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2012 was a “big trip” year for the America the Beautiful coins.

When we look at the coin release list, we designate which parks are a weekend trip, which parks can be combined into a weekend, and which parks deserve their own weeklong vacation.

We only get a couple opportunities each year to take a whole week off work to knock out the long trips, so we often try to see if we can visit parks by skipping Thursday/Friday and staying through the weekend, or planning around 3-day weekends. Either way, there are some parks that we definitely cannot do justice in our 3-4 day weekends, either due to cost, flight time, or a combination of these things.

The 2012 America the Beautiful series features 3 of these big trips: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Denali National Park (Alaska) and El Yunque National Forest (Puerto Rico).

We took care of Hawaii in February 2012, so in February 2013 we decided to knock out Puerto Rico. We had been planning on visiting Patagonia, but the more we researched, the more expensive it got. Eventually we spent a night checking flights on other potential trips and Puerto Rico turned out to be reasonable, especially once I paired it with a nice 7-day cruise out of San Juan.

We don’t take a lot of cruises as they don’t lend themselves well to my preferred sunrise/sunset photography, but every 2 years or so we decide it’d be nice to actually relax for a week. This cruise had 5 island stops and only one day at sea, so we decided it’d be a fun week of exploring new places.

And so, our Puerto Rico trip was planned—three days in Puerto Rico to explore the rainforest, then a 7 day Caribbean cruise, followed by another night in Puerto Rico before heading home.

El Yunque National Forest is the first of six parks featured that are U.S. territories. The other 5 non-states are Washington D.C., the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa and the Mariana Islands. All of those (other than D.C.) are big trips as well, although they aren’t featured until later in the series. 2019 is the next huge travel year, when coins are released for Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

Here’s our first lizard sighting (there were a TON). We found this one right outside the visitor center.

Below are shots of La Coca Falls, the first big waterfall inside the park.

Above, a photo of the Puerto Rican Tody, a colorful bird we saw several times on our hikes through El Yunque.

The El Yunque coin features a parrot, but they are nearly extinct. The USDA website says there are less than 50 in the wild. We were not lucky enough to find one on our travels, so my Tody will have to do as far as interesting bird sightings go.

There are several towers within the park — this one, the Mt. Britton Tower, required a nice little uphill hike to reach, but once we got up there we had it all to ourselves. The more easily accessible tower is the Yokahu Observation Tower, which is right off the main park road.

On our way back down the park road (the park road is not very long, only 13km) I sighted a stream passing under the road that piqued my interest. We pulled over to investigate, and followed the water upriver until we reached this lovely rainforest gem.

And on the way back down I paused at this waterfall, which I particularly enjoyed because of the markings on the center rock.

We were disappointed to find out that they actually close the park at night so it’s impossible to get far inside the park for a sunrise or sunset. You can park your car at the gate and walk, in theory, but it’s a couple miles before you get to anything. We made sure to leave before 6pm so as to not get locked inside the park.

The next day we meandered back to the park to do more hiking and look for birds and other creatures. We did not find any of the elusive parrot, but we did find a blue Puerto Rican Woodpecker (and hear several more pecking away). We did not see any frogs, but we did see quite a few lizards and a bright red spider.

We also revisited several places we’d seen the previous day, such as the Yokahu Observation Tower. The lighting was more favorable the second day.

And a final waterfall on our way out.

We then spent the evening in Fajardo, PR, where we considered a bioluminescent bay kayak tour before ultimately deciding against it. We had lots of kabobs from streetside vendors (very satisfying) and watched the sunset in Fajardo. The next morning we went to the Bacardi factory and visited one of the forts in Old San Juan before boarding our cruise ship. We spent the next week exploring the Virgin Islands, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts and St. Maarten. The infamous Carnival Triumph lost its power the same week as our journey on the Carnival Valor, so our trip was infused with lots of “thank goodness we weren’t on that ship” murmering. Anyway, good trip, and now we’re probably done with the Caribbean until we visit Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve in the U.S. Virgin Islands (coin to be released in 2020).

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