x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Colourful, casual and full of contrasts, Puerto Rico delights the senses

A unique weather pattern endows Puerto Rico with lush rainforests and stark desert landscapes.

Tourists at La Coca Falls in El Yunque National Forest. Edythe McNamee for The National
Tourists at La Coca Falls in El Yunque National Forest. Edythe McNamee for The National

It's early evening and the warm air of the Caribbean winter has begun to cool, but only slightly. Insects are chirping, croaking, singing in the nearby mangroves and a light wind gently rustles a chime hanging from one of the many trees that shade the little pool of our beautiful rental home near the coast of south-western Puerto Rico. I settle down on a wooden bench and feel a small bite. Tiny red ants are swarming - in the mildest sense of the word but swarming nonetheless - and suddenly I have ants in my pants. Nature rules here and I've learnt my lesson.

The Bosque Seco de Guanica has been a reserve since 1919 and, together with the mangroves and islands along the Caribbean coast, was declared a Unesco reserve in 1981. The biosphere contains what is surprisingly and unassumingly the world's largest tropical dry forest. A unique weather pattern on the island means that rain and clouds from the east are blocked by the La Cordillera Central Mountain chain that divides its north and south coasts, creating a desert-like landscape on an otherwise lush tropical island. The unusual weather in the south has also created a vibrant habitat that's home to a larger variety of species than can be found in the Yunque rainforest on the northern side of the island.

I've read that the best way to explore the dry forest is to hike some of its 58 kilometres of trails. A short drive down Route 334, with a brief accidental detour into the picturesque town of Maria Antonia, and we are deep into the forest itself. The "highway" dead-ends at a tiny forest station where a ranger, Raul Martinez, supplies us with a trail map. He refuses to accept the one dollar (Dh3.67) that my guidebook says a map will cost. Raul recommends a few trails and makes sure that we are carrying lots of water, and we are on our way down Lluveras trail.

Raul is right to check our water supply. The dry forest doesn't have a canopy like a rainforest; the sun is merciless as it breaks strongly through the relatively bare branches of even the tallest trees. The forest has more than 700 species of plants, but the most surprising are the spindly cacti. A closer look reveals them to be tiny habitats unto themselves, teeming with uncomfortably large spiders with their intricate webs, yet more ants, and hives full of bees going about their business, oblivious to their neighbours on the cacti's other branches. Huge, sharp agave plants warn against tripping, their sword-like leaves rising to eye level and the rare tall flower above. An agave flowers just before it dies, sprouting a tall thin blooming spike that rises high above the plant.

Criss-crossing the trail are trim mounds of dirt that upon closer inspection turned out to be ant tunnels. Our eyes follow a line as it crawls vertically up the side of a tree, leading to a huge balloon-like nest suspended in the branches. One could imagine poking it with a stick and releasing an Indiana Jones-worthy explosion of ants.

Small birds skim through the trees, but the great variety that I've read about was not up for a show. Perhaps the many vultures circling above the branches are keeping them away. Soon the trail opens up, just for a moment, and we can see all the way down the mountain to the Caribbean Sea. The trail map shows that a short four-hour hike would bring us practically back to our front door, but instead we trek back to our car and drive to the small town of La Parguera, about 25 minutes west of Guanica.

La Parguera is where Puerto Ricans go when they want to get away. The small town radiates seaside colourful-casual, with vibrant houses and restaurants, little knick-knack shacks lining a small pedestrian area and the occasional young man riding his horse through the street. After booking a snorkelling expedition through a local dive shop, we took the recommendation of the owner and went to the Restaurant Puerto Parguera. The fluorescent green restaurant offered, among other things, the Puerto Rican national dish of mofongo - delicious fried plantains mashed with garlic and olive oil - served in a tall wooden cup.

Puerto Rico's main tourist season runs from December to April, but that is largely a result of North Americans escaping the winter cold. Temperatures in the slower summer months average around 29 degrees - not terribly intimidating for those used to an Abu Dhabi summer. We are treated to mid-20 degrees perfection throughout our stay. On one such lovely, partly cloudy afternoon, we take a boat from La Parguera for a few hours of snorkelling in the clear turquoise waters. The shallow water reef just off the coast is dazzling, but I can only last about 40 minutes at the first site before what little cold there is gets the best of me and I shiver-swim my way back to the boat. It might be the Caribbean, but it would seem that winter is still winter. As our boat approaches the second dive site, I pull on a long-sleeved rash guard borrowed from my scuba-savvy sister, ditch the buoyancy vest and get back to the business of staying warm by trying to keep moving. A short swim and we are drifting through calm mangroves in water so shallow that the challenge is not to stay afloat, but rather to keep one's knees away from the rocks and roots on the sea floor. Below the surface, tiny fish swim by our goggles, and break in the tangle of finger-like red mangrove roots guide an underwater alley through the forest. Above the water line, colourful snorkel barrels bob in a line and the sun begins to set behind the partly cloudy skies.

