In most areas of the world, tour companies provide both a good driver and a tour guide for each busload of passengers.
While most of the drivers are excellent, the tour guides can be great, mediocre or just plain charlatans.
I went on a tour in 1985 from Delhi to the Taj Mahal. The guide was a young lady who spoke heavily accented English, very fast. I had read several books to get an idea what we would be seeing and knew a lot about the history of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal. The guide got dates and even names incorrect and seemed to make up answers when people asked questions.
The bus stopped first at a stone-work gift shop where we passengers were expected to spend an hour purchasing inlaid stone boxes and sculptures.
My friend and I were disgusted at this waste of time foisted upon us. We left the tour and hired a pedi-cab to take us directly to the Taj Mahal. We purchased our own lunch from street vendors and passed on the plan to eat at a fancy restaurant.
The guide was very upset with us. I guess nobody ever ditched her before. As a result, we spent two hours more at the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort than the other people who came with us.
In established archeological parks in Mexico, guides are supposed to have college educations with majors in tourism with an emphasis on archeology and guiding. They are required to be licensed, and have a badge that says so. But as with any profession, there are people who excel at their jobs and those who are simply pathetic.
I took a day-tour in Oaxaca to the Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán. The guide provided by the tour company was not licensed and frankly, I doubt he could have passed on any subject. He pointed at flat stone sculptures and said they were gods, but he had no idea which god.
Stela at Monte Albán depicting a breach birth. Photo by Sherry Hardage
On a subsequent trip, I learned that a group of stelae were thought to be the Mayan equivalent of Grey’s Anatomy, “pictures” detailing medical anomalies like breach births, dwarfism and arthritis.
On my first trip to Palenque, an Israeli man agreed to share the price of an English-speaking guide with me. The guide was fairly knowledgeable, but he was incredibly lazy. We climbed the pyramids to look at what he told us was up there, while he lounged in the shade.
At the top of one pyramid, a young enthusiastic guide was pointing out neat things to look at and describing the nuances of the Mayan religion. Unfortunately for us, he only spoke Spanish. When our guide’s two hours of sitting around watching us climb pyramids was over, he just walked away.
I have been back to both Palenque and Monte Albán. Both times I interviewed available guides before hiring them, and had much better experiences.
A good guide can be so much fun. They can give you insights that only come from years of study and a deep interest in the subject matter.
Sometimes, a guide is just extraordinary. In San Cristóbal de las Casas, there is an English-speaking guide named Cesar whose mother is from the village of Zinacantán. His father is Mexican. From the unique perspective of growing up in both cultures, he can weave a magical understanding of the indigenous Mayans and the Spanish descendants that make Mexico so interesting.
If hiring a guide seems like a lot of money, there are downloadable guides for smart phones, iPads and other devices, that do a good job and provide useful maps. Travel guidebooks like Lonely Planet are also a good resource, though the book is a bit heavy to tote around.
A friend of mine just rips out the sections of places he wants to visit for the day and takes those sheets along for the ride. After all, when the trip is over, the dated guidebook isn’t of much use to him anyway.
Editor’s note: Sherry Hardage lives in Los Alamos and has been traveling solo in the U.S., Mexico, and Europe since she retired from Honeywell in 2009. She is a photographer, writer and guide who organizes tours of Chiapas, Mexico through her website: www.mexadventures.com
Hardage welcomes comments via email: firstname.lastname@example.org