Mar 19 2010 11:25am

“It’s Like Pandora—Only Better”

You’ve heard of PW—Pandora Withdrawalthe syndrome that gripped significant numbers of Avatar fans, a syndrome marked by the blues, obsession, outright depression, even suicidal thoughts and feelings.

You may also have heard Joe Letteri’s Oscar’s acceptance speech following Avatar’s Visual Effects win in which he said:

“…just remember the world we live in is just as amazing as the one we created for you.”

For those who would miss Pandora, the good news is that Joe Letteri is 100% correct.

Even better news: you can walk on Pandora. If you’re a U.S. citizen you don’t even need a passport to get there. (We got there in a Boeing 737 and a crimson Toyota Yaris.)

The best news of all? Pandora can be bested—sights, sounds, blindness and night terrors, sheer awe. You can even go back, again and again.

“It’s Pandora—only better”

Anne and I are walking in El Yunque. Anne says, and not for the first time, “It’s Pandora—only better.”

Nestling high in the rugged Sierra de Luquillo southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the U.S. National Parks system.

Yunque, derived from Yuquiye, translates as “Forest of Clouds.”

To get the full Pandora/El Yunque experience you’ll need to get away from the crowds. Large groups of Homo sapiens may be awed into silence when viewing Avatar. In stunning rainforests, however, Homo sapiens chatter and screech like Pan troglodytes, loud and boisterous, oblivious and slightly mad.

So go off season, hike deep into the rainforest—and experience another world.

Pandora by Day

The best hikes aren’t advertized. Should you learn about them and ask for details, you may be discouraged by the Threshold Guardians: the paths are rigorous, poorly marked at times, folks sometimes don’t get back by dark when the upper reaches of the park close. The waitress at our hotel was full of stories about visitors gunning for a Darwin Award.


Credit: (L) Blake Matheson/Flikr, (R) WikiCommons

If you know what you’re about, the Threshold Guardians will relent, become Protectors, share hidden knowledge. So know where you’re going, pack appropriate footwear, water bottles, food, rain gear, deep-woods DEET (no one want dengue fever), and know to mark splits in the path (to not get lost on the return trek) and when to turn back (even though the peak—and the best view—is only half a mile or so on).

Be smart and the rewards are unending.

Take the time, too, to stop and look. At first—like Jake on Pandora—you may not see much. But keep watching: the rainforest is alive.

If by day you’re not convinced of the strong El Yunque/Pandora connection, you’ll need to experience the rainforest at night.

Pandora by Night

It’s said there are 800 million frogs in El Yunque. Thirteen separate species. Towards sunset they begin to sing. To sit in utter darkness, surrounded by almost deafening frog song, knocks Avatar’s stellar sound effects out of the solar system.

Taking the time to listen is a remarkable experience. At first, the frog song is a mushy blanket of overlapping sound. Then, the song of one species will disentangle itself from the rest, come forward, take center stage, retreat while another song takes its place. Soon you’ll have identified four or five distinct songs. It’s easy to imagine that living a little longer “on Pandora” would result in the aural ability to all 13 distinct calls.

As your eyes adjust to the black, the more you see: there is light in the darkness. This sudden realization can be startling. Why didn’t I see it at first? Luminous insects dance in the air; luminous insects glow on the ground. Magical.

Look up. In the black, black sky: more stars than frogs.

Anne and I had the chance to hike at night too, and were glad of our bright and reliable flashlights. The night closes in around you. The frog song is even louder—but now there are crashes in the mid-distance, surround sounds you can’t locate or identify, invisible rustlings almost underfoot. You remind yourself over and over that El Yunque is a “gentle rainforest” without large predators or poisonous snakes. You remind yourself—yet still jump, still feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention, still imagine predators on all sides, and above you.


It’s archetypal. It’s thrilling. In the rainforest at night you feel alive.


For those who just can’t get enough of Pandora’s unearthly glow, head for Las Croabas Lagoon in Fajardo, not far from El Yunque.

The water in the lagoon has 500-700 thousand bioluminescent dinoflagellates per gallon.

Norm Spellman & Col. Miles Quaritch: Alive & Well

Truth in advertising, RDA and Sec-Ops are alive and well in El Yunque, just as they were in Avatar. So be prepared, emotionally. Some folks feel hooting like baboons is the way to be in the rainforest, others listen to voice mails—speaker function on—or cart boom boxes in. NASCAR wannabes take the narrow El Yunque roads too fast—we were almost hit by a reckless driver at night.

