The Anatomy of the Perfect Tour Guide

I’ve had a good number of guides over the years. Most were pretty good, just a few were bad and some stood out as excellent. I have bad news for all of you: you have all been outclassed. Don’t take it too hard. It turns out that the perfect tour guide has almost 50 years experience in the tourism industry. Now, I have written before on tour guides and what I think makes a good one, but I’ve never actually been a tour guide myself. Therefore, I took the opportunity to ask a real expert, the best guide I have ever met, Manuel Oliveira.

When you ask most people what is most important in a tour guide, they will almost always list off knowledge foremostly. It’s a very important aspect and it is in relation to knowledge that we see the most skilled of guides. Art Historians, naturalists and theologians are all to be found within the ranks of tour guides the world over. Even those guides without any formalized schooling are usually fonts of information. At least you hope so. I expected knowledge to be the first thing Manuel listed as important. It wasn’t.

Manuel raised a finger and said resolutely, “receptivity.” I asked him what that meant and he said, “the ability to understand the needs, wants and concerns of somebody else.” I have a picture I took of Manuel listening to Rich, my travel partner, when we first met him. You could see him ‘receiving’ what Rich had to say. He always listened to us and let us ask any questions resulting in our feeling comfortable doing so. He was honest and real with us, often telling us stories that related to subject matter on hand that he himself had first hand knowledge of.

Next, Manuel, of course, listed knowledge. He has a love for botany that, in a place that nourishes all green things, is particularly useful. A day would not go by without Manuel cupping some flower, easing apart some leaves or pointing to a ripening fruit so we could see it. He seemed to know everything about every plant on Sao Miguel. His knowledge also led him to rattle off notable dates in Azorean history. He not only knows the importance of these dates well, but also took part in some of the significant and historical events. During the Azorean revoultion of 1974, Manuel contributed himself to the rebellion with many others. This was a hard time. After and as a result of the revolution, he joined much of his family in America for eight months. In 1975, the government that had imposed so much hardship upon Portugal and the Azores came to an end. His beautiful home had never been far from his heart and Manuel returned to Sao Miguel.

The last requirement he mentioned for being a great tour guide was responsibility. No matter how far I ranged away from a mountain path or cobbled street, I was almost always within eyeshot of Manuel. One time, I climbed behind the ruin of an aqueduct and nearly slipped, making him start towards me. I did slip coming down a scree filled dirt road. I was fine, but found out that Manuel had always had a first aid kit with him. When we left the island, he walked us to the check-in gate and made sure we had our boarding passes before saying goodbye. My own mother doesn’t even do that.

One more thing that I will add is that Manuel is a truly decent man. Everywhere we went, everyone seemed to know him. Tourists usually pay more than the locals when traveling. The tourist price is something known in travel destinations the world over. With Manuel there, I know I paid what every one else did. Sometimes even getting a slight discount for the sake of his many friendships with many of the people of Sao Miguel. It’s good to have a guide that everybody, including yourself, likes very much. It may be the one thing you can’t learn and just have to be.

6 thoughts on “The Anatomy of the Perfect Tour Guide

  • Again you can tell why Manuel is such a great tour guide. He gets it! So important to tune in to your clients. He sounds amazing! I have had some tour guides who know everything and just do not connect with the clients and tour guides who do not know as much but convey so much more!
    Thanks for a great article.
    Your Journey

  • I tend to not be one for tour guides, but when I was 16 and traveling in London and Paris for the first time, I had the most amazing guide. Never found one that quite compared to that first. I am also stubborn and more keen on getting lost and exploring than having an agenda.

  • @Jessica. I started out as a solo traveler, strictly. I liked going at it alone, figuring it out and getting lost. I still like getting lost, because you never know what you’ll find. However, I also like to learn as much as possible and the fact of the matter is that you learn more, a lot more, with a guide than without. Ideally, I’d be able to spend months on Sao Miguel, learning it all organically, the way anybody learns a new place, but when you’ve only got a week and don’t have time to get lost. It’s great, especially when you have somebody like Manuel on your team.

  • how true! I once had an amazing tour guide in Japan. He not only knew the stories and anecdotes of the locals but he also knew what we might like to eat/see as Malaysians in Japan. He also illustrated why Malaysians living in Tokyo can sometimes be a riot .. act funny. He was also flexible with the itinerary when he saw the group was tired. That really put the icing on the cake. I think that on the last day, when the envelope went round, he probably received a nice surprise:) Great post, thanks for sharing:)

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