Independent travelers often avoid organized group tours in favor of sightseeing on their own. Sometimes this is because they dislike the idea of being herded around on someone else’s schedule, sometimes it’s to save money, and I’m sure there are a myriad of other reasons. I am all for saving money when I can, and whenever I can guide myself, I do. For instance, I didn’t need a tour guide to show me around Old San Juan or Forts El Morro or San Cristobal during my recent trip to Puerto Rico to get a sense of the history of those places. But sometimes, a group tour is the way to go, especially when you’re traveling solo. To demonstrate why, I’ll use an example from my recent trip to Puerto Rico.
El Yunque rainforest is the only rainforest in the U.S. So naturally, when I traveled to San Juan in January, El Yunque was high on my priority list. But I had a choice to make: Should I book an organized tour, which would cost upward of $50, and be stuck with their schedule, or rent a car for far less and go by myself? I’ll admit, I was tempted to rent the car and go it alone, as I was looking for ways to save money and wasn’t sure how much of my day I wanted to spend on the rainforest. But ultimately, I chose to go on an organized tour, and I’m so glad I did. Here’s why.
1. Socializing. Solo travel can sometimes be an isolating experience. I welcome opportunities to interact with others when they arise. Had I rented a car and driven myself, I would have just extended my period of isolation, which might have impacted my enjoyment of El Yunque. Instead, I got to interact with a tour guide and other individuals on the tour with me, including a woman traveling alone whose brother, I learned, lives in Stowe, Vermont (about half an hour from where I live). We hit it off and had some good conversation on the drive down and back.
2. Motivation. On the morning of my El Yunque day, it was pouring in San Juan. I know myself well enough to know that, faced with the prospect of driving 45 minutes to El Yunque, then hiking in the rain by myself, I might not have done it. And I didn’t really have a backup plan for that day. Knowing I had already booked and paid for the tour was all the motivation I needed to get up and go. If I had allowed myself to miss out on an experience like El Yunque, I’d still be kicking myself.
3. Let someone else do the driving and navigating. Traffic in Puerto Rico is, shall we say, a tad aggressive compared to Vermont. It didn’t take me very long once I was there to realize that, even with GPS to find my way there, I’d have been very nervous driving myself to El Yunque. By taking a tour, I got to sit back and enjoy the landscape roll by while letting someone else deal with the traffic. Being somewhat directionally-challenged, I’m also a little skeptical that I would have been successful at hiking through the rainforest without getting hopelessly lost. Thankfully, I didn’t have to worry about that.
4. Someone to take your picture. The age-old dilemma for solo travelers is wanting photos of yourself in the place you’re visiting, but not having anyone to take them (unless you’re willing to approach total strangers). I didn’t even have to ask. My tour guide volunteered to take my picture in front of Coca Falls and took photos of each of us wearing a goofy hat he made out of a humongous leaf.
5. Seeing versus learning. Yes, I could have gone to El Yunque alone and seen Coca Falls, stopped by the Visitor Center for the 15 minute film about the rainforest, and gone for a hike in the woods, just like I did with my tour group. But what I would have missed out on was the learning component–and interaction with a local. Jaime, who was my tour guide, lives near El Yunque. He had a great sense of humor and was a wealth of knowledge.
He plucked a plant out of the ground and told us the locals can pick this in their yards and cook with it. He showed us how to crush it between our fingers; it smelled like cilantro. He also showed us an orange flower and told a funny story about how the boys in his school used to squirt the pods onto girls because it smelled like pee. (Proving that boys will be boys, no matter where you go.) He pointed out a tree with large leaves, white on one side and green on the other. They use it like the Weather Channel, Jaime said: If the white side is showing, it’s going to storm. (We do this in Vermont, too.)
Jaime also told us he was a former newspaperman and regaled us with the tale of how some farm animals turned up dead, minus the blood, one day and the paper published a story of how the Chupacabra was on the loose. They sold a lot of papers with that headline. I could have listened to his stories all day. I wouldn’t have gotten any of that had I gone to El Yunque on my own.
For me, the extra $25-40 it cost to take the tour (plus a tip for Jaime) was well worth it. It was one of the best things I did in San Juan. If you should find yourself in search of a good tour to El Yunque during your trip to San Juan, the tour desk at the Caribe Hilton has a great reputation and a wide variety of tours.