Río Grande bears the name of the river that runs through it, immortalized in a poem by Julia de Burgos. However, for many visitors to the northeast, the municipality serves as one of the major gateways to El Yunque National Forest.
El Yunque is the only rainforest in the United States national forest system and, as such, it is under the protection of the US Forest Service. Although the rainforest stretches out along many Eastern municipalities, close to half of El Yunque is located within Río Grande. Also, the town provides the most convenient entry point to the north, off the coastal highway. The winding road uphill leads drivers to El Portal, a welcome center with various exhibits and information about the rainforest’s inhabitants. Locals and tourists take delight in a short informative film narrated by actor Jimmy Smits (of Puerto Rican heritage and NYPD Blue fame) and screened in an air-conditioned theater.
Along the coastline Río Grande features some upscale accommodations for tourists, such as the Río Mar Beach Resort and Spa and Gran Meliá’s Paradisus Puerto Rico. These resorts tend to attract pro-golfers with their world-renowned, links-style courses. The Trump Organization recently announced plans to also develop upscale oceanfront housing, which would unfortunately continue to shrink public access to Río Grande’s coastal areas. Offering a bit of a contrast is The Río Grande Plantation Eco Resort, located on the foothills of the rainforest. This property did, in fact, operate as a sugar cane plantation from the 18th century to the 1940s.
Visitors to the downtown area will find the typical sights of the old Spanish plazas, such as the Nuestra Señora del Carmen church, which was built in 1846. There is also a poster museum which houses a collection of this treasured Puerto Rican art.
The clash between environmental protection and continued development for economic growth is evident in Río Grande. It is easier to spot the native species of Amazon parrots on a t-shirt or on the town’s coat of arms than flying across the sky. Luckily, El Yunque is where the taíno god of Good is said to reside, and it looms large over eastern Puerto Rico, a constant reminder of the benefits of preservation and protection.