A great place where kids may hike in an urban forest and learn about the plant and animal life therein is the Santa Ana Forest, located in Julio E. Monagas National Park in the City of Bayamón, Puerto Rico. Guided hiking tours in such forest may be scheduled through Centro Ambiental Santa Ana (CASA), which mission is to foster nature appreciation through educational and interpretive activities and scientific research. According to Dayamiris Candelario, CASA’s Director and interpretive guide, the Santa Ana Forest is on a piece of land, located in Puerto Rico’s Northern Karst Region, which formed part of Hacienda Santa Ana. The hacienda’s land was acquired by Don Fernando Fernández by the end of the 18th century and was known for its sugarcane plantation and sugar mill, especially during the 19th century.
Currently, Sociedad de Historia Natural de Puerto Rico, a nonprofit organization, administers CASA in collaboration with the Puerto Rico Recreation and Sports Department and the Puerto Rico Interamerican University. CASA was founded in 2006 pursuant to Dr. Frank H. Wadsworth’s vision to provide a natural field laboratory where young people could acquire knowledge about the environment and its organisms. Dr. Wadsworth, known for his research about forests, was one of the founding members of the nonprofit organization behind this project, as stated by CASA’s Director.
During our hiking experience in Santa Ana Forest, we joined a group of very excited 5-6-year-old Girl Scouts whose curiosity and willingness to learn about the forest’s ecosystem surprised us. At the beginning of the tour, Yaritza Bobonis, one of the interpretive guides, emphasized the importance of protecting the natural treasures in the forest as well as in other natural areas.
Yaritza enlightened the kindergarten girls about three Puerto Rico’s native trees. First, she pointed a tree with spines known as sandbox tree (“Molinillo in Spanish) (“Hura crepitans”). She said that birds, such as the Blue-and-Yellow Macaw (“Guacamayo Azulamarillo in Spanish) (“Ara ararauna”), eat the Molinillo’s green round fruit. This fruit caught the attention of the girls.
While the young Girl Scouts stared at the big trees in the forest, the endemic Puerto Rican Woodpecker (“Carpintero de Puerto Rico” in Spanish) (“Melanerpes portoricensis”) sang and welcomed the group. After Yaritza showed an image of this bird, the girls happily sang a song about the woodpecker. They were lovely.
Yaritza pointed the Puerto Rico Royal Palm (“Palma Real de Puerto Rico” in Spanish) (“Roystonea borinquena”), and highlighted that it serves as a protein and vitamin source for birds. The next tree identified by our guide was a very interesting one: the Bay rum tree (“Malagueta” in Spanish) (“Pimenta racemosa”). Yaritza explained that Bay rum leaves are medicinal; and thus, are distilled in alcohol to produce the rubbing alcohol known as “alcoholado”. The leaves smelled like “alcoholado”, which has been used by many generations in Puerto Rico to relieve symptoms associated with headaches, muscular pains and respiratory illnesses.
Our next stop was nearby an old building that served as a bunker for U.S. soldiers during the World War II era, as informed by Dayamiris. Dayamiris amazed the girls after telling a legend: that one of the soldiers, who used to walk around this area, was not seen again, and people rumor that when you peek through one of the bunker’s windows, you may listen to the lost soldier’s steps. The intrigued girls had the chance to look through the bunker’s window and see the interior of the old building that used to be storage for U.S. soldiers’ ammunitions.
Then a walking stick dazzled the young girls. Yaritza explained that, as a defense mechanism, the walking stick might stay put among the plants in order to resemble a stick, swing slowly to look as a stick being moved by the breeze, or change its color to green in order to camouflage among the leaves. More information about this insect is provided in the “delve!” subsection.
Afterwards, we kept hiking and stopped to see the flower and seed of the African Tulip tree (“Tulipán Africano” in Spanish) (“Spathodea campanulata”). In order to demonstrate how this seed germinates, Dayamiris asked the girls to stand next to each other and form a circle. She guided them to dramatize the African Tulip seed’s germination and the foliage development. Dayamiris explained that the shade resulting from African Tulip trees contributed to the growth of Puerto Rico’s native trees during a particular period.
By the end of the tour, the guides exhorted the girls and the rest of the group members to relax and listen to nature sounds. After everyone held hands and closed their eyes, the Santa Ana Forest farewelled us.
Hiking tours for groups are available in Santa Ana Forest during the daytime and nighttime, subject to prior reservation. Student and adult groups are welcome. Hiking tours for very young kids may last around one and a half hour, and those for older kids and adults may last around two and a half to three hours. Make sure to contact Centro Ambiental Santa Ana before visiting this natural area. T: 787-778-7140, 787-910-0187 E: firstname.lastname@example.org