When I first went on backpacking trips, I did not bother to hire guides because I thought I could figure everything out myself. A few years later, when I started to work in the tourist industry, I saw travelers save time in organized groups and I realized that one of the most important ingredients of a successful visit to a site was the right local guide.
For people who like to do everything themselves, it might be satisfying to custom-tailor a trip, making decisions about lodging and transportation on their own. But this is a luxury for those who have the time to dive into books, maps, and travel websites.
At first, I was drawn to the tour guide profession because it allowed me to travel and to make a small bit of money. I took groups of Dutch tourists through Central America and I handed them over to local guides, who escorted them through museums, archeological sites, jungles, mountain walks and what have we. Up to this point, the only guide I had ever hired was a diving instructor, but that was because there was no other legal or safe way to see corals and sharks. I was surprised when I accompanied tourists on these local tours and I realized that what they experienced in just three weeks was the equivalent of what I had seen in nearly three months of backpacking.
Although guidebooks like Lonely Planet, Moon Handbooks, and Footprint deliver basic information, a local guide can lend personal observation and much more detail. Plus, local guides are continually learning about a place so their facts and figures can stay up-to date. While the right advice from a guidebook can make travel easier, it is risky to rely on a book too much because even newly published editions can miss some important changes made years before.
If you were to read the literature on an area in enough detail to have the expertise of a local guide, you would spend quite some money getting the information and a lot of hours reading, and your suitcase would be weighed down with books.
In my work with tour guides I learned that a good local guide is not always the guide who was born and raised around the corner from their tour. I have worked with guides who traveled across the world to their location, and loved it so much that they spent three or four years getting to know it like the back of their hands. Their love for the place was contagious, and easily picked up by the travelers who followed them. The enthusiasm of a good guide invigorated their trip, and many people fondly remember their guides when they look back at their photo books. So, if you do decide to hire local guides, don’t forget to take pictures of the ones you like the most.