Confessions of a travel writer: Why great guides are essential

A tour guide can make or break a holiday – but they're even more important to travel writers. Here's why...

5 mins
A gaggle of individuals make the life of a travel writer possible: commissioning editors, PRs, photographers, pilots... to name just a few. Also playing an equally vital role is the humble tour guide.

In October I attended the Wanderlust World Guide Awards at the Royal Geographical Society in London to pay homage to these unsung heroes. Joining the Wanderlust team and my own personal hero Bill Bryson – who I informed that my own travelogue would one day grace the bookshelves next to his (he joked he’d make sure his were more prominently placed) – and it was extraordinary to hear testimonials from travellers whose experiences were so enriched by the guides being honoured. 

A guide can make or break a holiday, but for a travel writer on assignment they are indispensable in a different way. Depending on the nature of the story, I not only rely on them for historical background and local insight, but also to help facilitate interviews (for first person colour pieces) and reveal hidden corners of their home turf (for city guides). Sometimes it’s a match made in heaven, but at other times it’s a testing partnership that pushes you to the edges of despair.

Researching a guide to Sofia a couple of years ago, I was given a tour by a perfectly amiable chap who took great delight in showing me around his home town. “I’d like to write about a really cosy café, one that’s special in some interesting way,” I told him. “Do you know of any?”

“I know just the place,” he said, tapping the side of his nose. An hour and a half later, he deposited me at the doorstep of Costa Coffee. Not exactly what I had in mind. I shook my head in despair and went off in search of a spot with a little more character, which I found at Buffet, a cosy spot with mismatched furniture and old movie posters.

My most memorable guide, however, was a lady called Daisy*: my sole companion and chief irritant during a week-long trip to Taiwan. Not only devastatingly dull, she didn’t permit me to go anywhere on my own (I snuck out of my hotel once and she almost blew a fuse) and she displayed not a shred of flexibility (“But we must spend three hours in the National Museum because that’s what the itinerary says…”).

Worst of all, she was utterly incapable of a having a conversation about anything beyond Tai-bloody-wan. A typical chat went a little like this:
“Do you like travelling, Daisy? Where in the world would you most like to go?”
“I haven’t seen all of Taiwan yet. In Taiwan we have eight national parks and 1,566km of coastline…”
“So, Daisy, tell me, do you like wildlife?”
“Yes. In Taiwan, we have 377 species of butterflies and 122 kinds of mammals…” At which point I reached for my biro and started self-harming.

Researching long first-person features without a decent guide is not only painful but virtually impossible. On assignment in Panama to write a piece on the indigenous Kuna Yula tribe of the San Blas Islands, I touched down on the remote and semi-autonomous archipelago where my friendly guide was waiting.

The problem hit me in face before I even had time to collect my luggage. Despite previous reassurances that he would, he didn’t speak a word of English and my schoolboy Spanish didn’t extend much beyond “No hablo Espanol” (“I don’t speak Spanish”). Factor in that the Kuna elders speak only their native tongue and we had some serious issues.

Had it been a normal holiday this would have been little more than a mild frustration, but how was I to write 2,000 words on a tribe I had no means of communicating with?

Swinging in a hammock tied between a coconut palm and breadfruit tree, I considered my options. There weren’t many. With no phone signal or Wi-Fi, I had to track down a satellite phone from a neighbouring island, contact the local tour operator in Panama City and arrange for an English-speaking guide to be flown out immediately. Disaster averted. Just.

Here at Wanderlust we love great travel guides! Has someone made your trip extra special? Nominate your favourite tour leader for the 2016 Wanderlust World Guide Awards now

*Name changed to protect the dull.

Follow Nick on Instagram: @Nick_Boulos   

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Main image: Omani tour guide (Shutterstock)

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