The Caribbean National Forest, locally known as El Yunque (the anvil), is located about an hour's drive east of San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital. Established in 1903 as the Luquillo Forest Reserve, El Yunque is the only tropical rain forest in the National Forest System. Relatively small at 28,000 acres, the forest's highest elevations (about 3,500 feet above sea level) can receive more than 250 inches of rain per year.
The rains that continually drench the forest are the result of the moisture-laden trade winds traveling from Africa over the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. As the winds encounter the mountainous slopes of eastern Puerto Rico, they're driven upward where the moisture condenses, forming raindrops that fall on the forest.
El Yunque is probably one of the most accessible tropical rain forests in the world. Its main road (PR 191) is paved and about eight miles long. The rain forest's trailheads and other facilities (El Portal Rain Forest Center, snack bar, bathrooms, souvenir shop, picnic areas and parking lots) all can be reached from this road.
El Yunque's yearlong average temperature is 73 degrees F, and seasonal changes are practically imperceptible. Temperatures at higher elevations are cooler. Rain, low clouds and fog are the norm, but the sun breaks through sporadically, especially at lower elevations.
Because of the almost constant rain and high humidity, it's imperative that you prepare your body and equipment for wet conditions. This means bringing a waterproof (though lightweight) jacket, hat and boots for you, and an umbrella or other waterproof cover for your camera. A waterproof bag or cover for your gear also comes in handy.
This is a land of intimate landscapes, so bring your wide-angle and medium-range zooms. A polarizing filter is a must to eliminate reflections, saturate colors and attain long shutter speeds for "silky" water shots. And because of the low-light conditions, a sturdy tripod is highly recommended.
Possible subjects include giant fern trees (there are about 100 fern species in the forest), bamboo stands, waterfalls and pools, small rivers and streams, colorful wildflowers, and tropical trees (there are about 225 species here). If the weather breaks, you might be able to photograph some of the nearby peaks discernible through the fog and mist.
El Yunque offers 24 miles of hiking trails for those inclined to off-road explorations. The trails are open to foot traffic only and allow access to a variety of photogenic locations, including the popular La Mina Falls, featured in many Puerto Rico travel ads. Other trails lead the photographer to an observation tower atop Mount Britton, around two large pools (Bano Grande and Bano de Oro), or to the top of El Yunque Peak itself. Regularly spaced trailside shelters provide protection from the weather. All the trails and distances are well marked and most are rated as either easy or moderate.
Since the weather in El Yunque is so consistent, photography in the forest is possible anytime of the year. It's a good idea to check the weather before starting any hike, however, especially during hurricane season (June through November).
Contact: Caribbean National Forest, (787) 888-1880, www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean/; El Portal Rain Forest Center, http://hechoenpuertorico.org/yunque/elportal.htm; Puerto Rico Tourism Company, (800) 866-7827, www.gotopuertorico.com.
When working in wet locations, it's important to protect your gear. Full underwater housings for cameras are available, but quite costly.Flexible covers provide protection from the elements for a fraction of the price. Such covers are available at your local camera store to fit SLR and compact still cameras and camcorders, and go by such names as Rain Cover, Elements Cover and Photo Rain Cape. In a pinch, you can use a large plastic food-storage baggie to protect your camera.