We have one more dive scheduled for the day, but first the boat heads back to the family-run Paradise Scuba and Snorkelling Centre for a quick dinner. The shop's owner, Luis Doitteau, invites us in and introduces us to his wife, Noemi, who dishes out fresh and piping hot chicken empanadillas, the Puerto Rican version of an empanada, and local beverages.

Luis explains what the last dive of the day would be: the famed Bahía de Fosforescente. "You cannot see them, you cannot touch them. And when you touch the water, the microorganisms make the chemical reaction and you provoke the light. You make the show for you!"

Thus prepared, we putter into the quiet lagoon. Our captain, Chico, carefully aligns the boat so it will cast a dark shadow over the water and keep the light of the rising full moon at bay. One more jump into the chilly black water. Viewed from the boat, the flurry of arms and legs in the water creates a soft indigo glow, but beneath the surface, the effect is entirely different. Bright white sparks fly off our moving hands and feet, each drive of limb creating a blast of glitter in the water.

One of Puerto Rico's more unique features is that this small island, less than one-ninth the size of the UAE, contains both a tropical dry forest and a tropical rainforest. So later in the week, we venture over the rain-blocking mountains into the lush 113-sq-km El Yunque National Forest. Also a Unesco biosphere reserve, El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US National Forest system.

Finding the rainforest is as tricky as finding the dry forest earlier in the week. Lines that appear to connect on maps do not connect on land. A short tour of the small town of Palmer and we figure out the trick: turn left at the clover green house. As we pull into the impressive El Portal Rain Forest Centre, a light drizzle starts to fall. The ranger, Jesus Pinero, gives us some maps and we breeze past the lovely exhibits and videos in the centre, grabbing an empanadilla, and drive into the forest.

The winding road up the main mountain is clearly marked with places to stop and clamber for a view or hike one of the forest's many trails. Unlike in Guanica, the canopy in the rainforest is massive and lush. As we venture on foot further into the trees, the bright light of the afternoon becomes dim, until the trail rounds a corner. The sun breaks through in streaks and spots on the trail and then fades again behind the branches. The forest contains 1,000 species of plants and another 240 types of trees. Shamrock green leaves, taller than me, carpets of moss and jade fronds, tree trunks - everything glistens with the lightest sheen of the last rainfall. There's a pop of unexpected red from the fibre optic-like exposed buttress roots at the bases of many of the trees.

The 10km (each way) "Big Tree Trail" towards La Mina Falls is well-marked but narrow. The forest fools me into thinking the falls are always just around the next bend, with the sound of rushing water growing, then fading, then coming back louder still until, finally, the trail drops us onto a bridge spanning a small pool and before us thunder the gushing La Mina Falls. Two other hikers climb the rocks towards the falls, feeling its mist before wading into the seemingly chilly water and promptly losing one of their hats. The cap floats through the pool and under the bridge until it gets caught in a dam of rocks. Beyond the dam, the water gently falls over more rocks and meanders calmly back into the dense forest. The sun is beginning to set, so we turn back up the trail, stopping to admire colourful orchids and listening to the chirping of the Coquí tree frog.

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If You Go

The flight Return flights on Delta (www.delta.com) from Abu Dhabi to San Juan start at US$1,236 (Dh4,539), including taxes, with connections in Kuwait City and Washington

The stay A five-bedroom rental home in the Guanica Biosphere Reserve sleeps 10 and costs $2,100 per week (Dh7,713) and includes a full kitchen, a backyard with porch and pool. It can be booked at www.airbnb.com/rooms/45416. Alternatively, Mary Lee's by the Sea (www.maryleesbythesea.com) is a collection of cottages over the road from the rental home. Rates start at $131 (Dh481) for a double room with a small kitchen and patio. A "deluxe" garden room at the nearby Copamarina Beach Resort (www.copamarina.com) costs from $279 per night (Dh1,025) from January to May and $190 (Dh698) from May to December. Prices include taxes.