Guidebooks: neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so

Imagine having one month to track down information as broad as the prices at Laundromats in Seattle, the details of the Tijuana border crossing, where to find a decent sandwich in Bakersfield, an overview of LA’s nightlife, hiking trails in Yosemite, museum hours in Portland, bus schedules in San Francisco, and the location of a decent tourist office in Boise. Now imagine trying to do that in a place with no reliable transportation schedules, dial-up Internet connections (when there are Internet connections, or even phones), thousands of miles of unpaved roads, and heavily accented Northeast Brazilian Portuguese as the language of choice (Thomas Kohnstamm – Former Lonely Planet contributor)

In light of the Lonely Planet shemozzle I thought I would get round to writing a post I’d had in mind for a while. Guidebooks – the good, the bad and the unnecessary.

RomeThere are a multiplicity of guidebook series – has a decent run-down of the characteristics of some of the major players, in it particular highlights the drawbacks of each, which correspond almost exactly with my thoughts.

Personally I am drawn to Frommer’s when I am planning a trip by the ‘Best of’ lists and the uncluttered layout. I dislike the (admittedly handsome) DK Guides with a passion – at least for anything practical – and avoid the Let’s Go guides because of some glaring errors I have come across. I have found Moon Guides excellent for on-the-road reference where available, but have generally relied on LP’s as the most reliable (!). I haven’t had a chance to check them out but I have a grudging fondness for Rick Steve’s guides which contain no extraneous material – a country guide may concentrate on only a handful of cities or areas – opininated reviews and charming hand-drawn maps of questionable utility inviting you get lost. This almost directed approach creates a Rick Steves’ trail not unlike the more infamous LP trail.

If you are in the market for a guidebook remember they vary drastically in quality within series – try to find experiences of people who have actually used the book, then spend time in the bookstore browsing those you are interested in (or even better check for it in your local library). What’s more, keep in mind that ALL guidebooks are out of date:

Sure, there’s a disclaimer that says the information was accurate as of some date, but truthfully, the guidebook is only accurate during the time that the harried researcher/writer is standing on site at the open attraction/airline gateway/hotel/etc. Guidebooks are out of date before they’ve gone to print (Why Your Guidebook Is Wrong).

Wikitravel and World66 are noble attempts to create free, up-to-date, travel guides which are coming into their own which I urge you contribute to (although relying soley on them may still be unwise). This article in The Atlantic point to the fIbn Battutahuture relying on a diversity of internet sites – no travel guide can match google maps, the sheer number of reviews on chowhound and traveladvisor, not to mention the various travel blogging sites give you an incredible diversity of perspectives.

Guidebooks are still incredibly useful for planning and for giving you the lowdown on a particuar place. Ultimately, however, perhaps the best travel guide to take with you isn’t a travel guide at all. Why not ditch the LP or Rough Guide and try to recreate the footsteps of a great traveller, say Ibn Battutah, or if you’re heading to Europe try a specialist archelogical guide like the Oxford Archaeological Guides. Or travel light and just leave them all at home.

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One response to “Guidebooks: neither good nor bad, but thinking makes it so

  1. I have traveled over the last 20 years to 105 countries. I have always used the Lonely Planet books so I bought the Lonely Planet book for Colombia. I found out too late that they had not even gone to the places in Colombia to check them out. This cost me dearly.