And it’s also true: with a bit of determination and some planning, you can escape Spellman and Quartitch: vast stretches of El Yunque are pristine, full of life.

It’s Pandora. Only better.




Dr. Kirtland C. Peterson — “Cat” to his friends and colleagues — feeds his left brain with science, his right brain with the rich feast of fiction, including SF and fantasy.

Among his life’s highlights are sitting in the pilot’s seat of a shuttle prepping for launch at the Kennedy Space Center, and accepting Brannon Braga’s invitation to pitch Star Trek scripts at Paramount in LA.

Currently C.J. Sansom’s Revelation and re-reading Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass.

Brian Cavanaugh
1. jagahanas
I second the feeling. I just came back from Costa Rica, where the rainforests and national preserves there seem like another world.
Pablo Defendini
2. pablodefendini
I grew up in Puerto Rico, and high school was full of outings not only to el Yunque, but to other beautiful places that certainly give Pandora a run for its money. Youthful experimentation with psychedelics didn't hurt in that regard, either.

Joking aside, el Yunque and other ecological preserves on the island (such as the bioluminescent bays at las Corabas and la Parguera, on the opposite side of the island) are well worth the visit, and, as Cat says, you don't even need a passport.
3. AielAdam
Well actually, the real Pandora is the island of Kauai (it was used as a location for Avatar!). While not a US National Park, it is a State Park and definitely a tropical rainforest. And one that passport-less US citizens can get to.
Jetse de Vries
4. Jetse
I've travelled the world extensively, and there are magnificent places on every continent (OK: I haven't been on Antarctica, but I've heared crew members of an Australian Icebreaker tell about its wonders).

The world is literally full of phenomenally wonderful places, which makes me wonder why a large part of the SF community was so vehemently against mundane SF. One of the things mundane SF (admittedly, the moniker could have been, well, sexier: like world SF or natural SF ) pointed to was the beauty of life on Earth, and how we are wasting it.

Obviously, I have a hot project running that promotes the controversial idea that we can still preserve most of that beauty, and have the possibility of a good future in our own hands. So shoot me for being too promotional about it, but I do believe in it (both the necessity and brio), so here goes.

Or has optimism become a dirty word?
Irene Gallo
5. Irene
Amazing pictures, Cat.

As a kid I loved watching tons of nature shows, none more so than the underwater ones. Now I watch Blue Planet and go to as many Aquariums as I can and always think: This is _so_ science fiction!
Patrick Garson
6. patrickg
Do you have an aquarium at home, Irene? It's a wonderful way to bring some life and exoticism inside, in my opinion.

These picture remind me of the temperate rainforest where I grew up in the Queensland ranges. There is nothing more fecund to the imagination than hectares of uninterrupted forest where you may in fact be the first person to stand.
Wesley Parish
7. Aladdin_Sane
Oh Lordy, patrickg, I grew up in PNG, with the tropical rainforest sharing billing with the tropical grasslands, right at my doorstep. I was never the first person to tread that land; the Papua New Guineans had gone over it, had fought over it, inch by inch, for at least forty thousand years.

Now, Doctor, you've gone and made me homesick for a land I haven't been back to since Self-Government.

I especially miss the gigantic trees, towering way above you, on the edges of the rainforest, and the edible ferns, and the fruit, and ...
Dr. Kirtland C Peterson
8. catsongs
@1 -- We're already planning to go back!

@2 -- I'm jealous! PR is gorgeous. (We're also snorkelers and had a fabulous day in the water.) Recommendations for other great "Pandora" places to visit?

@3 -- Been to Hawai'i--and hiking in a Hawai'ian rainforest--but not to the island of Kauai. Sounds like a recommendation. If only it weren't so far away...

@4 -- Educate me. What is "mundane SF"? I guess I can go Google it... : )

@5 -- Irene, we've got a GREAT aquarium here! And you know the secret to getting a handful of decent pix in bad lighting situations: fill up your 2 GB SD card!

@7 -- Wow...

Now... you've gone and made me homesick for a land I haven't been back to since Self-Government.

I especially miss the gigantic trees, towering way above you, on the edges of the rainforest, and the edible ferns, and the fruit, and ...

Go back!

Eric Neal
9. ewneal

Spectacular photography and wonderful commentary!

As you suggest, there are marvels and wonders all around us if we can only separate ourselves from the busy lives that many of us live.

It is great you were able to get away to such a beautiful place and bask in it's awesome splendors!

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