Kate Pocock: Family Travel Writer    Kate Pocock: Family Travel Ink
Family Travel Writer, Author and Photographer

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Look Ma, It's raining Iguanas: An Eco Adventure in the Puerto Rico Rain Forest

Families were sunbathing and splashing around the pool at the Westin Rio Mar Beach resort in Puerto Rico when suddenly, a large iguana fell about 30 feet from the sky and landed poolside kersplack on the concrete. Apparently, these native critters sometimes sleep in palm trees. This one must have fallen out of bed. Everyone waited to see if he was destined to sleep in his own Westin heavenly bed - for real. But no, stunned for a moment, he shook himself off and scurried into the bushes.

Dozens of iguanas of all sizes roam this oceanside property much to the delight of guests. In fact, every morning at 11 a.m., there's a live iguana encounter. A staff member leads parents and kids to a bridge and claps his hands as the lunch bell. Then kids throw down pieces of lettuce to the hungry critters gathered on the riverbank below.

It's no surprise that this property offers close-up encounters with iguanas, birds and the chirp of the tiny tree frog because just minutes away is the largest and most accessible rain forest in the entire U.S. National Forest System. About an hour's drive east of San Juan and almost at the back door of the resort, this 28,000-acre forest is worth a day of exploration. Known officially as the Caribbean National Forest, its more interesting name is El Yunque. Legend has it that Yukiyu, the god of powerful forces, protected Puerto Rico from assaults by the nasty god Huracán (Hurricane) in the form of a rain forest mountain. It still works today.

Just what exactly is a rain forest your kids might wonder? It's a forest that grows in constantly wet conditions. Sometimes the sun filters through the ferns and foliage, but then without warning the rain descends to make it even more lush, humid, misty and magical. As one of our group said, "It's like a Honey I Shrunk the Kids experience." The plants are so big, the trees so tall and the forest so vast that anyone feels like a miniature person.

Before you set out to explore this vast 28,000-acre "forest of clouds," stop at the El Portal Rain Forest Center, an impressive treehouse-like museum at the entrance. Ask about the English language showings of the film about the forest and the rare Puerto Rican parrot that lives there.

You might also want to take advantage of one of the Forest Adventure Tours where a guide will lead one-hour walks to point out the "Live and Die" plant-touch it and the plant shrinks instantly-or a large breadfruit hanging from a tree, the plant that inspired the voyage of The Bounty with Captain Bligh. On one outing, a guide showed us river rocks that when wet, act like paint brushes. We had a blast painting red, brown and black stripes all over us like the Taíno native peoples did to ward off insects and evil spirits.

An easy hike for kids is down the Big Tree Trail to the La Mina Falls, where you can have a cool dip in the splashing water. It should take about an hour round trip. Because this misty place, a United Nations World Biosphere Reserve, receives about 250 inches of rain each year (resulting in more than 100 billion gallons of precipitation), bring rain gear and rubber-soled shoes for the kids. The limestone paths, even though embedded with stones, can be wet and slippery. For more information, call 787-888-5646 or visit www.fs.fed.us/r8/caribbean/special.htm. To hear forest sounds of birds or the chirp of the tiny tree frog coqui, visit welcome.topuertorico.org/reference/yunque.html.

THE RAIN FOREST: The El Portal Centre is open daily 9 am to 5 pm; there is a $5 fee for adults, $3 for children for the film and hands-on exhibits. No fee to hike the 24 forest trails or to climb the 98 steps of the Yokahü Tower where you'll get a great view.

ACCOMMODATION: The Family Package at the recently renovated Westin Rio Mar Beach Golf Resort & Spa with its wide beach starts at $2,199 US (Jan 1 to April 30) for two adults and two kids under 12. This includes round-trip airport transfers, five nights' accommodation with Westin's Heavenly Bed (it is heavenly), daily breakfast buffet for two, one gourmet dinner for two, in-room pizza party, daily activities in the Westin Kids Club, Club Iguana (naturally), kids eat free program, second room available at half price (if desired) and all taxes, food and beverage tips and resort service fee. Plus free iguana spotting. For more info, call 800-4-RIO MAR or visit www.westinriomar.com www.westinriomar.com . For information on other family surprises around the island or to inquire about other accommodation choices, contact the Puerto Rico Tourism Company in Toronto 800-667-0394 or visit www.gotopuertorico.com.

HOW TO GET THERE: Starting this winter, Air Canada (888-247-2262 or aircanada.ca) will fly every Saturday and Sunday direct from Toronto to San Juan. Call the airline or consult your travel agent to book the four and a half hour flights. American Airlines (800-433-7300 or aa.com) connects from Toronto through Boston or Chicago.