With a nod from the guard station attendant, a bright yellow bus pulls into Las Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve on the northeastern tip of Puerto Rico and, in a ritual repeated hundreds of times each year, a battalion of youngsters in crisp primary school uniforms spills into the parking lot under the watchful eye of teachers and parent volunteers. Two by two they pass beneath the spreading limbs of an ancient ceiba and head for the nineteenth-century-style reception center, where the wraparound veranda is shaded by palm, wild tamarind, and almond trees.
On hand to greet the new arrivals is a young woman dressed in the distinctive khaki shirt and blue jeans of the park interpreter. Following a brief introduction, she waves the students onto a motorized trolley and with a lurch they are off on their journey of discovery into the wonders of the natural world. At their first stop, the young visitors stroll a sun-bleached boardwalk that loops through dense forests of mangrove, discussing as they go each of the four distinctive varieties and their importance to humans. Along the way, they spot dragonflies, bees, and a yellow warbler perched atop a hurricane-damaged tree. They gawk as tiny fiddler crabs strut across parched tidal fiats and inspect the clear, brackish waters of Laguna Grande, a rare, bio-luminescent lagoon filled with microorganisms that glow in the dark.
At Los Lirios, an inhospitable cove whose rough coastal waters shelter green turtles and manatees, the children are let loose to explore a beach littered with polished river rocks, coral remnants, and seashells that they press eagerly to their ears for echoes of the sea. Poised on a breezy promontory above three distinctive headlands, or cabezas, that jut dramatically into the Atlantic Ocean, El Faro is the itinerary's final destination.
In operation since 1882, Puerto Rico's second oldest lighthouse is still an important landmark for sailors who navigate the treacherous offshore reefs below, and its beacon can be spotted for up to thirty miles. Inside the gray and white neoclassic structure, students learn about its history and tour marine exhibits that include a popular petting zoo. Later they climb the French-designed, black spiral staircase to a rooftop observation deck, where unfettered views unfold across the 316-acre reserve--to the east, the islands of Vieques, Culebra, St. Thomas, and Tortola and to the northwest, the Sierra de Luquillo and the Caribbean National Forest, known as El Yunque.
The two-hour excursion, which visits five of the reserve's seven ecosystems and historic El Faro lighthouse, creates a powerful impression on many of the fifty thousand adults, teens, and children who make the trek to Las Cabezas each year. "I think I'd like to be a nature interpreter when I grow up," proclaims one youngster flush from her close encounters with the flora and fauna of this, one of the Puerto Rico's most pristine coastal regions.
Indeed, her interest in the environment may blossom, one day leading to a career in wildlife management or marine biology, but there is a more fundamental and ambitious goal behind these guided nature forays, according to Las Cabezas guide Arlyn Fuentes. "Ours is essentially a message of discovery and commitment to the environment. We want to open people's eyes to the beauty and fragility of our natural resources and to their value for us as human beings," she explains. "If we can also help them to understand that these resources belong to all of us, then maybe they will be motivated to take care of them."
A tranquil, breeze-swept outpost in a sea of seamless development that stretches eastward along the island's north coast from booming San Juan to the town of Fajardo, Las Cabezas was itself scheduled for its own dramatic transformation from privately owned agricultural and grazing acreage to major resort complex in the late 1960s. Instead, in 1975, after years of rallying by environmentally minded islanders, the Puerto Rico Planning Commission awarded rights of purchase to the Conservation Trust of Puerto Rico or Fideicomiso de Conservacion de Puerto Rico, a fledgling group created five years earlier by the governments of Puerto Rico and the United States. …