When I first started traveling on my own, the idea of hiring a guide seemed ludicrous. Why did I want to spend extra money to follow a tour guide waving an umbrella or other silly-looking wand around, like a well-coifed shepherd herding his sheep?
As I traveled more, however, I learned that while you don’t need a guide for everything, hiring one, even if only for a few hours, can mean the difference between really understanding a place and having a visually interesting but ultimately superficial travel experience. Also, not all guided experiences involve name tags and tour buses, or a lot of money.
I realized this for the first time while exploring some ancient ruins in Mexico by myself. The site was impressive, but there was no English signage and I had no idea of the meaning behind the sites. I overheard a guide with a group explaining how what looked like stone slabs were altars for human sacrifice and how a pyramid was designed to mark the passage of time. I wished I paid extra at the entrance to join the group.
Nowadays when I travel to a new place, I try to find at least one opportunity to go on a guided experience. I avoid the big tour buses and instead seek out local experts in areas that interest me. That way you get a more intimate experience, and can often tailor a tour to your specific interests. Also, if you’re on a tight budget, you hire one for just part of the day, and won’t have to shell out for a whole escorted trip.
For example, on a trip to Peru last year, I traveled independently but hired native guides on several occasions to tour Incan sites. The stories I heard about the Incas and how their descendants now live were some of the highlights of my trip. One guide brought me to some hidden ruins in the jungle that only the locals knew about, and another brought me to little-visited mountain villages on the back of one of his horses—both priceless experiences I never would have known about on my own.
Finding a good guide can be a challenge, since many don’t have their own website or any way to market themselves. I’ve found my guides through recommendations in guide books, making inquires on destination-specific online message boards, and by asking at tourist information centers once I’m in the destination. Talking to other travelers and guides while on your trip is also a great way to get good recommendations.