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A walk in the park

Trek through Puerto Rican forest has more bark than bite

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EL YUNQUE NATIONAL FOREST -- It was hard to erase the last words of our guide from our minds as we headed down the Big Tree Trail in Puerto Rico's El Yunque National Forest.

"Watch out for the snakes!"

Five words you really never want to hear.

We were embarking on our first hike in a rainforest and our biggest fear, aside from getting lost, was an inadvertent encounter with a slithery reptile too large to imagine.

Our guide Margaret also warned us to stay on the trail and return the way we came because she had lost a few tourists over the years in El Yunque's mountainous 11,300 hectares (28,000 acres) of jungle. There were people, she said, that went on past the waterfall and weren't found for days.

"And stay away from the mongoose," she added, if we weren't apprehensive enough already. "If you come across one on the path, give it lots of room."

Puerto Rico and most of the Caribbean islands are overrun with the nasty weasel-like creatures that apparently eat snakes. I figured if they did that they couldn't be all that bad, but Margaret said they could leave a nasty set of teeth marks on my ankle, and they were the major carriers of rabies on the island.

She also stressed that we not overexert ourselves on the hike down into the gorge, because she also had tourists who had suffered heart attacks struggling to climb back up.

Then she pointed out a spindly white plant and warned us to stay away from that, too. It was El Yunque's version of poison ivy.

Despite all my fears and misgivings, El Yunque was a virtual walk in the park.

Although the verdant Luquillo mountain forest is supposedly home to the two-metre long Puerto Rican boa, we spotted no snakes in the branches above us and believe me, we kept a sharp lookout. We never saw a mongoose. We didn't get bitten, we didn't get lost and we didn't rub up against any toxic plants. Aside for a few slippery downhill sections, the narrow pathway was for the mostly paved and easily navigable.

This was child's play.

Sure enough, when we reached the spectacular La Mina waterfall at the turnaround point, we found a group of uniformed children -- Puerto Rico's version of cub scouts -- noisily cavorting on the rocks.

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt gave the forest national park status in 1903 -- it is the only tropical U.S. national forest -- and the United Nations has designated El Yunque a Biosphere Reserve. The 12-year-old visitor centre, called the El Portal Tropical Rainforest Centre, features displays that interpret the various flora and fauna. The national park service also offers guided hikes on the many kilometres of trails.

It had been cloudy and threatening to rain as we approached the base of the 1,000-metre El Yunque Mountain and sure enough, we could hear the raindrops pelting the green canopy above our heads once we hit the trail, but very little moisture hit the ground.

There were covered picnic tables along the trail where one could take refuge if the rain turned into a deluge or to enjoy a snack or to rest off the beaten path.

Before we had hit the trail, Margaret had taken us up the Yokahu Tower, which offered spectacular views of the rainforest, surrounding mountains and the Caribbean. We also stopped at La Coca Falls, just off the narrow roadway, where thin streams of water danced across the face of a flat, grey rock cliff.

Before taking us back to San Juan, Margaret dropped us off for lunch at La Muralla, a local food counter operated by a family that resisted relocation when the park was formed. Diners could feast on traditional rice and beans, various forms of deep-fried plantains, green bananas and beef, fried chicken and pork chops and sip icy, locally brewed Medalla Light beer.

We would have liked to spend more time exploring El Yunque, but our days on the island were limited. We had plans to tour the Spanish forts in Old San Juan and to visit Puerto Rico's Bacardi rum factory -- the world's largest premium rum factory -- and there were no worries about snakes there.

-- -- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 10, 2009 E7

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