Taking an Isla Holbox kayaking trip, I realized something: Tour guides exist for a reason.
Let me explain . . . one thing about traveling is you meet interesting people. And, usually, these people have the same interests as you: traveling and meeting new people. See the cycle? But then there are the select few who break harmony and ruin it for everybody.
“I never go on guided tours,” he arrogantly said, checking his phone.
If I hadn’t had a well-made Caipirinha (courtesy Francesca at Bar Los Pedales, I could’ve strangled him then and there. It wasn’t that he never went on guided tours, it was that he acted like there was nothing new to see, nothing to learn or explore. And, learning shortly after it was his Xth year staying at Villa Flamingos, maybe it was true. Maybe he had been there, done that. I’ll give the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, the girlfriend he’d brought along (I was getting the sense American Psycho brought a new girl each time), who was so polite and genuine, introduced herself. As the four three of us waited for drinks at the bar, and we discovered my husband and Anti-guide both hailed from Baltimore, Anti-guide didn’t so much as give an upward glance… but I digress.
The very next day, we had a scheduled bird-watching and kayaking tour. So it was a bit disheartening to hear, from someone who had visited Isla Holbox numerous times, that he felt tours were of little worth.
Hiring a tour guide is a hard concept to swallow for the independent traveler, but it does have advantages.
Here are my main four reasons to justify a tour guide:
Wondering what type of bird that is? Are we going the right way? Is that a poisonous plant you used to wipe your ass? It helps to know. Not only can guides keep you out of dangerous situations, but they can point out or identify the unfamiliar to the naked eye. They give tourists a more intimate and cultured view of their hometown. On this trip, I learned the name of every avian species of the Yucatan peninsula and let’s face it—I would have been paddling circles.
Guides also know the significant spots. We crept up on a flock of flamingos secluded in their own private lagoon; an average tourist wouldn’t have known it was there.
Time is Money
Having a dependable person to keep a scheduled pace makes a less stressful day. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to your destination and back on time? Especially if you have to catch a boat or meet reservations. With everything prearranged, you don’t have transportation worries; you already have a designated shuttle, private transfer or golf cart ready for you.
Case in point: With over a 2-hour drive between the Chiquila-Holbox ferry to the Cancun International Airport (CUN), we couldn’t chance missing our return flight. Though the bus was cheaper it was also slower; we opted for a private transfer to get us there on time. Plus, it still gave us an entire morning to say goodbye to Holbox.
It Supports Community
Whether it’s architecture or nature, more than likely your guide will be a part of a preservation or conservancy program. Sure, you can read a book on the subject, or listen to an audiobook or read all the plaques you want–but the money you pay for a tour goes towards what you’re admiring. If you have an appreciation for the beauty you see, why not contribute.
We witnessed this first hand: When we walked on foot, our guide cleaned up beaches and collected trash to carry-out. He yelled at fishermen illegally poaching in the preserve, exchanging words like vigilante and what I imagine were a few expletives. He brought along his own camera and binoculars. He gave a shit.
Stories are how we learn. It’s easier to remember something if there is a story or lesson behind it that resonates within us. As we took a lunch break, our guide handed over a journal. In broken language on both ends, we gathered he wished for us to write something. It was touching. Here we were, as tourists he’d never see again, visiting his country, being asked to be remembered. It was a privilege.
Over the next few days, we spotted Anti-guide and his latest fling downtown, usually overdressed with way too much hair product to fake that been-paddling-in-salt-water look.
Yes, we could have rented the kayaks ourselves. Yes, we could have roamed the mangroves freely at our discretion. Yes, we could have paid less than what we did for a tour with a non-English speaking guide. But we wouldn’t have taken the experience home. It would have just been another scorching day in a kayak, paddling in the ocean. And whether they also went paddling or not, they didn’t get to do what we did or see what we saw. They don’t have a story.