Swimming in Clouds atop El Yunque (Day 2 in Puerto Rico)

“This is as far as I can take you,” said Rafi, the publico* driver that’d driven us from Rio Piedras to the entrance of El Yunque National Forest.  “Publicos aren’t allowed in,” he said.  “You’ll have to walk to the gate from here.”

He picked up an old train ticket from the floorboard of his dusty van.  He scribbled his phone number in highlighter and handed it to us.

We gathered our packs and loose gallon jugs of water and walked the remaining distance (about 1/8 mile) to the entrance post of the visitor center where we chatted with the attendant until we were permitted to enter at 9.  We’d hoped to make it to the peak of El Yunque on our visit, where we were promised serene vistas of lush carpeted landscapes and distant ocean horizons.  But between us and the trail head ran the 11 mile Route 191, the dead-end road that runs through the national forest.

We met James and Peter at the El Portal Visitors’ Center.  Actually, Tom met Peter first and when he asked if we could bum a ride to the top he said, “Let me go ask my partner.”

James floored the accelerator of the rented sedan and whipped us around switchbacking corners. Lookouts flashed by as we twisted our necks to catch views of the rising peaks through dense canopy vegetation.  Peter did the talking, telling us of their day-trip adventures on the island: the bioluminescent bays and the streets of Old San Juan, and their lives together in Philadelphia.  James drove like a wheelman, nodding occasionally in agreement to Peter’s remarks.

At the end of the only road through the park, James parked the car and the four of us set out on our first hike along a steep, 10 inch concrete slab sidewalk that weaved through the forest.  We said our goodbyes at the Mt. Britton trailhead where Tom and I split to head towards Los Pichachos.  The peak of Los Picachos is capped with 59 stairs and a 20’ x 30’ plot enclosed by chest height cement walls.  When we arrived, there were no views to be seen.  Thick clouds (though actually only fog) surrounded the mountaintop.  A few moments after we arrived the fog magically parted and as it slowly dissipated over the ridge line, blanketed green hills sprouted from the ground.  Los Picachos was encircled by the lush landscape: in front, the valley floor pressed deeply below and behind us the ridgeline wrapped around to the right.  Tom and I feasted on the first of our jelly sandwiches and as the fog crept back up the mountain side, we bathed in the cool mist.

Eager to stand atop the El Yunque, the park’s namesake afterall, we scurried down and followed the ridge to a spur trail that lead to the summit of El Yunque.  From a small rock outcrop that overhung from the mountain’s peak, we took in the view of the valley from another angle.  In the distance, the fuzzy silver horizon of the ocean glistened, beckoning us to search for nearby islands like Culebra and Vieques.  From our perch above the valley, we were unsheltered from the wind and it kicked up viciously with a forceful gust that sent us searching for secure holds.  Thin wisps of fog harpooned towards us.  We stood with arms outstretched, Kate Winslet style, and let the clouds engulf us in their shelter.  All views disappeared.  The breeze pulled at our shirt tails and refreshed our sweaty faces.  We were swimming in the clouds.

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