The problem with a rainforest is that, well, it rains. And when you are hiking the El Toro trail in the El Yunque National Forest in Puerto Rico, you are reminded of that quasi-tautological fact quite often. You are also reminded of the remarkable effect that moisture has on damp earth as it renders its consistency a texture most appropriately described as “muddy.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. And I’m being reductive.
The El Toro trail constitutes an alternative to El Yunque’s more accessible, busier trails; it gets you to the top of the highest point in El Yunque, and delivers its payoff in the form of stunning views (when they are not being obscured by thick clouds and rain). But even the partial mix of sun and cloud make for some stunning interplays of light and the lush, freshly-washed foliage of the upper reaches. The trail is especially worth doing in the company of someone that knows the local flora and fauna; alternatively, one should sufficiently educate oneself so as to be able to have an engaged response to the tremendous biodiversity–four different forest systems–that can be experienced on the trail. (The linked post above describes the hike from the “other side;” we hiked up from the southern section of Route 191 to the Trade Winds Trail; other guides can be found here and here; in general, the El Toro trail, because not as frequently used, is not as well-maintained as the other, more mainstream ones.) Our guide was Robin Phillips, who also provided us with lodging (a simple cabin, with no electricity, but wonderful contact with the forest at night). Robin has led an interesting life; he knows the forest well; and he is kind and generous to a fault. An ideal companion for an El Yunque hike.
We began at 8 in the morning, parking our car a kilometer or so away from the trailhead. The initial parts of the trail–to the first river crossing–are relatively straightforward. The second section of the trail is easily the muddiest; the third is the steepest. Razor grass is a constant accompaniment; I made the mistake of not wearing a long-sleeved shirt; my wife made the mistake on wearing pants that did not cover her legs adequately. We both came back with many scratches and scrapes; I’d have to say I got off lightly compared to her. Toward the end of the ascent, the rain got worse, making our non-poncho covered sections progressively wetter. When we did get to the top of the trail, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the point of intersection with the Trade Winds Trail was the conclusion at the summit as opposed to being the starting point of another segment. This was a a bit of relief; the muddy, wet slogging was wearing thin by then. We were treated to a few minutes of mixed cloud and sun at the top before the rain closed in again, and forced us back down the hill after our quickly-devoured lunch. Descent was obviously quicker even if muddier thanks to the rain in the intervening time, and we found ourselves heading back for showers and a Christmas Day dinner with Robin’s wonderful family by 530PM.
Hiking in a rainforest means fewer soaring vistas of the kind experienced on high-altitude hikes; the foliage is in your face; the light is dappled and often weak; the muddy, slippery trails require a different sort of attention. Its most gratifying reward is the chance to experience a diverse set of ecosystems in close proximity to each other, intertwined in dazzlingly complex ways. The muddiness and lack of maintenance of the El Toro trail is well worth dealing with when these bargains are kept in mind.