    Enrique of Omshanty Jungle Lodge Leticia, Colombia is really dangerous and is going to get someone killed one day.
    I took a trip to Colombia to see the country and go to the Amazon Jungle. Enrique (aka Kike) of Omshanty Jungle Lodge is recommended in the current Lonely Planet book for Colombia in the Section on the city of Leticia so I decided to use him. He promised to show me the jaguar in the wild for $1,600.00 USD. Not only is he incompetent but he is really dangerous and is going to get someone killed one day. I made it to Leticia, Brazil to where Enrique has his jungle lodge called Omshanty. First thing he did was send me across the street to his friend’s restaurant. I ate some really bad food there that gave me food poisoning. But not until we were a days hike out in the jungle did I suffer the symptoms from the uncooked eggs in the dish. I was up all night vomiting. I became completely dehydrated and needed purified water badly. I went to wake him up but couldn’t. At first I thought he must be ignoring me. But later I found out he is one of those guys that you literally need to kick in order to wake up. He is very depressed and smokes a ton of marijuana which is why I think he goes unconscious like this. I didn’t want to puke and crap all over my bedding so I climbed out of my hammock and mosquito netting and laid in the mud as I vomited and crapped my insides out. That night it rained so hard that trees were falling over. I lay crawling in the mud all night long being sick. I opened my mouth to catch the rain in order to quench my thirst.
    My guide Enrique decided that it was better if we slipped over the border into Brazil. He also advised me to leave my passport behind so it would not get wet. This was a really bad idea since I did not have a visa for Brazil and Enrique was carrying a lot of marijuana to support his habit. He needed to smoke 8-12 joints a day. After day one the entire trip was in the country of Brazil and not Colombia as we had planned. I don’t smoke cigarettes or pot so it would have been really bad had we gotten arrested.
    I learned from previous trips that everyone has to get up early in the morning to get going on the hike in the Amazon. But Enrique could never get his butt in gear until after 10 or 11 am. When he got up from bed he would smoke two joints then fall back asleep. Then he would smoke two joints in order to poo (go to the toilet). Then he would smoke another 2 joints to get going. He hired a local native guide named Sergio to help out. Enrique treated Sergio very badly. He wanted the native guy to wait on us hand and foot. He expected him to do everything including washing the dishes, cooking our food and carrying most of the weight. At one point Enrique said that some other native men had taken a poison jungle root from a tree and put it in all the streams to kill the fish. This way they could easily harvest tons of fish. I was told this poison root removes the oxygen from the water and the fish suffocate. He claimed that a group of native hunters had done this. He was really mad at them and was going to burn an encampment that they lived in and all their stuff for revenge. In the group he was speaking of there were around 10 hunters all with guns and they would kill us for setting fire to their possessions and huts. I asked him how he could be certain that these were the ones who poisoned the streams. This may have been an excuse of Enrique’s as to why we were seeing no animals and why we would never see the jaguar that we were supposed to be tracking. The reason why I hired Enrique in the first place was that he said he could show me the jaguar in the wild so that I could photograph it.
    Enrique didn’t tell me until we were way out into the jungle but he can’t hike all day with a pack. A few years ago he had broken his neck and could not walk. Any one that goes out into the wild with him should be told in advance that he can only hike for a few hours.
    Enrique is also a chain smoker. He smokes constantly. He had to bring several cartons of cigarettes to get him through the trip. When he is not smoking a cigarette or marijuana he is chewing mambo (coca leaf powder) or chewing tobacco. Sometimes he does more than one at a time. It was aggravating because he told me to stop using mosquito repellent because the jaguar would smell it. I followed his instructions but not only was he still using mosquito repellent but he was chain smoking. We weren’t supposed to be making camp fires either, because I was told that would scare the jaguar as well.
    His plan for me to see the jaguar was to kill a small animal as bait for the jaguar. I would wait out all night in a hammock tied only 5 feet off the ground waiting for it to come for the meat. The native guide Sergio was to stay with me. (Not Enrique, he would stay sleeping as usual) They claimed that the Jaguar would never look upwards to see me hiding in the hammock over the fresh meat. I was thinking that it could easily get me only 5 feet off of the ground. Sergio had the gun, but I had already figured out that it was broken (It only rarely fired correctly). Every time Sergio tried to use the gun he would have to take out the bad round (bullet) from the rifle with a stick and then try another one, and another. At this point if the jaguar was attacking me I would certainly be mauled by its claws and teeth.
    I had brought some extra food, power bars just in case. At the lodge Enrique told me to split it in three and we would each carry a third. I didn’t realize until the trek was over that Enrique did not want to carry his third. (Although he was willing to carry many cartons of cigarettes, a half kilo of marijuana, coca, and) We were out in the jungle starving and I asked for a power bar. Enrique said that Sergio ate them all. (This turned out not to be true. He was trying to turn me against Sergio) I said to Enrique that I told Sergio that he could help himself to the candy any time he wanted so it was alright. We weren’t able to catch any food for many days as we had planned because the gun did not work. Enrique told me before the trip that we purposely weren’t bringing much food because we were going to hunt for all of it in the jungle. I now see that he was trying to turn me against Sergio and that Sergio was trying to turn me against Enrique. Sergio even wanted us to run away and leave Enrique in the jungle by himself but I told him that Enrique would not be able to find his way back and would probably get really hurt or die.

    There are so many more bad things to tell you about Omshanty Jungle Lodge and Enrique. Please, please remove him from the next version of your Colombia travel book!

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