Guanica Forest
Puerto Rico
This dry forest is one of the island's most important natural areas.

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Finding the trailhead: Guanica Forest is located on the southwest coast about 90 minutes from San Juan. Take Hwy 52, a toll road, to Ponce, then pick up Route 2. Several miles past the town of Yauco, turn left onto Route 116. Route 334 goes into the heart of the forest, while Route 333 goes along the southern coastal edge. Camping is not permitted. The ranger station is on Route 334.

Bordering the Bay of Guanica, this dry forest is located in one of the sunniest, driest regions of Puerto Rico. Summer temps can reach up to 100 and annual rainfall is only 30 inches, primarily around November.

Guanica Dry Forest is one of the most important of the state reserves. It houses the largest number of bird species found anywhere on the entire island: at least 40 of the 111 resident species (including 14 endemic and 9 endangered), plus numerous migratory visitors.

Green turtles and leatherbacks nest on the beaches. However, hatchlings are sometimes picked off by mongoose.

Because it has been altered so little by human development, Guanica has the distinction of being perhaps the best preserved subtropical forest anywhere in the world. It contains a great diversity of organisms and specimens unique to this one spot, including 700 tree and plant species.

Like El Yunque, it has been recognized by UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve.

In addition to designated hiking trails, you can explore the forest by walking the dirt roads closed to traffic. Early and late in the day offers the best time spy the Puerto Rican bullfinch, the Puerto Rican emerald hummingbird and others. The Puerto Rican nightjar, once thought to be extinct, has a colony of several hundred birds in this reserve.

The effects of the wind and salt from the ocean, and general lack of water limits the vegetation primarily to succulents, thorny bushes and trees similar to many in arid climates. Most do not grow over 5 meters high.

However, in moist ravines in the upper hills the trees grow taller and keep their leaves year-round. Of the 246 trees and bushes that grow in Guanica, about 48 are endangered species and 16 are endemic to this region only. Deciduous trees comprise as much as 61 percent of the forest, evergreens another 18.6 percent.

There are also several types of beach communities. Areas designated as unstable grow tiny plants with a little flower called dondiego (Ipomea pres-caprae).

The common sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) helps stabilize other sandy stretches, while the rocky beaches grow what looks like a natural bonsai forest, trees stunted and twisted by the wind.

The coastal areas are also important nurseries for crabs and cave shrimps (Thyphlatya monae) that live only in this area and nowhere else on the island.

Where to stay: One of Puerto Rico 's finest small hotels, Copamarina Beach Resort, fronts the Caribbean but backs up to the forest. This nicely casual, 18-acre hotel is an ideal base for hikers. Call 800/468-4553. Web site: www.copamarina.com. The resort has a detailed guide to the dry forest for its guests.

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