A Guidebook is not a Guru

Lonely Planet guidebook writer Carolyn McCarthy (pictured left) is guest posting for Perceptive Travel today from her home in Puerto Montt, Chile. Carolyn has written travel essays for National Geographic, The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, and Lonely Planet’s Middle of Nowhere anthology, among other publications, and she maintains Carolyn’s Wild Blue Yonder, a blog following her peregrinations through Chile, Ecuador, Argentina, and Yellowstone National Park … among other places. She’s one of my favorite travel writers anywhere, and today she rethinks travelers’ use of guidebook-as-guru after a Chilean hostel owner accused Lonely Planet-toters of being unadventurous.


As the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, Puerto Natales receives serious Gore-Tex clad foot traffic. Some 180,000 people per year make it into the park and most hoof it through this small town first. There last week to research a guidebook, I was gathering listings when I found a couple of hostels who preferred to remain off the record.

By the way, this never happens. The literary equivalent is Jonathan Franzen’s refusal to be featured in Oprah’s book club. So, what was up?

They decried outdated information (guides are updated every 2-3 years) and rallied around the general woes of tourism: unsustainable numbers, bad manners and the like. But what disturbed me most was that they deemed Lonely Planet toters unadventurous.

Omar, the owner of XX hostel, used to approach travelers in the bus station. No hard sell, but what he calls “buena onda” (good vibes). “They’d shoo me away saying they had their ‘book,’” he said. Now, he rents out rooms only by word-of-mouth. Omar declared it, “The human chain.”

According to him, guidebook-free folk are open people who want to meet people.

I assessed the situation. Hadn’t he just spent the past ten minutes touring his lodgings only to heap criticism? Maybe I was defensive but he was arrogant. After all, I was there live-in-person, not updating from some distant desk. It isn’t ever as glamorous as it sounds. Research days mean seeing fifteen hostels a day, snuffing out lice, prostitution and basic inferior service. The wrecks I edit out hopefully make shortcuts for the traveler who essentially wants affordable/clean/friendly or will sacrifice one of those aspects for the other. Mostly, I hope to tell it straight.

So, am I doing travelers a disservice? Are they doing themselves one by their reliance on a guidebook?

Many times I’ve heard locals comment on the guidebook as traveler bible. And when I see people scanning it religiously, reading as they walk instead of looking up at the scenery, I sometimes wince.

Maybe it’s not guidebooks but the way they’re sometimes used. Think of the book as a friend, not a guru. Ok, on the first leg of a trip, some guidebook coaching is likely necessary. But as travelers grow more comfortable with new surroundings, I urge them to sometimes put the thing away. Let’s face it. It’s just a book. A subjective account written under the pressure of a deadline, updated every two-to-three years.

Let’s talk expectation. When I traveled Costa Rica with a good friend, I was pretty surprised how much our tastes varied and it wasn’t only in the food. Fresh off the plane, she went gaga over hammocks and fresh fruit and bristled to see a bare bulb in a room. In my experience, the bare bulb was synonymous with budget lodgings and well, if you wanted fresh fruit, you could buy two kilos for a dollar at the corner mart and skip the pricey hotel with the fruit plate breakfast. Regardless, we could have both written two totally different guidebooks from that trip. In all, listings are just ideas.

As someone with an MFA who spends WAY too much time checking the cleanliness of shower rings, I stand by my assessments. And traveling the nooks and crannies of countries that don’t make it to the evening news opens my eyes to bigger patterns. But in case you thought the guidebook knew all the ins and outs—think again.

How do you avoid the traps of a guidebook? It’s easy. Use it when it’s essential, then don’t. Don’t be sucked in by Greatest Hits Lists: what are the chances that your best travel memories will take place within yards of a Natual Wonder? You might want to spend a week in a town that got a two-sentence write up (a sure sign few travelers are there). Stick around one place long enough to make a friend. Let locals tell you their favorite outings and places to eat. Most importantly, find the time to put the guide away and trust your gut.

If that means sleeping at Omar’s in Puerto Natales, tell him hi for me.

–Carolyn McCarthy

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