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      Secrets Revealed: a Chat with REI’s Top Travel Guides for 2013

      When you’re on vacation, a guide can make or break the trip. Good guides help you navigate, save time, take you to hidden gems and immerse you in authentic cultural experiences.

      Each year, REI recognizes 6 of our trip leaders as Top Guides—individuals who exemplify rigorous standards of customer service. We fly them out to REI headquarters in the Seattle area to offer hearty congratulations, award them with new gear, and gather insight and inspiration to make our trips even better.

      I had the opportunity to sit down with this year’s honorees and gather some insight on them and their beautiful homelands.


      REI's Top Guides for 2013, from left: Donald, Erik, Somchith, Ilaria, Robi, Miguel.

      REI: What’s your favorite part of the trip you lead?

      Somchith (Laos and Cambodia Multisport Adventure): The adventures around Laos. The kayaking and cycling are the best. Along the Nam Ou River we see lobster and crab, and the rolling hills are great for cycling.

      Erik (Great Smoky Mountains Backpacking): Night hikes are really special. We enjoy the evening sky with no light pollution and see and hear wildlife like coyotes, amphibians and even foxes.

      Ilaria (Cinque Terre Hiking and Tuscan Hilltowns Hiking): Day 5 of our Cinque Terre trip. That day, you can see the beginning of the trip on one side of you, and the end on the other. You end in this colorful small town that seems to be growing from the water, and it’s amazing to see the whole journey you’re taking.

      Miguel (Machu Picchu Lodge-to-Lodge Trek): Day 4 of our 10-day Macchu Picchu trip. We hit 15,200’ and I feel so proud of the group. We reach that high point and see the glacier right there; it’s amazing.


      Travelers enjoy big views of the Andes on Miguel's Machu Picchu trip.

      REI: What do travelers find most surprising about their trips to your country or region?

      Donald (Tanzania Classic Safari): People are surprised by the numbers of animals we sometimes see. They expect to see an elephant, but when 200 elephants cross the road in front of you, that is surprising. If you get up early, you have the best chance of seeing animals.

      Robi (Croatia Multisport and Dubrovnik Extension): Under the small piece of sky that covers Croatia there are layers of history, with a lot of variety. Different food, different traditions and 3 different climates—from green to rocky. People don’t expect to see such cultural and natural diversity.

      Erik: Great Smoky is the most visited national park. But it’s also the most biodiverse place in the world north of the tropics. It’s not the big things you can see from a car; it’s the small life that surrounds you. There are worlds and worlds to explore.

      Miguel: People don’t always expect to see local communities. We visit a local market and see regular life. When we’re trekking, they don’t expect to see local farmers who show them how we roast coffee and make them espresso right there. These are the things that you’ll remember after your trip. And the local people are really happy to show how they live.


      Robi enjoys sharing the amazing history and diversity of Croatia.

      REI: What would you tell someone to encourage them to travel with you?

      Robi: Everyone can do it. We’re going to help you at whatever level we can. We encourage you to go at your own pace, and you have the option to skip segments if you don’t feel like you can.

      Somchith: The same. You can go at your own pace. We want you to be comfortable.

      Miguel: Your job is to enjoy the trip; my job is to make sure to bring you back in one piece. We’re really a family, a team. We take care of each other and have a great time.

      Ilaria: Italian culture is about being together, and we do that on the trip. We share long meals and experiences.


      The winding roads of Tuscany are one of Illaria's favorite places.

      REI: Do you have any tips for people traveling to your region? Any best-kept secrets?

      Donald: There are areas of Tanzania where very remote Hadzabe bushmen live—still in caves, actually. You can visit hollow trees—large trees—that hunters use to get a vantage of their prey.

      Robi: In Croatia, coffee means espresso—a little cup of espresso. It’s not about a having a big cup of coffee to glug, glug, glug. It’s about socializing. We sit and talk for hours drinking a small cup.

      Ilaria: My favorite place in the world is in Tuscany: Saturnia.  Ancient Roman hot tubs, naturally made in the open. It’s great to go at night when they light fires and you can watch the stars. It’s cold outside, but nice and warm in the water.

      Miguel: Everyone hears about Machu Picchu and northern Peru. But not as many know about Manu, a less-visited area of Peru. It has wildlife, tribes and more. You can see communities living like they did 300 or 400 years ago, hunting and living in the wild.

      Erik: People expect crowds. And yes, the roads are crowded, along with about 8 of the trails. But 91% of the park visitors never touch dirt. As soon as you get 2 miles away from the road, you have the backcountry to yourself, which is really something rare on the East Coast.


      At Great Smoky Mountains National Park, "91% of the park visitors never touch dirt."

      REI: You help a lot of guests fulfill their travel dreams. So where do you want to travel to?

      Somchith: Here. I’ve always wanted to go to the United States. After Seattle, I am going to Maui.

      Robi: Also here. After Seattle, I’m driving all the way down the west coast, to Portland, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Bryce, maybe Zion, and more.

      Donald: Everyone has a dream to visit the US. Really, I want to see Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks.

      Erik: I’m going to backpack the Olympics next, but ultimately I want to visit every national park.

      Ilaria: I’ve already driven to every national park. My top 3 destinations, in order: Galapagos, Africa, and Mexico.

      Miguel: I’d love to visit Egypt. There’s a lot of rich culture. We can learn about their religion, construction, astronomy—there’s so much.

      Congratulations to all our Top Guides of 2013! How about you? Who was the most amazing guide you have traveled with?


      "People are surprised by the numbers of animals we sometimes see," notes Donald, guide of our Tanzania Classic Safari trip.

      Posted on at 1:15 PM

      Tagged: REI Adventures, Travel and top guides

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      Awesome post, great pictures!

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