This blog article can also be accessed at my other blog site, Anthropology Corner.
The southern end of Puerto Rico is a place one could easily associate with old Western films because of its crusty and brown rolling hills. The mighty central cordilleras, a rugged spine of verdant forest across the island, trap the moisture that should have been reserved for these parts, rendering the terrain dry and desert-like.
The 2-hour drive from San Juan to Guanica is a good trip for understanding the impact of the central cordilleras on the Puerto Rican natural environment. Starting from Salinas, the surrounding topography turns yellow and brown, different from the usual tropical green valleys we associate with islands around the equator. Instead of trees dominating the landscape, what you see are grasses, shrubs, short scraggly trees, and cacti while a flock of migratory turkey vultures hovers above.
The situation of being at the wrong end of the central cordilleras (with seasonal rainfall averaging only 860 mm annually) does not stop life from blossoming at this southwestern part of Puerto Rico. The unique topology and microclimatic conditions created a biome that has been described as the “best preserved and best example of a tropical dry forest in the Caribbean.” This United Nations Biosphere Reserve is home to nine of the fourteen endemic bird species of the island and a host of other flora and fauna.
This 4000 ha. forest reserve however is sandwiched in tourist, agricultural, and urban development zones. The main road leading to the Guanica State Forest shows a landscape bearing its story of human occupation. A cursory look by the roadside would show that certain portions of the land are devoted to cattle and horse grazing. The plains are turned into fields of banana, papaya, and vegetables–the primary cash crops of Puerto Rico. Back in the day, historians recorded that the southern area also had a thriving sugar industry like the rest of the island but was abandoned when the world prices of sugar dropped to record lows (Guanica ending it in 1981). Vestiges of that sugar culture can still be gleaned from the artisanal production of guarapo, a sugarcane juice drink, and ron cana, a toxic sugarcane rum that burns your insides.
The seaward edge of the Guanica dry forest is a winding road that threads the series of hotels and beach spots along the coasts. Sightseers and tourists go to this area primarily because of the beach and Gilligan’s Island, an islet just across the forest. From the road, footpaths go deep into the forest reserve where hikers climb the rocky hills and explore the remarkable flora and fauna. Occasionally, a Santeria shrine of a saint could be found bearing offerings of fruits and flowers.
I don’t know how much of an impact human activities contributed to the Guanica Dry Forest. I tried searching through the literature and found that studies along this line have been wanting. What I saw instead was a comprehensive study of the influence of hurricane winds on the dry forest cycles. Apparently, dry forests are resilient enough to confront winds as strong as 152 knots. But droves of people? Who knows.