In February I had the pleasure of exploring Puerto Rico to celebrate my birthday and get away from the frigid weather in Ohio. Although I can’t say I discovered any extraordinary botanical gardens in my explorations, I did encounter some truly wondrous natural gardens, historic sites and unique ecosystems!

El Yunque rainforest

The rainforest of El Yunque is a great place to escape the excitement of San Juan.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Mark in tropical flowers

He who dwells among the flowers: Mark makes friends with a tropical beauty.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Bromeliads

Amazing bromeliads grow on palm trunks along the river trail.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

The stairs at Palo Colorado

The stairs at Palo Colorado begin the river trail to Cascada La Mina (Mina Falls).

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Plaza de las Delicias

Residents and visitors in Ponce congregate around the beautiful Plaza de las Delicias.

Photo Credit: Mark A. Miller

Viejo (Old) San Juan is a magical place! The numerous plazas and small parks there are welcome spots to relax on a bench and just watch the world go by. Founded by the Spanish in 1521, San Juan was constructed as a walled city with a series of fortifications, and it grew into a major colonial port of lovely hanging balconies and cobblestone streets. Strolling down the Paseo de la Princesa and under the aged fig trees along the old city walls to the main gate, I stumbled into the lovely garden of Casa Blanca. Built in 1521, Casa Blanca was lived in by Ponce de Leon descendents for over 250 years and is the oldest continuously occupied residence in the Western Hemisphere. Its garden has very mature specimens of shade trees, intricate steps and features, and an enjoyable collection of flowering tropical plants.

The University of Puerto Rico, in a southern suburb of San Juan, is a wonderful place to explore beautifully landscaped grounds. Sitting in the shade of Cuban royal palms, I sat in the campus center and people-watched as students bustled between classes. (The university’s nearby botanical garden is dedicated to propagation and not display, so don’t expect a well-marked walk around flowery beds filled with tropical plants.)

Only a 40-km (or 25-mile) drive southeast of San Juan, you’ll find the Caribbean National Forest of El Yunque. The only tropical forest in the US national forest system, the 28,000 acres were originally set aside in 1876 by the Spanish Crown and represent one of the oldest reserves in the Western Hemisphere. The El Portal visitor center near the entrance contains excellent signage detailing the ecosystem and offers an informative short video (narrated by Jimmy Smits) that highlights the conservation efforts to save the Puerto Rican parrot, one of the 10 most endangered bird species in the world.

Driving further up the forest road, you can stop by La Coca Falls and then climb the Yokahu Observation Tower for a good look above the treetops. I parked at the Palo Colorado recreation area and hiked the fairly easy trail to La Mina Falls. Bromeliads grow on palm trunks along the river trail, and you can closely examine local flora at your own pace.

A terrific example of the much rarer dry tropical forest can be found on the southern coast of Puerto Rico. Although not as photogenic to some as El Yunque, the Guánica Dry Forest Reserve is very important in representing dry tropical forests, now greatly reduced around the world. While on the southern coast, visitors to nearby colonial Ponce are greeted with a picturesque plaza in the old town center, numerous historic sites and an opportunity to stroll through the world-renowned art museum.

Puerto Rico isn’t just about the beaches! (On my next trip, I plan to explore one of the bioluminescent bays and take the ferry to bucolic Vieques Island.)