I’m a huge fan of guides–not necessarily guide books, although I do use them to give me a running start on figuring out where I might head before my interests lead me in other directions, but living, breathing human guides who know a place well. These folks are worth hiring for a few hours tour–or a day. Or even a week. Guides can save lives even.
When trekking with a guide and sherpas through the Markha Valley in Ladakh and on the Annapurna trail in Nepal, I saw fliers for missing hikers who had set off on their own. Either they become lost or hurt. Regardless, they were unable to get back from what they probably imagined as a solo adventure. With thieves not uncommon in Nepal’s mountains, guides offer protection. The trails in Ladakh are so rugged and faint and head in so many directions, it would be easy to get lost. It’s certainly easy to get sick. The sounds of people in my group heaving at night from altitude sickness on my Ladakh trip was not exactly music to my ears. We had a trip that involved people cooking for us and mules carrying our bags, so I can’t fathom what it would be like to attempt 17,000 feet while carrying belongings, food.and water. And, by the way, the people who got the most sick were the ones who fancied themselves the most athletic. They pushed themselves to prove something and BAM!!! a real puke problem.
Even if you don’t need a guide to save your life, guides are a way to find out little tidbits of places and people you wouldn’t know otherwise. In Benares, (Varanasi) India, we hired a guide for a day who took us on a city tour that began early in the morning and ended late in the day. We clicked immediately and since we were traveling with our son, who was not yet a year and a half, and our daughter who was nine, having him take us to a boat for our crack of dawn boat ride on the Ganges River made this excursion seem less daunting. He also filled us in on facinating details about who gets cremated and who doesn’t and pointed out prominent people’s houses and details about the architecture. He also took us to places to buy the best masala tea mix and filled us in on details about trying to get a job as a professor in India’s affirmative action system. One of my favorite moments was listening to him sing in one of the temples we went to to show us how the sound carried.
When we went to Sri Lanka (before kids) but with my father, we hired a guide and a driver for the entire trip. Since we stayed in budget hotels (clean and airconditioned but no frills) and ate simple, local food, the money we spent on our guide/driver/car helped us to see most of the country in nine days. Since my dad got sick for a couple of the days, having a driver allowed for my dad to wait with someone while my husband and I continued to sightsee. Our guide also took us to his house to visit his family at the end of the trip and helped us make a delivery of art supplies and books to an school for kids with developmental delays. We could go at our own pace.
In Beijing we hired a guide to take us around for two days. He was a guide who a friend of ours knew. Besides pointing out historic details when we went to various places, he knew exactly where to shop and where to get the best, local spicy food. As my husband said, “Hurt me.” The hot pot restaurant he took us too was excellent and filled with neighborhood locals.
While living in New Delhi, we mostly headed out on our own, but one of my highlights was the personal guided tour we took with a guy named Nigel. He is British and has been giving guided tours of Old Delhi for years, but unfortunately, I think he may have stopped.
Although, I also like the experience of winging it, guide free to see what comes our way, guides can make traveling easier and provide the details you might miss otherwise. Here’s a helpful tips article, Hiring Guides in Foreign Countries from Wendy Perrin over at Concierge.com.