When you might want to hire a great local guide
Group tours are perfect for some people. Then again, so are tie-dyed jumpsuits and lima beans. It’s all a matter of taste.
For me, I prefer to explore and discover something on my own rather than have a tour guide tell me and my fellow herd members about what the guide thinks is important. But there’s a downside to such independence: I sometimes don’t learn as much or see all that I could.
Moreover, I’m learning that if I
- only have a short amount of time,
- am in a country where few people speak my language,
- want to travel far off the usual tourist routes or
- am in a place where logistics can be messy,
then I likely want to do what my two sons and I did on a recent trip to Morocco: hire a local guide.
We had the best of both worlds in Morocco: a tour guide/driver without the tour or the group. Someone who drove just the three of us on our trip around the country. Someone who had a general itinerary in mind but was open to alterations and spontaneous departures from the plan. Someone who knew the top tourist sites but also the off-the-beaten-path gems untouched by the wheels of a tourist bus.
Our guide’s name was Abdul. He works with Authentic Berber Tours. If you’re going to Morocco, you should check them out. I cannot say enough good things about Abdul, Samira and the team at Authentic Berber Tours. They literally and figuratively made our trip.
I’ll cover the details of that trip and how to find your own great guide in later entries here. But for now, let’s explore what makes a local guide like Abdul great versus just competent. Here are fifteen ways a great local guide adds so much value to your trip. They align but expand on this list from another guided tour closer to home.
Fifteen ways a great local guide can make a great trip
A great local guide will:
- Customize the experience for you. In our case, Abdul learned quickly what we liked and adjusted both the places we visited and the way we visited them – the timing, cadence, length of time there, etc.
- Flex. We traveled during Ramadan when many businesses and restaurants were closed during the day. Abdul worked around this and found alternatives. Great local guides stay flexible.
- Be relatable without being intrusive. For us, Abdul was there when we needed him, talked when we wanted to talk and was quiet when we didn’t (four males, after all, can comfortably travel for quite some distance without words).
- Look out for your best interests. From pulling each hotel owner aside to ensure we had the best room to rousing a chef at a restaurant from a Ramadan-mid-day rest to make us a special lunch, Abdul made sure we were well taken care of. Great local guides go the extra mile for you.
- Translate more than words. Sure, you can get by with gestures, but if you only speak five words of the language and vice versa, it’s hard to engage meaningfully with locals. A great guide not only translates the words but explains (usually later) the meaning behind them. Great local guides provide great insights.
- Value long-term relationships over short-term revenue. This is their job so of course guides need to make money. But a great guide knows that they’ll likely make more by creating a great experience for you than they will by exploiting you. For example, Abdul made sure that any of the specialist guides he introduced us to didn’t take us to shops where they’d get a kickback.
- Help you see differently. A great guide doesn’t just show you different things. He or she helps you see the world in a new way. For example, Abdul’s explanation of the differences between Arabs and Berbers helped us understand both the people and the history of Morocco in a completely different way.
- Be careful and considerate. This sounds obvious, but it’s not. In a country like Morocco where drivers either poke along like an ornery camel or treat the highway like the Bonneville Salt Flats, Abdul (who was both our driver and our guide) put safety above everything else. Unless of course we asked him to go off-roading on the sand dunes. But that’s another story.
- Empathize well. A great guide can sense when you’re tired, hungry, nervous, excited or even bored and they adjust the plan or their approach accordingly.
Have a good sense of humor. With Abdul, there were some moments when our humor didn’t translate, but even then he wanted us to explain it so that his English was continually improving. And later, he’d make a joke about it. We laughed every day with Abdul.
- Practice patience. Great guides learn quickly what matters to you. For example, Abdul never rushed us whenever we stopped for me to take (yet another) photo. Great local guides put up with a lot and don’t complain.
- Take responsibility. Great guides free you to enjoy the journey rather than worrying about where to go next. With Abdul, he gave us choices, but also allowed me to relax and not worry about having all the answers.
- Vet the good from the bad and show you the best. Good guides show you interesting places and give you facts. Great local guides create experiences that change you. They go beyond facts to provide you with a richer understanding of what you’re encountering.
- Reveal places and experiences you’d never find on your own. Abdul took us a back route along a gorgeous river that few visitors ever see because they just don’t know about it. Local guides know the back doors that you might discover on your own…if you had far more time than you do.
- Make you feel like a local. Abdul taught us various Berber phrases and customs, took us to a locals-only weekly market, offered to find nice Berber brides for my two sons (who politely declined) and even invited us to his home where we met his extended family. It was, in fact, such a personal experience and not the norm that I will say no more out of respect to Abdul and his family. But I will note that this glimpse into a daily life in a Berber village was one of the highlights of our trip.
I could go on and on but the point is this: a great local guide enables you to gain and discover more in a short time than you could on your own. With a great local guide, as in the case of Abdul, at the end of your time together, you have more than new insights to the country: you have a new friend.
I still may not be a fan of group tours. But I’m starting to wonder if I will ever want to do another trip that doesn’t, at least for part of the journey, include a trusted local guide. A great guide.
Join me next time for ways to find a great local guide wherever you go.