Excerpt of article By Judy Watiuk
They’re rarely at the top of any American’s getaway bucket list, but the U.S. territories of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands should be. After all, they offer all the delights of a tropical vacation with intriguing local history thrown in.
Jorge Pardo, owner of Wilmington, Delaware-based Vamonos Tours, is a Puerto Rico native who has been leading student tours to his home island for more than 15 years. Located east of the Dominican Republic on the edge of the Caribbean Sea, Puerto Rico is just over 1,000 air miles from Miami — an easy hop “Culture, adventure and Spanish immersion are the hallmarks of our tours,” Pardo said. “We go for a long hike in El Yunque National Forest, we do spelunking, ziplining, visit a local fisherman who shows us real, living creatures he caught that morning — everything your typical tourist will not do.”
Tourists gravitate to the Spanish fort of El Morro, which Pardo says is beautiful, and he’ll take groups there if teachers request it, but he prefers the largest Spanish built fort, San Cristóbal. His groups also sample sights most visitors see: Old San Juan in the capital city with its Spanish colonial streets and architecture, the Parque de Bombas museum at the Plaza Las Delicias in the municipality of Ponce, the
re-created coffee and chocolate plantation of Hacienda Buena Vista and a few beaches along the way.
Puerto Rico is part of a pre-trip offered on cruises booked through Cruises and Tours Worldwide. “And we hit Saint Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands once in a while as ports of call on cruises,” said Anne Davis, the company’s president. “The big thing there, of course, is the duty-free shopping.” Southern Caribbean cruises typically leave out of San Juan and sandwich in the old town on the pre-cruise and the rain forest as a post-cruise option.
There could— and should— be more access to these under-visited destinations, Davis said, but with few NTA members in the area, it can be a
challenge to find solid receptive tour operators. That’s something she’d like to work on changing. “They have a lot to offer,” Davis said. “The rain forest there and the parks are beautiful, and they have lovely visitor centers and trails.”