Another world waits deep within the rainforest

I knew that Puerto Rico’s El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in North America, had a reputation for paranormal activities.

I knew that Puerto Rico’s El Yunque, the only tropical rainforest in North America, had a reputation for paranormal activities.

For instance, UFO watchers claimed to have seen both flying saucers and their alien passengers in El Yunque, while the blood-sucking chupacabra — a creature straight out of X-Files — supposedly has its lair somewhere in the rainforest’s 300 hectares.

So it was that when I went hiking in El Yunque and came upon a decapitated chicken lying on a makeshift altar, I wasn’t really surprised. Compared to an almond-eyed extra-terrestrial, a headless chicken — even one whose neck opening hosted a variety of insect species — was no big deal. 

Still, I wondered what a domestic fowl was doing in such an undomestic setting.

“It’s probably a Santeria sacrifice,” Victor Cuevas, one of El Yunque’s resident biologists, told me, adding that practitioners of Santeria considered the rainforest a premiere power spot.

Puerto Rico is a relatively arid island, he said, so maybe it’s natural that some people should think of such a wet and verdant place as otherworldly.

My own introduction to the rainforest was anything but otherworldly. The road that meandered into it, Puerto Rico’s Carr. 191, had a conga line of cars and tour buses sniffing each other’s tails like dogs in heat.

There were also gift shops and ice cream stands, not to mention a large camera-wielding crowd in front of La Mina Falls, El Yunque’s most accessible attraction.

Then the rains came.

Not a mere drizzle, but a whitewater torrent thundering down from the heavens. Soon most of the vehicles were in full retreat, presumably heading for the sun-blessed coast.

It was as if no one expected to be rained upon in a rainforest.

Without moisture-laden tradewinds smacking into its higher elevations, El Yunque would be just as dry as the rest of the island.

I delight in the music of tropical rain, so I immediately decided to go for a hike. With a guide named Frank Torres, I made a circuit of the relatively short Bano de Oro Trail.

The highlight of our walk was not the lyrical patter of raindrops on giant cecropia leaves, but a story Frank told me about Bano de Oro itself: it got its name, he said, because the people who used to bathe here would come out of the water covered with (startling image!) glittering gold flakes.

Later I hiked to the summit of El Yunque’s eponymous peak. The first part of the 4.5-kilometre trail was paved in order to keep the leached soil from washing away.

The latter part was, to put it mildly, mucky.   But such were the distractions — 1,000-year-old barro Colorado trees, dwarf orchids no bigger than my pinky fingernail, and the almost deafening chorus of coqui frogs — that I could have been up to my neck in muck and not realized it.

The only other people I saw on the trail were some college students practising, not inappropriately, their Tarzan yells.

Approaching the summit, I passed through an elfin forest whose gnarled trees were spookily draped with aerial moss.

There was a howling sound that I first took to be one of the Tarzans having a bad voice day, but which turned out to be the wind exercising its own voice.

At last I reached the top, where I saw a castellated structure with crossbow slits.

Had I taken a wrong turn and somehow ended up in Tolkien Land?

Actually, the structure in question had been built in the style of an old Spanish lookout tower by the C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps) in the 1930s.

I couldn’t help noticing that it shared the summit with several transmission towers built in a somewhat more modern style.

These skeletons of steel seemed so alien in this otherwise green setting that I wondered if they had appeared on anybody’s list of paranormal sightings.

Speaking of paranormal sightings, I was hoping that I’d be lucky enough to see a  Puerto Rican parrot, a bird that’s found only in El Yunque.

According to Victor, the best place for an encounter with this rare avian — one of the world’s 10 most endangered birds — was the so-called Tradewinds Trail.

So I found myself on the remote and completely unpaved Tradewinds Trail the next  afternoon.

As I slopped and sloshed, I kept my ears alert for the parrot’s distinctive squawk.

At one point I did hear a squawk, but it was my own — I’d lost my footing, slipped down an embankment, and gotten tangled in some vines.

At another point I saw what seemed to be a flash of emerald-green with blue wing tips.  Up went my binoculars to my eyes.

The “parrot” turned out to be the frond of a fern tree with a sliver of blue sky — yes, it had stopped raining — showing in the background.

There wasn’t a soul in sight. Not a human soul, that is. Dozens of lizards scampered across the trail or basked on nearby rocks.

Occasionally, a scaly-naped pigeon would coo “Who-hoo-hoo-hooo,” as if it was astonished to see a member of my species in these parts.

An earthworm that was at least half a metre long — one of the rainforest’s major —  recyclers, slithered away from me and tunneled into some leaf litter.

As it happened, I didn’t see a parrot on this hike or, indeed, during the rest of my visit to El Yunque. No matter. For I’d had another kind of rare encounter, albeit of an entire habitat rather than a single creature … a habitat that was itself rich and strange, green and (dare I say?) otherworldly.

Travel writer Lawrence Millman is author of Last Places: A Journey In the North among many other books.

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