This article is a part of a series created by United Voices, a new AFAR immersion program that brings together local content creators and AFAR editors for workshops, reporting stories, and experiencing a destination together. We make our debut in Puerto Rico.
A small green bird whizzed overhead, expertly maneuvering from treetop to treetop. Our guide, Norymar Maldonado, grew excited by the sight of it. Her eyes darted as she followed its movements, trying to ascertain its final destination.
“That’s the todus mexicanus,” she whispered, motioning for us to follow her. “It’s one of 18 endemic bird species in Puerto Rico. It’s also called the San Pedrito bird. Have a look, it’s just there on the branch.”
It took me a moment to spot the bird on the tree, its green feathers blending in with the leaves. Eventually, its plump, white belly with bold orange detail around its throat and beak gave it away. Members of our group let out a gasp as they spotted it, one by one. Part of the fun of being out in nature was seeing the unseen, particularly in a dry forest that by name sounded like it would be barren.
The Guanica State Forest, officially known as the Bosque Estatal de Guánica, was designated in 1981 as one of 738 United Nations’ International Biosphere Reserves around the world. It is among Puerto Rico’s most important ecosystems. Because it receives less rain per year compared to other subtropical forests—only around 30 inches—it is considered a dry forest. With an abundance of shrubs and bushes, multi-stemmed trees, and limestone-based soil, the preserve spans 9,000 acres and five municipalities along the south coast of Puerto Rico: Guanica, Ponce, Peñuelas, Yauco, and Guayanilla.
It sustains everything from mangroves to cacti, from lizards to crabs, and is home to several endangered species. It is a hub for some of the bird species endemic to the island, including the Puerto Rican woodpecker. (Our group was able to hear it, although no one could spot it.) Twelve trails are open to the public, each of varying duration and difficulty; some trails are as short as a mile while others stretch to nearly 10 miles roundtrip. The only thing the forest lacks are dangerous animals for visitors to be concerned about while hiking.
San Pedrito became our unofficial shepherd on the tour, flying ahead and stopping to wait for us as we hiked 40 minutes up the trail. We were gaining elevation on the well-trodden path, but I didn’t feel the exertion since it was a mild incline. Maldonado led the hiking group as we stopped to learn about using the resin of the guayacan tree to cure respiratory infections and how the yellowing leaves of an almáciga tree indicate an upcoming dry season.
Eventually, the trail gave way to a vast expanse overlooking the Guanica Bay and beyond that, the Caribbean Sea. On the edge of the cliff was the abandoned Fuerte Caprón, a relic from the 1898 Spanish-American war. Maldonado explained that the fort, located 150 meters above sea level, had fallen into disrepair. Graffiti on the ruins were a form of protest against colonization and a way to reclaim the structure.
She led us up a flight of stairs to the top of the fort, resembling a castle tower. We were right on time for sunset, a spectacular display of orange and red hues. Maldonado’s face, wearing traditional Taino markings, looked solemn and mystical in the dusk.
The Taino are the Indigenous people of Puerto Rico. Maldonado honors them with her markings and connects with them through the forest itself. She spoke about her ancestral ties to the land.
“The forest is our pharmacy, our therapist, our grocery store, our shelter, our source of raw materials,” she said. “It’s the original Home Depot.”
Everyone chuckled. While stated in a lighthearted manner, the seriousness of her message was clear: A gift of resources, the forest provides for all our fundamental needs as humans—medicinal herbs, traditional foods, even the animals that make up the soundtrack to our lives—and deserves our respect.
How to best explore the Guanica Dry Forest
The best way to experience the dry forest is to rent a car and drive from San Juan to Guanica. The trip takes a little more than two hours. There is a parking lot at the main entrance. To reach the Fort Capron trailhead, follow along PR-333 until reaching the trailhead.
Once there, embark on a self-guided tour of the area or reach out to guides like Soraya Tours founder Norymar Maldonado to provide assistance and context. Closed-toed shoes are recommended. Bring plenty of water to stay hydrated and avoid going in the midday sun—sunrise and sunset hikes are best. Entrance to the forest is free but it is only open during daylight hours.