35. Tour Leader

A reason to travel.

Last time I wrote about the influence of tourism, but why do all these people travel? Why do you travel? Questions I have no answers for and I’m not going to look for, because everyone travels for their own reason.
So why do I start my story with this question? Because the tour-operator, I work for in Holland, offers a typical kind of tours. They offer budget adventure journeys with, within the tour, as much freedom as possible. It’s a concept I like, but what it really means I came to ask myself during my last tour.

My second Maya Tour was suppose to be easier. I had updated the travel schedule and the first tour was still fresh in my mind, only it was now the beginning of the raining season.

But before I start, I have to admit that it was a bit difficult to say goodbye to my first group, just les than an hour before I had to say welcome to my new group.
After that it didn’t take much time to find out that I had again a nice group. This time the people in the group seemed to have more in common with each other than my last group and a non-scheduled night-tour, which wasn’t without some risk, made the group even stronger. But now I get ahead of things.
To explain better what kind of tour I am suppose to guide and what kind of people book these tours, I will first explain more about the Maya Route and our tour:

Our tour passes the most known Maya sites on a circle-route of almost 5000km through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras en Belize.
We started with visiting the late classic Maya ruins and temples on the very hot site of Chichin Itza. After that we could cool down in the small swimming pool of our hotel. A hotel in a city (Merida) founded by the two Franciscos de Montejos (nephews) who conquered the province of Yucatan from the Mayas.

After Merida we went to Palenque, where we not only visited the great ruins situated in a beautiful forest, but also went to see big and bright blue waterfalls. Next to one of them we even took a dip in a cold pool, hidden in a small cave.
Al right, time to find out how strong the stomachs of this group are. Time to drive in more than 5 hours past more than 100 curves in a road of  “only” 190km long.
It gave some problems, but San Cristobal and the tours around it, made up for this. The group had a great experience, going by boat through Canyon del Sumidero. And with only paying half before, they actually got the complete tour, without me having to go with them ;-) The tour through the two local villages was special as usual.

Passing borders with Guatemala was no problem and with a quick group and driver we even made it until 45min. before Panajachel before 15:30 in the afternoon. There we encountered our first problem of the journey. Previous rain had made part of the road collapsed and part unstable. We weren’t aloud to pas by with our private bus. We had to walk over and catch an other bus, or drive around for more than 5 hours. To make a long discussion into a short story we decided to go around, because the boss of the bus-company didn’t want to send an other bus (which was available) and I didn’t want to break up the group. The other road was very busy. We encountered two accidents and halfway we also found out that it was dangerous to drive the last part of the road in dark. There had been some robberies in the past and therefore we had to take some police guards on motorcycles behind the bus.
At 23:45h we finally arrived in Panajachel.

From Panajachel we went to the colorful market of Chichicastenango, we did a tour on Lake Atitlan and went again for dinner to a good restaurant on the lake-side. This time everything went without problems.

In Antigua I arranged the tour to the Volcano Pacaya Volcano, this time for the evening. This way everyone could enjoy visiting the beautiful city during the day and in the evening we had a magnificent view on the glowing lava! Really this was a special view I will never forget.

Time to see the more detailed ruins on the site of Copan and enjoy the countryside around.

From the countryside we went to the tropical riverside of Rio Dulce. We took a boat past this tropical vegetation to a costal village called Lifingstone. A village where the black Garifuna’s live. Most of the group liked the boat-ride better and part was even more happy with the swimming pool at the hacienda where we would sleep. During the evening we had a small party with the best rum from Latin America (Flor de Cana, from Nigaragua). This party was for the people who were to scared to sleep in the small wooden cabanas, spread in the tropical forest ;-)

From the riverside we went to the peninsula of Flores (in the past an isle), the place where in 1697 the last Maya Kingdom felt. Because there are no more remains of that left, we went to Flores to visit the nearby ruins of Tikal. The biggest Maya site left and a good end of the Maya Route. Now it was time to relax and  get some sun on our skin and where can we do this better than on Caye Caulker in Belize.
Belize is not only a country where it looks as if they invented the word relaxing, but it also has a beautiful sea-live! A great place to snorkel and dive. I saw for the first time manatees (from inside a small boat) and we had a special birthday party ;-)

Unfortunately all the nice things come to end :-( We ended our tour on the white beach of touristy Playa del Carmen. But we can look back on a more than great tour in which we saw and did a lot! We even had luck with the weather and a funny fact is maybe that at the time that we were at the airport it rained a lot in Playa del Carmen. Goodbye nice group…

Yep, reading this story will give you the impression that guiding a tour is easy and one big party. All right, I had a lot of fun during this tour, but let me give you some more background information.

