Why a great tour guide can make all the difference to your holiday and how to pick the best one
The best guides take you off the beaten track, find the best photo spots and give insights into the local culture
The once lost city of Machu Picchu stood before us: a cluster of Incan ruins nestled on an Andean mountain ridge, the green fang of Huayna Picchu hulking in the background. It was like all the pictures I’d seen.
Unfortunately, we’d arrived in the afternoon – after queuing for a train, then a bus – and the place was swarming with other tourists, who nudged me out of the way for their once-in-a-lifetime but identical photos.
There was another queue that took us down a flight of stairs to the main site. To make matters worse, it had started to drizzle.
My tour guide Boris Castro, from Kuoda Travel, pulled me aside. “We could wait,” he said. “But I have another idea. Okie-dokie?”
I smiled at his oft-used expression. “Okie-dokie,” I replied.
“You say that too?”
I felt confident that Boris, the talkative son of a Trotskyite primary-school teacher, would have a strong second option. He suggested we take a walk along the Inca Bridge trail.
The trail, cut from the side of a granite cliff face, not only allowed me a glimpse of 15th-century Incan engineering but also a taste of what it’d be like to hike – not bus – to Machu Picchu from one of its still functioning trails.
The half-hour hike was refreshing and when we returned, the line had disappeared. Naturally, I posed for my own clichéd Machu Picchu tourist photo.
The bulk of my brief trips around the world have been undertaken with tour guides. A great tour guide makes the difference between a comfortable trip filled with discovery and one filled with foiled expectations.
Qualities to look for in a guide
“Being a tour leader probably involves more personal skills than any other job,” says Paul Christie, CEO of Walk Japan, which specialises in high-end walking tours.
“An excellent one needs to be good as a leader, logistician, diplomat, companion, and friend. They should be able to keep a clear head in a crisis and be resourceful, dependable, organised and courteous. A teacher, an enthusiast, a humble learner, generous, sensitive to others, entertaining and hospitable.”
A guide will give their country’s history a personal context.
“Anyone can read the history of a country or its cultures,” says Thomas Adams, sales supervisor at Kuoda, the company that managed my Peruvian adventure. “But to give a different, or more personal perspective to each day of your travels? No book can do what a great guide does.”
On a Quena Tour Enterprises visit in 2014 to the decommissioned prison on Robben Island in South Africa, a guide and ex-political prisoner (jailed for belonging to a banned group that opposed apartheid) led us to the small cell where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years.
The way he walked through the institution as though it were an old home – brought gravitas to what might have been just a perfunctory stop.
Later on that trip, in the mountains of Drakensberg, Rudi, our Afrikaans tour guide with Beach Bush Berg Safaris and Dives, spoke movingly about his adolescent experience of the ingrained racism of the 1990s, when his all-white school was integrated overnight and Mandela’s role in opening his heart.
Takuya Ugaijin, a guide for Walk Japan, says a good guide will constantly consider potential mishaps.
“They should check, then double-check train times; make sure that the accommodation knows that a customer on their tour is a vegan; check the opening times of a venue for customers making a visit,” he said.
But they should also be prepared for detours from a set itinerary.
“All clients seek an element of serendipity in their travels,” says Guy Rubin, managing partner of Beijing-based Imperial Tours, “And a guide's flexibility allows for this.”
For example, one of Imperial Tours’ guides in a rural location helped arrange for a visiting family to play a soccer match with local Chinese villagers and the family’s children, says Rubin. The same guide helped another guest who wanted to change his plans at last minute to stay at a hotel on Huangshan mountain to watch the sunrise in the morning.
It can be an added bonus if your tour guide has an eye for a good photo.
“Our experienced guides know the hidden gems and the best spots to take great photos,” says Anita Ngai, chief revenue officer of Hong Kong-based travel platform Klook. “They know travellers love to share their experiences with their peers on social media.”
How to find great guides
Janvi Chow, an independent Guangzhou tour guide advises travellers not only to check TripAdvisor reviews of tour guides but to cross-reference them with reviews on other websites and blogs.
“People will share their stories on their blogs,” Chow says. “It’s more believable than the reviews on TripAdvisor.”
Certain guides work better with families with children, couples on their honeymoon, groups of friends, the adventurous or foodies, Kuoda’s Adams says.
“The aim is to match the right guide with the right travellers,” he said.