This is the article I wish I’d found before my husband, baby, and I traveled to Puerto Rico last month. In the weeks before our trip, I agonized: “Will El Yunque be safe for our cute little son?” The park is famous for being the only tropical rainforest in the United States National Forest System, but… is it dangerous? I pictured beasts, treacherous paths on slippery rocks, and pouring rain.
Thank goodness we decided to drive to El Yunque to check it out, despite those fears. Not only is the rainforest gorgeous, but it is also extremely customizable in how you can visit, meaning that almost everyone can enjoy its lushness… even an eight month old baby like ours. The accessibility of El Yunque is thanks to something that I didn’t realize before coming: The road called PR-191 runs right through the park, and the mouth of that road is an easy hour drive from San Juan, or thirty minutes from a cute beach town like Luquillo.
What the road through El Yunque means is that, if you are limited in mobility (say, you are schlepping an increasingly portly infant and don’t want to risk slipping on rocks while hiking) you can do the following: Drive the length of the road into the heart of El Yunque, stopping every few minutes at the various attractions. This became yet another reason it’s so useful to rent a car for Puerto Rico travel. Read on for a summary of our favorite stops in the rainforest, each of which was a one or two minute walk on smooth ground from the road, and baby-friendly.
We started our drive at the exceptional “El Portal” Visitors Center. Parents, note that this center boasts clean bathrooms, a cafe with a tranquil patio for eating outside, and an informative movie about El Yunque, in addition to museum-style exhibits. As an architecture lover, I also have to point out the delicious design of the building, pictured above. Well done, National Park Service!
After eating like beasts, we hopped into our air conditioned car, turned on some groovy bachata music from a local radio station, and drove about twenty minutes to where the road ends, right in the middle of the rainforest. We did this so we could take our time coming back down, stopping at various attractions without worrying about how much further there was until the end of the road.
To be clear, if you are NOT carrying a wee baby, there are miles upon miles of trails to hike through and waterfalls to swim in, deep within the forest of El Yunque. This article, however, focuses on the gems you can see in just a few hours (or even a single hour), with minimal risk to your littlest traveler.
The first attraction we pulled up to was Baño Grande, a relaxing man-made pool that was constructed for recreation in the 1930s: the early days of the park’s supervision by the U.S. Forest Service. We were easily able to park the car in one of the many small lots dotting the roadside, strap the baby into our front backpack, and trot up a few steps to take in the view. Baby Devi was utterly entranced by the rainforest. The entire visit, his face looked like this:
Meanwhile, Colin was mystified because we kept hearing the ubiquitous coquí frogs of Puerto Rico sing: “Coh-KEE! Coh-KEE!” but my beloved husband could never get close enough to actually see one of the frogs. He started a running joke that the frogs may not actually exist, and are really just a recording played by speakers all over the island. Hehe.
Back to the car we went! We paused briefly to change a diaper in the back seat and nurse the baby, then proceeded down the mountain until we came to the next attraction: Yokahu Tower. This is the most fulfilling and fun stop on the road, so if you make no other stop in El Yunque, make this one.
Yokahu Tower is about four stories tall, and you climb it by a narrow spiral staircase. All the way up, there are windows through which you can glimpse the rainforest as you rise higher and higher off the ground.
At the top of Yokahu, the blue sky suddenly breaks into view! Pant with excitement and exhaustion as you scale the last few steps to gaze out onto a sea of undulating emerald green in all directions. Look far enough and you can even see the blue ocean at the coast of Puerto Rico, misty as blends with the edge of the sky.
This is your primo number one photo opportunity, folks. Snap those pics, and don’t be shy about asking strangers to take a family portrait! Experiment with different angles, and make funny sounds until your baby gives some form of a smile. Oh and make sure you note what time the tower closes, because we got out just in time before it locked for the evening.
We had a few more stops as our car chugged down the mountain, but the most exciting happened at silvery La Coca Falls: a waterfall that you can ogle just steps from the road. In the parking lot there, we met a boisterous gaggle of friends who offered to take our picture as a family, if we photographed them in return. I had an awkward moment where one of them asked me how I became a travel blogger, and I handed her my card and replied, “It’s a long story. Just read the ‘About’ page of my blog.” Tacky? Whoopsie!
Anyway, those people were as nice as the rainforest is beautiful, and we had a great time posing for them while they snapped photos with my camera. They egged us on to funnier and funnier poses, until we ended up with this gem right here:
So there you have it! El Yunque rainforest is very safe to rock out with a little baby, provided you skip the slippery hiking and stick to the enjoyment that can be found just off the road, still nestled deep in nature’s embrace. El Yunque was a shining highlight of our Puerto Rico trip, so don’t miss it!
Where to stay near El Yunque:
- We stayed at this lovely San Juan hotel (click for info) which is just 45 minutes from El Yunque.
- We also enjoyed the Luquillo Sunrise Inn, which is just 15 minutes from the rainforest.
- Another great option is to get a vacation rental in Puerto Rico (click for my favorite site for this).
Tours and Guidebooks:
- Check out this awesome search engine for Puerto Rico tours of all kinds!
- Browse Puerto Rico travel guidebooks on Amazon.
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