While the standard image of a busload of people piling out at some location, followed by a guide who gathers them up like ducklings and marches them off after a quick head count, umbrella in hand to help lead the way, is likely to be the type of tour you end up on if you ever decide to go with some sort of official tour group, they don’t always need to come in this variety. And even if it does, these tours also have a number of pros to them, despite any of the cons you might otherwise be envisioning. Our first tour for example was more of just a driver for the day that the resort we were staying at arranged for, who turned out to be a Russian that had been living the in country for over a decade, and as a result only spoke Spanish, Russian, and a smattering of English. Despite the small communication barrier however – which Nic’s brother was thankfully able to do the bulk of the translations for – we had a fabulous tour of the Yucatan countryside.

The compactness of our group meant it was relatively easy to get between destinations, and as in the case of Chichen Itza, were able to walk right in and not queue up in the huge lines as tour groups waited to be processed through the main gates. We also got to take our time and stay for as long as we liked at each of the buildings in the site, instead of being marched around to the schedule of the tour. Our guide even pointed out that you could get the benefits of the larger tour group, and the historical or otherwise noteworthy information about the location that the guide is able to share, without having to pay the big tour prices. And it’s true. It’s a relatively simple thing to saddle up near a group getting their lecture on some interesting aspect of the site while you take your pictures and listen in.

Afterwards when we went to checkout the Old Spanish city of Valladolid and stop for lunch, we were able to go our separate ways instead of being corralled at some bus depot or local restaurant while the bus was being brought around.

However while we were in Morocco we had the opportunity to get a tour of the Roman ruins of Volubilis by a professor from Al Akhawayn University who warned us that some of the guides hired directly at the more remote sites like the ruins we were at that day, often have a lot of misinformation mixed in with the facts they’re relaying, and that you’re always best going through some sort of official tour group if you want to ensure everything you’re being told is true. Or at the very least, come with a good guidebook that covers all the pertinent facts.

However as more international travelers frequent these sites, there is growing demand for audio tours to be provided in a variety of languages, and where available are a great alternative to hiring a guide.

Travel arrangements can be another big decider when it comes to planning these sorts of excursions, especially if you’re on a cruise ship and are concerned about getting back in time for the departure that day. The exact situation we found ourselves in when we learned that the Alhambra in Granada was relatively close to our port of call in Malaga. After checking out the local train times, and just how expensive it would be to get a driver to take us up into the mountains, it became apparent that the cruise line offered the only certainty in our being able to make it out and back to the pier in time.

So we forked over the money and let the ship handle all of the arrangements, and it’s good they did. Not only was the distance a concern, but also getting tickets for the Red Fortress could have been difficult as they are often sold out months in advance and rarely available at the main gates for same day admittance. Nicole unfortunately wasn’t able to make the trip with me, but it’s probably good she didn’t, as there wasn’t anything friendly to her vegetarian diet at the restaurant we had lunch at, before the drive back. The guide however proved to be a wealth of information both on the trip up, as well as at the fortress itself.

However nothing beats the city tour with a local. They not only end up taking you around to see all the popular attractions, but also some of the hidden treasures the city has to offer off the beaten track.