Editor’s note: In 2021, REI Adventures phased out its international trips to focus on and grow its adventures programs and experiences throughout the U.S.
From Thailand to the Great Smoky Mountains, our REI Adventures trips immerse you in outdoor adventure around the world. And, they’re led by our super-knowledgeable, local guides who are excited to share their favorite hikes, paddles and safaris.
Once a year, we recognize the best of the best: our REI Adventures Top Guides. Meet some of our award-winning guides and learn a few of their top tips for your next adventure.
Portugal: Isabel Cristina Gameiro Ourêlo
When Isabel isn’t working as a guide in Portugal, she can be found hiking almost anywhere. She loves discovering new places to roam—because even if it’s in her own country, there are hidden spots to find. She also enjoys ecology and sketching. You’ll always find a small watercolor set and sketchbook in her pack.
Where is your favorite place to travel in Portugal? One of the favorite places where I’ve been are the Azores Islands.
What is your favorite piece of gear? Other than the obvious duct tape that fixes everything, while I guide I like to have my GPS watch around so when guests ask me how far we’ve come, I can give them a precise answer. Also, there’s chocolate, very good gear for hiking.
How do you travel like a local? Lose [the] maps, lose the phone and talk to people. In Portugal, they will speak a little bit of English and tell you where to go. Or they’ll ask you to join them, and go to their houses.
Arizona: Alex Leckie
Alex’s passion for the outdoors started in Yosemite National Park as a climber. And being active and spending time in the outdoors remains important for him today. When he’s not guiding REI Adventures trips in Arizona, he’s training for his next Ironman (number nine is coming up), mountain biking and adventure racing while traveling the world. He also loves spending time with his chocolate Lab, Thor, who he affectionately refers to as his child. Thor fits right in—the one-year-old pup enjoys swimming, hiking, kayaking, camping and exploring.
Where should everyone go once? The Grand Canyon Phantom Ranch—6 million people go every year, but only 90 people spend the night at the ranch, doing the side hikes that nobody else gets to do. That’s my number one trip. In your lifetime, get down to the Phantom Ranch.
What’s one piece of advice for travelers on REI Adventures trips? Read the packing list and itinerary, and live in the moment and [don’t] worry about tomorrow. The people who come in just wanting to have fun are really surprised. Don’t be afraid to be surprised and don’t do so much research.
Why do adventure travel? You’ll be a better person in your personal life. [You] can release the stress and baggage if you actually get out, even if it’s just a local hike. Give yourself time. You become a better person … to the ones you love and everyone else.
Czech Republic: Alena Rücklová
Alena was born and raised in the Czech Republic and speaks five languages—Czech, English, German, Polish and Russian. Before she became a guide, she was a professional athlete, competing on the Czech National Track and Field Team. Even when not guiding she continues to live an active life. Her favorite hobbies include backcountry and cross-country skiing, rock climbing, biking, hiking, running and, of course, eating lots of chocolate.
What’s one piece of advice for travelers on REI Adventures trips? Come with an open mind, and be ready for the experience. You can’t get the things you are used … at home, but you have the chance to feel what the country is like. An open mind is the most important thing.
What’s your favorite piece of gear? I like my backcountry equipment, especially the whippet and the ice axe.
How do you travel like a local? Keep your eyes open. To have a plan is a good thing, but it’s fine to leave some space to find things that come along the way. Go to the pub, drink with the locals and you will see what happens.
Ecuador: Juan Fernando Duran Cassola
Growing up near the Tungurahua and Cotopaxi volcanoes in Ecuador, Juan Fernando has always felt a strong connection to nature. The cold wind and open views are what make him feel alive. In his spare time, he can be found mountain biking and creating wooden furniture, cabins and tents. He has always been involved with the tourism industry, including working as a whitewater raft guide and with NGOs protecting the Ecuadorian rain forest.
What is your advice for travelers on REI Adventures trips? First, people in the [REI] office are very knowledgeable and they give you good tips. The rest is trust in your guide. Last, bring a cord for your glasses or sunglasses. It’s a tiny investment, but it makes a big difference.
What’s your best unexpected piece of travel advice? When you’re [doing adventure] travel, try to arrive ahead of time [of your trip] so you will be rested and have a chance to enjoy this place.
How do you travel like a local? Be prepared with something from your country to share with locals. Like a song, like the national anthem, a dance or postcards. The local people like to know where you are from. It’s amazing how you have common things in a huge country like the United States. Show them!
Great Smoky Mountains: Jaimie Matzko
Jaimie, REI Adventures Top Guide in the Great Smoky Mountains, is on a quest to visit all 59 national parks. So far, she has visited 17 national parks in the United States and says her favorite destination, aside from the Great Smoky Mountains, is the Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park because of the wildlife and landscape. She says guiding is so rewarding because she’s able to get to know amazing people while sharing her love of her local park. And if you ask where to go in the Smokies, if you only have one place to visit, she’ll say Charlies Bunion along the Appalachian Trail.
What’s your best unexpected piece of travel advice? When [my husband, who is also a guide, and I] fly, we’ll buy a cooler when we get there. It might cost us $25, but we can cook and drop it off at a consignment shop when we’re done. It has helped us to save quite a bit of money when we’re traveling.
What’s your tip for packing lighter? It’s very easy to overpack clothing. If I’m planning a trip, I’ll try to find items that coordinate well together and layer. I don’t need a different pair of clothes for every day. Bring versatile pieces of clothing that are appropriate for different types of weather.
Why choose REI Adventures? Planning out a trip and learning about the local area can be very time consuming. By signing up, you’re letting the experts plan out the best places to go, the best foods to eat, the best possible experience for that area so you can just follow the packing list and know you’re going to have that amazing set of experiences.
Thailand: Thanawat Yotchiangkhong
Before becoming an REI Adventures guide in Thailand, Thanawat, also known as Tri, was a novice monk in a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai for nine years. Certified as a Wilderness First Responder and in R3 Swift Water Rescue, he loves guiding hikes in the area because he can show guests the wide variety of flora as they trek. A teaching from Buddha serves as his personal motto: “Mind is everything. What we think, we become.”
Where should every travel go in Thailand? Chiang Mai is full of multisport adventure. … I come from the countryside—nature’s completely beautiful there.
What’s one piece of advice for travelers on REI Adventures trips? Prepare yourself. Don’t be mad or upset. Be ready for the unexpected.
How do you travel like a local? If you visit Thailand, it’s the land of smiles. Smile a lot when greeting the people. But if you smile the whole day, they might think you’re psycho.