday. We spent our first night in a hostel in Miramar ($16/night and 10 min West of SJU airport), and enjoyed the nightlife of Isla Verde’s outdoor bar scene.
We reserved rental car the day before arriving to PR through Priceline (Alamo provided the best price) and was able to forgo the insurance cost with Amex benefits (after tolls and fees the total was ~$180 for 3.5 days). For us, we arrived at night, so we decided to pick up a car the next day (not the best idea). The taxis here run a flat rate of $10, not including an additional $1 per bag you bring, so it would cost us more roundtrip on taxi than our one night in the hostel.
TIP: Get your rental car at arrival or stay somewhere close enough with included airport transport service (We tried hitch hiking and it didn’t work :P).
The next day we had dedicated to collecting all the required permits to camp in the forests we decided to check out. Some tips below on planning for camping:
- El Yunque National Forest: A MUST VISIT with one of the best known hiking trails on the island (including water falls).
- You have to book your campsite 2 weeks ahead! It’s still a national forest and they are pretty strict about these things. Download the form this website, fill it out and email the people on the form and they will confirm your stay via email.
- Print out the physical copy and bring it with you to PR (just in case).
- Reference map below for how to get to El Yunque National Forest (don’t trust Google Maps).
- Get to El Yunque National Forest before 3 p.m. to pick up your signed permit because you need to place this in your car dashboard before the park closes, or else the park ranger will tow or ticket your car (not sure which one). We picked ours up at the Visitor Center because the office was closed (we thought we were stuck, but luckily they were smart to leave us the permit there).
- Then you find the campsite, but maps are useless there, so I recommend using Mile Markers as your reference based on the location they tell you.
- Bosque De Toro Negro State Forest: AMAZING natural springs. Hikes are easy, but poorly mapped.
- Recommended to contact the Departamento de Recursos Naturales y Ambientales (DRNA) early to reserve the campsite because they are limited. There is no minimum time to reserve.
- Must pick up the permits in San Juan at the DRNA office located in:
- Carr 8839 San Juan, 00927 Puerto Rico
- Arrive to State Forests before closing time
- Guajataca State Forest: Cool Caves. See Cueva Viento before/after checking our Cueva Ventana.
- Any other state forest can be reserved at the DRNA and the same steps apply above. We chose this at random because it was close by Cueva Ventana, the famous window cave. It wasn’t our favorite forest because the elevation was not as high, so it was much hotter camping at this site. Other than that, you get to give yourself a personal tour of a cave by yourself.
First stop, the winding roads of the El Yunque National Forest. (Not for those sensitive to motion sickness)
After a long drive and searching for the visitor center, we get to our campsite to see this great view, but we were unsure where the campsite was…
… until we discovered the hidden trail to our camping spot
Camped in an old ruin where you can still see the remains of a fireplace.
Our routine was sleep at 7 pm, wake up at 5 am, breakfast, pack our tent, drop off our things at the car, and spend a few hours for our day hikes.
We started the day with the El Yunque trail, which supposedly takes 4 hours roundtrip, but it took us 2 hours total.
Covered in sweat and joy to see the beautiful view.
Really feeling like we’re on top of the world.
After enjoying a power snack break, we head down for our next hike through Big Tree trail to get to La Mina falls to take a swim before our drive to the next forest.
Once your arrive to La Mina falls, you’ll often see a huge gathering at the first waterfall like a public pool, but if you manage to scale down the rocks, you’ll be able to get some privacy and enjoy the water in quiet.
Josefine, my swedish muse!
Photo cred: Josefine.
Taking in the beautiful sounds of the waterfall.
After a nice photo shoot, we headed out to Bosque de Toro Negro.
The campsite included 5 spots filled with neighborly campers, including picnic tables and BBQ grills. Highly recommend bringing coals and ingredients to cook. We didn’t know these sites had these, so we didn’t bring any.
Before sunset, went for a quick hike to check out the trails. They were much wider and maintained. Very easy hikes. The nice thing about camping in rain forests is that it rained like clockwork every day around 4-5 pm, and it stay cool at night for a nice rest without sweating. Recommended to get a nicer/more waterproof raincoat/poncho than the one you see me wearing if you don’t like water.
Next morning started our first hike on the longest trail, which wasn’t very interesting at all and it ran into the road at one point. We checked out the observation tower and tried to get a view but it was too foggy.
iPhone shot. Photo cred: Josefine.
Cool effects with the fog.
Observation tower had limited views with the early fog at 7 am.
We headed to our next hike around 9 am to the natural springs. I remember this was a Monday, and we both realized we had hiked 3-4 miles while everyone back home was just getting to work.
Here’s nice pano, photo cred to Josefine. It was gorgeous, pristine and much more quiet than La Mina falls. There was no one in sight.
The cold water was barely noticeable when its so fresh, it feels like silk against your skin.
Enjoying the quiet and testing out my 70-300mm lens.
Taking some motion shots with the water. Amazingly refreshing and fun to shoot with. We spent an hour swimming and shooting.
Next stop was the highest point on the island Cerra de Punta. And we decided to scale some abandoned radio towers.
So after 2 days of long morning hikes, we had yet to have a hot meal. While driving we stopped by these street side smoke/BBQ spots… and it was divine! The meat fell off the bone, smokey, seasoned, and fresh. Best chicken I’ve ever had. And It cost $4.
Looking at this again makes my mouth water :O~~ Our next stop was Guajataca rainforest where we were able to explore the limestone caves, Cueva Viento (Wind Cave) and Cueva Ventana (Window Cave).
Priceless view. Classic silhouette shots.
TIP: You have to take the tour, but you don’t have to stay with them. After a bulk of the info, you walk ahead so you can get some nice quiet time with the view and take nice shots without the giant crowd that comes with the tour.
Again, we were starving. BBQ pork and chicken with fresh coconut and passion fruit juice. Yum!
Our last stop was taking a drive through Old San Juan. We figured we should do something in the city.
Cute streets with European vibes. Cafes and restaurants dotting every corner. Old San Juan photos credited to Josefine.
The colors were bright and vibrant. A huge contrast to the inner city and residential areas in San Juan which were dark and run down.
All at once it was we were able to forgive our reality and accept a newfound beauty and experience. I hope you enjoyed the photos!
Next trip… Mexico.