Ten years ago, while walking around Berlin on a guided walking tour, a couple (also tourists) walking past shouted “sheep” at us. Presumably for some, taking part in such a tour was a kiss of death, a neon sign announcing you were a tourist (as if this was some kind of great evil) and not an “independent traveller”.
In the past, this might have bothered me – surely I could do my own research and be a well-informed traveller without following a scripted tour? Plus, I would save money!
But I’ve come to appreciate a well-executed guided tour, and especially so on this trip, where Spanish is a struggle for me to grasp and feels like a barrier to me understanding the countries we’ve visited.
Whether it’s a tips-based walking tour to orientate yourself around a city, or a full-day activity-based programme, these tours are great opportunities to put forth your burning questions to someone who lives and works in the place you’re trying to know better — even better if he or she was born and bred there. The best guides, for me, are the ones who are willing and able to answer questions and leave you feeling like you’ve caught a little bit of what makes the people in that country tick. That’s something I’ll never get from reading a book or a travel blog.
So far we’ve put down money for a city walking tour in Valparaiso, a wine-tasting cycling tour in Mendoza, horseback riding in Salta, and a 4D3N tour of the Uyuni salt flats and its surroundings. The one time we didn’t get an English-language tour (to see the Los Volcanes region in Bolivia), I felt like it a little something was lost because there was so much more to know. I especially loved our guide on the Uyuni tour not only because she had such great personality, but also because she was a fantastic source of knowledge about Bolivia and its history and culture. The additional cost of hiring an English-speaking guide in general, makes me hesitate a bit, but it’s pretty much something I rarely regret doing– if it means drinking less beer or wine, so be it.
So, while I may never willingly join a packaged tour to see a country, I don’t think there’s any need to be a snob about tours in general. Some tours do suck, but other times, it’s up to us to make the most of any tour by doing more than sitting back and listening. Ask and it shalt be given. Most times.
Some of the tours on the trip so far that I’ve enjoyed –
Tours for Tips (Valparaiso, Chile) I generally like city walking tours to help me orientate to a new place, but we actually did this tour on our last day in Valparaiso. But even though we revisited some of the same places, it was interesting to see them again through a different lens thanks to the information from the guide (from Valparaiso), and the fact that we could put our questions to someone! We did what the agency called the “offbeat” tour which didn’t seem super offbeat to me but it did include rides on public transport (including the looping and scenic “O” bus) and a quick loop into the port area which I appreciated. They’re also very relaxed and unpushy about tips, and emphasised that we didn’t need to pay anything or we could pay any amount (some agencies actually recommended a minimum sum when we emailed them). A cool experience. I wish I had a street art tour too.
Martin’s Bikes (Mendoza, Argentina) Mendoza is a great base for exploring the wine region nearby that produces the famed Malbec wine and although it’s possible to explore wineries independently (by bike or bus), Martin was the kind of guide you always hope to land – knowledgable and passionate (he studied wine), interesting (he worked as a guide all over the world including Norway and South Africa) and professional (the whole process was well managed and the itinerary explained to us). The tour is considerably more expensive than others but I felt I was worth it because it was one of those experiences where you felt you learnt more than superficial knowledge about the subject and Martin was fun to talk to about wine, travel and Argentina.
Sayta Cabalgatas (Chicoana, Argentina) Argentina seemed like the type to try out horseback riding (all those gauchos) so we tried out this well-reviewed ranch in a town off Salta. Our riding guide didn’t speak much English, and neither did the grandfatherly owner, but Sayta had someone who did on hand to meet us when we arrived for breakfast, and during lunch, and he also came riding with us in the afternoon. The riding was very fun (we got to try galloping!), but the bonus was the spectacular lunch eaten at a long table with the other ranch hands and staff, as well as the owner and his friends and family, which made you feel more like a guest than a customer. And I cannot go on enough about the quality of the food – perfectly grilled meats and veggies, wine from a monastery in the region, and a lovely convivial atmosphere.
La Torre (Tupiza, Bolivia) Everyone joins a tour to visit the stunning Salar de Uyuni and its surrounding national parks, and unless you shell out for a better class of accommodation, they’re pretty much the same in terms of itinerary and set-up. But not all tours are equal in terms of professionalism, and La Torre, which operates out of Tupiza and has a great reputation, is definitely a notch above the rest. We paid extra for an English-speaking guide and it was worth every penny – if I had more cash on hand I would have left a big tip. Our guide Ellie was a cool, funny Bolivian woman who knew her stuff and was able to answer questions about Bolivian culture in general as well. She also did a great job managing the tour as a whole and had a knack for anticipating needs before we felt them. Loved her!