Starting with an agency in Palenque I had to apologies to, because they do give good service. You pay them a bit more, but they appear to be reliable. A reliable agency is difficult to find in Latin America and they’re worth a bit more money, because they save you time and problems.
This is a bit different with the agency in San C., I could only pay half before, because otherwise I’m not sure if they take enough time for the Canyon tour and visit everything.

During my last tours I worked with people (agencies, hotels, guides, etc.) I could relay on, people I had to relay on and people I had to use a different way to work with. These last are people I don’t want to work with, because you’re never sure if the speak the truth and/or do what they promise. Yes, maybe I didn’t make friends with everyone during my tours, but I got almost everything accomplished what I wanted and in the end it are the tourists who I work for. Luckily I also found some people I can relay on.

These above were only small examples of how important reliable people are, but a bigger and more important example follows after the collapsed road. This is a moment I need reliable information and at this moment reliable help is very welcome. If everyone tells you different things and the only one who can help you (the boss of the bus company) only says that it isn’t his problem, you can imagine that it is difficult to make the right decision…
With everything I know now I would have made a different decision and I think also that I should have called the local agency I work with during these tours. I didn’t do, because they’re far away, they don’t know the situation and the only help is still that “Boss”. But there is one big difference, when I leave the decision to my agency, they take the responsibility, while now I don’t know whose responsibility it was/is. This is something to think about…

Like I explained before, the company I work for in Holland offers budget adventure tours, with as much freedom as possible, in countries further away. Often these countries are les western, les organized en more poor. So tours in these countries will always have a bit more risk than those in Europe. The company knows, the people (should) know.                  
The concept of my company is one I like and one I try to accomplish. Therefore I also like to ad different things, like special excursions, to the tours I guide. The best example of this is that we climbed the Pacaya volcano, with a private tour, in the evening.
We had to take a tour in the evening to see the glowing lave in the dark and to have time to visit Antigua. We had to take a private tour, because there are no tours in the evening and because there had been some robberies in the past we also had to take our precocious. We tried to play on save by taking a well known guide and 2 police-guards with us. We left most of our values in our hotel and stayed as a group together.
Yes, if you want to see something special it usually takes a bit more effort, but I believe that’s part of an adventure tour and the view we got was incredible! I think no-one in the group would have liked to miss this.
But what if something went wrong??? Someone hurts his/her ankle, or worse, we got robed. Would that be my responsibility? And what will that mean???
Listening to other tour leaders; with the wrong group or person, I could even end up in a courtroom! Not really something to look forward to, but what can I do about it? Not arranging these kind of tours? But which tours are dangerous? Swimming in a little cave, having dinner in a restaurant you can only reach by boat, or even climbing on one of the temples. What is dangerous, what do I have to skip to make the tour save?
Sorry, a save tour isn’t possible. I can limit my own responsibilities by organizing les special excursions, but specially these things can give a tour more value. These things make a tour special.

Do I have to limit the things I organize, because maybe some people will use it against me when it goes wrong? That way I almost become American and in that way I punish the good people, who do like adventures.
What can I do? Maybe I should ask my groups to sign a paper that this is an adventure tour and that they do this tour on their own responsibility?
Or I guess I have to hope that I keep getting nice and good groups. Groups I feel confident with to organize special things. 

All right, to end this story a bit less serious. Because in the end I did have a great group and a lot of fun guiding this tour. I would like to end with my own answer on a question that my group asked me after the tour: Why do you travel?

When I play a game I play to win, but it is the playing I like most.
 When I travel with groups, I have no final destination, but it is the traveling and guiding I enjoy.  Even in live I don’t know where I go, but I try to do the things I like and enjoy the things I do ;-)

Saludos de San Cristobal, Mexico,
Martijn

P.S. Unfortunately my friends from Merazonia www.merazonia.org still need to fight for their rights on their land. I wish them a lot of strength and luck. 

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