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With dozens of choices for special-interest trips to Guatemala, there are a number of factors to keep in mind when deciding which company and package will be right for you.
How strenuous do you want your trip to be? Adventure vacations are commonly split into "soft" and "hard" adventures. Hard adventures, such as strenuous treks (often at high altitudes) or Class IV or V rafting, generally require excellent physical conditioning and previous experience. Most hiking, biking, canoeing/kayaking, and similar soft adventures can be enjoyed by persons of all ages who are in good health and accustomed to a reasonable amount of exercise. A little honesty goes a long way—recognize your own level of physical fitness and discuss it with the tour operator before signing on. Once you start out, there's no turning back
How far off the beaten path do you want to go? Depending on your tour operator and itinerary, you'll often have a choice between relatively easy travel and comfortable accommodations or more strenuous daily activities accompanied by overnights spent in basic lodgings or at campsites. Ask yourself if it's the reality or the image of roughing it that appeals to you. Be honest, and go with a company that can provide what you're looking for.
Is sensitivity to the environment important to you? If so, determine whether it is equally important to your operator. Does the company protect the fragile environments you'll be visiting? Are some of the company's profits designated for conservation efforts or put back into the communities visited? Does it encourage indigenous people to dress up (or dress down) so that your group can get great photos, or does it respect their cultures as they are? Many of the companies are actively involved in environmental conservation and projects with indigenous communities. Their business's future depends on keeping this fragile ecological and cultural mix alive.
What sort of group is best for you? At its best, group travel offers curious, like-minded people companions with which to share the day's experiences. Do you enjoy mixing with people from other backgrounds, or would you prefer to travel with people from one similar to your own? Inquire about group size; many companies have a maximum of 10 to 16 members, but 30 or more is not unknown. The larger the group, the more time spent (or wasted) at rest stops, meals, and hotel arrivals and departures.
If groups aren't your thing, most companies will customize a trip for you. In fact, this has become a major part of many tour operators' business. Your itinerary can be as flexible or as rigid as you choose. Such travel offers all the conveniences of a package tour, but the "group" is composed of only you and your travel companions. Responding to a renewed interest in multigenerational travel, many tour operators also offer family trips, with itineraries carefully crafted to appeal both to children and adults.
How much extra pre-trip help do you want? Gorgeous photos and well-written tour descriptions go a long way toward selling a company's trips. Once you've chosen your trip, though, there's a lot of room for your operator to help you out, or leave you out in the cold. For example, does the operator provide useful information about health (suggested or required inoculations, tips for dealing with high altitudes)? A list of frequently asked questions and their answers? Recommended readings? Equipment needed for sports trips? Visa requirements? A list of client referrals? All of these things can make or break a trip, and you should know before you choose an operator whether or not you want their help getting answers to all these questions.
Are there hidden costs? Make sure you know what is and is not included in basic trip costs when comparing companies. International airfare is usually extra. Sometimes domestic flights are, too. Is trip insurance required, and if so, is it included? Are airport transfers included? Visa fees? Departure taxes? Gratuities? (Rarely, to those last three.) Although some travelers prefer the option of an excursion or free time, many, especially those visiting a destination for the first time, want to see as much as possible. Paying extra for a number of excursions can significantly increase the total cost of the trip. Many factors affect the price, and the trip that looks cheapest in the brochure could well turn out to be the most expensive. Don't assume that roughing it will save you money, as prices rise when limited access and a lack of essential supplies on-site require costly special arrangements.
Tours in Guatemala can be found at all price points, but local operators are usually the best deal. Excursions that use as many local people and resources as possible are generally cheaper, and also give the greatest monetary benefit to the local economy. These types of tours are not always listed in guidebooks or on the Internet, so often they have to be found in person when you're on the ground or by word of mouth. Safety and date specificity can fluctuate. Guides don't always speak English, and are not always certified. Amenities such as lodging and transportation may be very basic in this category. Some agencies pay attention to the environment; others do not. You really have to do your research on every operator, no matter the cost, to be sure you get what you need. When you find the right match, the payoff in terms of price and quality of experience will be worth the pre-trip research time you invested.
On the other end of the spectrum, the large (often international) tour agencies are generally the most expensive; however, they provide the greatest range of itinerary choices and highest quality of services. They use the best transportation, like private planes, buses, and boats, which rarely break down. First-rate equipment and safe, reliable guides are the norm. Dates and times are set in stone, so you can plan your trip down to the time you step in and out of the airport. Guides are usually English-speaking, certified, and well paid. When food and lodging are provided they are generally of high quality. If you are a traveler who likes to have every creature comfort provided for, look for tour operators more toward this end of the spectrum.
Overnight stays can cost as much or as little as you want them to. To its great credit, Guatemala offers ample accommodation in every price range—no one has been priced out of the market here—and even the high end of the spectrum isn't too outrageously priced. Independent travelers tend to favor budget hotels and hostels costing little more than a few dollars a night, whereas luxurious five-star hotels geared to package tourists are becoming common. Your preference will help determine what type of tour operator is best for you.
Most multiday tours include lodging, often at a discounted rate, and they generally have options that accommodate most budgets through a number of hotels. On the other hand, many hotels have their own tour agency or will sell tours at a discounted rate to particular agencies. You can book through either one—it just depends on the specific tours and hotels that interest you. In many instances you don't have to book accommodation through your tour agency; however, you will often save money if you are combining services such as transportation, food, tours, and guides. If you are interested in specific hotels, such as beach resorts or ecolodges, in many cases your best tour options will be directly through these establishments. Considering the small size of Guatemala, many of its sights can be seen on a one-day tour, which allows you to leave your luggage at the hotel for less hassle.
Good gear is essential. Sturdy shoes, a small flashlight or headlamp, rain gear, mosquito protection, and medicine are all things you should bring with you no matter what kind of tour you're taking. For more technical sports, your choice of tour operator will determine whether you bring your own gear, buy new gear, or rent what they already have. The decision will probably be yours in most cases. Tour operators can generally provide equipment, but the quality of this equipment varies a great deal. If you're going to use equipment that will be provided, ask your operator for a written statement of the gear to be used.
When you arrive, check that your expectations have been met, and complain if they haven't. Many companies do use top-of-the-line equipment; however, the occasional company will cut corners. Prices on equipment purchased in Guatemala tend to be significantly higher (roughly 20% to 40%) than in North America or Europe. If you prefer or require a specific brand of equipment, bringing your own is a good idea. Airlines accommodate most types of equipment and will likely have packing suggestions if you call ahead. For instance, most bicycle shops can take apart and box up your bike for plane transport. Airlines charge additional fees for surpassing size and weight limits. Shipping equipment to Guatemala tends to be expensive, and if you're not using an agency such as FedEx or DHL (actually, even if you are!), expect the unexpected.