Trekking in Nepal: to be or not to be guided
TREKKING in Nepal is a big reason people visit the country. It’s exotic, it’s challenging and it’s worth every penny spent getting there. But do you need a guide? Should you hire one? Ultimately the decision is up to you, but this list of pros and cons may help you make up your mind.
The path well trodden
Nepal has a lot of well-established and well- used tracks with tea houses on the way for accommodation and plenty of places to eat. These include the major routes to Everest Base Camp, the Annapurna Circuit, the Poon Hill/Ghandruk circuit, Annapurna Base Camp and others.
Where there is just one path to follow and plenty of help and services along the way, these tracks don’t need guided assistance per se. However the benefit of having a guide on these tracks can be for logistics, peace of mind, company if you’re on your own and the chance to see things from a Nepali perspective. Guides also help speed up things for you in busy lodges. They will get your meals and hot drinks prepared and served quickly, perhaps ahead of other groups, and keep your bill at the top of the pile. I’ve been in both scenarios (guided and non-guided) and have always found myself at the back of the list without a guide to push things along. They can also hurry on ahead, or phone ahead if there is a signal, to make sure you have accommodation when you arrive – this is useful in busy areas.
Off the beaten track
To trek in some parts of Nepal you may actually require a guide to get a permit (eg. Dolpo or Mustang), to talk to locals, organise supplies and other logistics. There are a number of new trekking routes that may not necessarily require a guide to get a permit but are only just opening up to tourism (eg. Langtang, Mardi Himal, Macchapucchare Model Trek, and Panchase). In these areas, tourism isn’t fully established and accommodation can be limited, tracks may not be well-marked and there are fewer services and shops. A guide can be particularly useful on tracks like these to negotiate or arrange for accommodation and sort out any issues if English isn’t widely spoken.
Touching the local culture
One of the many benefits of having a guide is not only that you may make a new Nepali friend by the end of the trek, but they will be able to answer many of your questions as you go along, converse with locals for you, help you understand local customs and give you their perspective on things that will most likely differ from your own. Plus they will have knowledge of weather conditions, the route you are following and other factors. Any Nepali companion you choose, be it a guide, porter, or cook, will likely add much to the memories of your trip as they are usually a friendly, positive, fun-loving complement to the journey. Their good grace and humour belies the hard work they do making sure you are happy and comfortable.
Guides vs porters
It’s important to understand that guides and porters perform quite different tasks. The guide will not carry your bag but I have seen them help out sick or tired trekkers and even struggling porters, but this is not part of their normal job description. They should speak good English and perform the duties previously described. Porters will carry your bag but may not necessarily speak English or know the route. Some are from small villages and have little education in the Western sense. They may also have little in the way of adequate clothing and gear so it is wise to check this before heading out. If you need assistance carrying your bag on a well-established route, a porter may suffice over a guide. However, if you need several porters for a larger group it can be useful having a guide to manage them, or a head porter to chase them up throughout the day. Some people do also operate as porter-guides as they may be seeking to become a full-fledged guide.
The moral dilemma vs wages
The trekking industry is a substantial form of employment for many people in Nepal. Guides, porters, cooks, shop keepers and lodge owners all benefit from this custom. While some trekkers may feel confident in their own abilities, feel bad having someone wait on them, or even consider it personally demeaning not to carry their own bag, it is good to realize these jobs are not considered derogatory for the Nepalese. Lonely Planet addresses the issue in their book “Trekking in the Nepal Himalaya”. Their stance is that hiring someone to help you does more good than bad. While the text below is more about porters, much of it can also be applied to hiring a guide as well:
“Dr Raju Tuladhar, a Nepali, takes the following view: ‘…taking a porter will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the trek and will help the livelihood of one man, his family, and therefore his village. For most porters, their economic burden is heavier than the weight of the backpack they are carrying for tourists. Working manual labour is not derogatory by any means.”
Lonely Planet also points out that village people, when not acting as a porter for trekkers, may carry supplies into their own villages anyway.
Where to hire a guide
The quality of your guide can be a bit hit and miss. They should have good English, go through the itinerary with you before starting out, settle on the number of porters and weight they will carry and agree on all wages. They should also manage the porters along the way. Poor guides will continually want to renegotiate when you’re underway, be inflexible about changes in your itinerary and/or not engage much with you personally on the way. I’ve seen all kinds but the ones I’ve had have been excellent. To find a guide you can use ones recommended from a trekking company (they will take a cut of the wage, of course) or you may find recommendations posted online or in hotels in Kathmandu and Pokhara. Personal recommendations from a third party are a good idea, particularly if you know the person who used the guide. The guides themselves will also have letters of recommendation.
If you go ahead and get a guide, porter, or even a cook, just remember that tipping is expected at the end of your trek. This is generally about 15-20% of the wage (wages are roughly $20/day guide, $15/day cook, $10/day porter). Just remember guides and porters are paid differently and the tip to each should reflect this also. It is also customary to give part of the wages up front and the rest on completion of the trek.